The rules of office gossip

The old saying about a secret being something that you tell one person at a time applies as much to the workplace as to any other aspect of life. But at work is where it can get you into the most trouble.

Remember your school days, when rumours circulated that Kyle “liked” Kelly. It was a phase of life when hormones surged like a tidal wave, when acne, breaking voices and budding bodies meant that your self-image was fragile and out of proportion. Unimportant things suddenly mattered.

Years later, there’s word that Bob in accounts is suspected of being a little creative with his expense account.

It’s certainly something worth passing on. Or is it? If you want a rule of thumb, imagine having to apologise to Bob for spreading a rumour that just turned out to be malicious gossip. Failing that, picture having to apologise when Bob, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, is made head of your department.

  • The first rule of gossip is that it’s never harmless. What starts out as an idle rumour can get twisted. And if it’s true, is there benefit to you or your company from passing it on?
  • The second rule is that the more senior you are, the more culpable. Your seniority makes you more accountable, not less. If there’s anything in a conversation that’s off-colour in terms of gender, religion or race, the correct thing to do is to leave. This applies as much to e-mail as to verbal dialogue.
  • If a rumour that is patently untrue or slanderous gets traced back to you, you could find yourself hauled in front of a disciplinary committee. People will be reluctant to trust you in the workplace – on a professional and personal level. Not only will you find that you are eating your sandwiches alone in the canteen, but you might very well also be overlooked for a promotion or an increase.
  • No mess, no fuss. Remember that bosses want things to run smoothly and prefer never to have the work routine upset by upheavals concerning someone's suspected kleptomaniac tendencies, another worker's drugging problem and Gary from IT's notorious string of affairs. If these things affect the morale at work, they must be dealt with in the appropriate manner – otherwise, it's nobody's business.
  • The right way to pass it on. There are only two ways to handle gossip: ignore it or pass it on to your superior. If it’s a rumour that the boss’s son took his new 5-series for a spin over the weekend and messed up its suspension, ignore it. If the rumour is serious enough that it might affect the company’s bottom line or its share price, you have an obligation to talk to someone higher up about it. But think very carefully about the implications before you do this. It could explode in your face.
  • Mind your reputation. Here’s the scenario: you were able to dish all the dirt to your boss on how Edna from HR was too drunk to drive home from last year’s office party. Having sworn you to secrecy about a hostile takeover that’s being planned, the boss finds that everyone knows about it. Who’ll be suspect number one?
  • Remind yourself about human nature. You do get altruistic, beneficent people in the workplace. But you also get people who gossip because they hope to imply that they’re somehow “in the loop” or privy to stuff that you aren’t. Shrug and move on.

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(William Smook, updated May 2010)

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