We've all been there. A workmate breathlessly brings a salacious piece of gossip about someone at work. It's too juicy to keep to yourself and the next thing you know it's sent a scandalised thrill right around the office. But the inevitable judgement and condemnation that follows can only have negative consequences for the person being whispered about, and it's worth thinking about the old proverb: "Who gossips to you, will gossip of you."
It is human nature to talk about others — to be curious, to analyse and to form opinions of people. Kaye Avery, career coach at Career Management Specialists, says the workplace is simply a collection of human beings, each bringing their own anxieties, complexes, interpersonal issues and projections into the mix with differing values, principles and backgrounds.
"This can cause some people to feel uncomfortable, unconfident or judgemental, which means gossiping can come simply from not understanding or not being open to experiencing someone different."
Attracting an ally with similar values and perspectives helps the person to feel okay about their discomfort or misunderstanding, notes Avery. "It would be an extraordinarily positive workplace for there to be no bickering, rumour-mongering or jealousies at all."
People gossip about their company, their colleagues and their managers. A partial truth can be turned into a whole speculative truth about the company's future, whether colleagues will get fired, and what other employees are doing in their personal lives outside of work.
In her practice, Avery listens to people who need to talk about what's happening inside their workplaces.
"Often, it's about feeling accepted by the group, whether you are a support worker or the manager. Or someone doesn't have the mandate to do what they think they can do. Assumptions happen and then things can get out of hand."
Avery says often the reason people like to latch on to a scandalous rumour and pass it on is because it makes them feel better about their own lives or situation in comparison.
Speculation and rumour around workplace issues such as employee salaries, a company merger or redundancies can be damaging to the workforce, says Avery, "because these are the times where morale can plummet as people compete for the fewer roles and higher salaries. Internal competition and self-protectionism take hold."
She says being the target of workplace whispers can be a crushing experience for people.
"I've seen people whose confidence has been knocked to such a degree that they have spiralled into a depression. Escaping a workplace like that can be the only way out for some, but sometimes the unresolved issues create a trail of baggage that reduces the person's ability to get a new job, or is dragged with them into the next role. It sounds dramatic but workplace dynamics are critical for the individual and career development, and of course for the organisation."
Beware the colleague who seems to share too much too soon about themselves and has rigid opinions about others.
Gossip may feel good temporarily, but the person you are whispering with can turn on you in a nanosecond and share any information told in confidence. If someone in the workplace seems to be a pathological gossiper, Avery suggests employees maintain their integrity by staying focused on their own business.
"To help people feel more congruent within themselves, I promote the 'psychological flexibility model' which is about knowing and aligning with your own values, practising mindfulness and being flexible and open to change and those around you.
"This practice develops self-assuredness and contentment."
Many managers turn a blind eye to employee gossip — or worse, participate. In Avery's experience, managers often struggle with insubordination and passive-aggressive behaviours from their reports or peers, especially when new to the role.
"Most managers are trying to do a good job, but they struggle with the interpersonal stuff because it takes a lot of energy, openness and skill to diffuse. It takes a very clear and positive leader to maintain a healthy workplace, where people are accepting of each other, clear of negativity and interpersonal issues.
"At the core of developing a healthy workplace, in my view, is communication and lots of it!"
Avery says good team practices that group interpersonal bonds with understandings is critical.
If gossip becomes malicious, disruptive and damaging it can result in a negative culture and a toxic workplace environment. In order to improve behaviour and morale, Avery suggests managers seek help to put in place good communication practices that bring people together and get access to coaching and support.
"Help employees to feel good about who they are and what they're doing. Stamp out competitiveness and nip gossip or interpersonal issues in the bud. Learn how to mediate and facilitate open and fair communication."