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Despite all the negative feelings gossip fosters, it's notoriously hard to stop. But by taking a stand against it and offering a more positive example, you can make gossip a less attractive pastime. Changing the workplace might take a long time, but if you're successful, minimizing gossip can create a more pleasant working environment.
You can't control what others talk about privately, but you can steer them away from gossip while they're talking with you. Start with a subtle approach: Change the subject each time a colleague launches into nasty gossip. Be progressively less subtle. For example, if a colleague continues to gossip despite your repeated attempts to derail him, mention that you don't think the subject is any of your business or that you'd prefer not to discuss that colleague until she is present to defend herself. Even if your approach doesn't solve the gossip problem entirely, at least you're demonstrating that you're no longer a willing participant. This alone might be enough to break the gossip chain.
If gossipy colleagues don't get the hint, confront them directly. Ask the offenders to meet privately. Politely discuss your concerns, such as how destructive gossip can be to team spirit and how hurt colleagues would be to know people are talking behind their backs. There's a chance the offenders aren't aware that they're gossiping -- they might view their conversations as harmless idle chatter -- so confronting them might be the wake-up call they need.
Be a Positive Example
Set a good example by centering your conversations on positive topics. For example, early in a conversation, before gossip can even begin, mention an interesting story you saw on the news or ask your colleague a question about her own life. Taking control of the conversation from the outset forestalls gossip. Limiting your conversations to work-related issues is always an option.
If you are a supervisor dealing with office gossip, you face two challenges. First, you can ban gossip, but such a policy is difficult to enforce. Employees might stop only when you are nearby. Second, you must avoid letting gossip cloud your judgment. For example, a nasty rumor that reaches your ears might intentionally or unintentionally affect your perception of that employee's abilities or performance. Even if the rumor contains a kernel of truth, the gossip might be ignoring important details and exaggerating juicier aspects of the story. The best approach is to steer clear of gossip entirely. But when that's not possible, give the employee the benefit of the doubt or a chance to present his side of the story.
Stan Mack is a business writer specializing in finance, business ethics and human resources. His work has appeared in the online editions of the "Houston Chronicle" and "USA Today," among other outlets. Mack studied philosophy and economics at the University of Memphis.