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Effects of Gossip in the Workplace

Effects of Gossip in the Workplace

They say "Gossip is good". But let it get out of hand and it can ruin your life! Find out why people love gossiping so much and what are the effects of workplace gossip in this article.
Mrunal Belvalkar
Everyone at work loved Michelle. She was smart, intelligent, funny in a charming way, and radiated with a sense of austerity that demanded respect and at the same time was immensely attractive. All the guys in the workplace were attracted to Michelle, and so was Richard. He wanted to get to know her better. He wanted to ask her out. But rumor had it she had never been with a guy before, that she had never dated anyone. If Richard was to believe gossip, Michelle was tactless and quite an unattractive person. And so Richard never asked her out. Eleven months down the line, Michelle became Mrs. CEO, and Richard was left with a pang in his heart. If only he had taken a chance and tried to verify the rumors, he would have known what a warm, romantic and beautiful person Michelle actually was, and how terribly wrong the gossip was...

More often than not, workplace gossip is used in a way that is mean, sarcastic and aimed at altering an employee's image in the organization or company. Personally, I believe "gossip is good"; but then 'good' and 'bad' are pretty relative terms, aren't they?

Effects of Workplace Gossip

The Good
  • Helps you bond with your colleagues
  • Helps you come to know people without interacting with them
  • Prepares you for a future encounter or meeting with a colleague you have not interacted with before
  • Allows you to pursue a romantic interest
  • A mean to convey information about one's interests, pursuits, hobbies, etc.
The Bad
  • Affect your reputation/earn you the reputation of a gossiper
  • Waste of time, energy etc.
  • Affects quality of work
  • Demoralizes or demotivates colleagues
  • Can affect mental health of the person who is being subject to gossip
  • Fuels divisiveness, leading to isolation of the 'less popular' employees
Many of you might be surprised at the above list, especially list of 'The Good' effects of gossip. You may wonder - "How can gossip ever be good, it's just so mean!" To understand this, let us take a look at what gossip is, and what is the psyche behind gossip.

What is Gossip?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word 'gossip' as follows -

[noun] a conversation about other people, an instance of gossiping; a person who likes talking about other people's private lives
[verb] engage in gossip

Though the etymology of the word suggests a rather pure implication, the word 'gossip' and the connotation in which we use it has undergone many changes, so that it has now been reduced to a derogatory term. Gossip, in the earlier times used to mean 'a close friend' or 'a chum'. But if in today's world you point out to someone and say 'He/she is my gossip', people are going to roll their eyes and look at you!

Good vs. Bad Gossip
Gossip is very important to women, and that is why you should never say that women gossip in front of a woman! Apart from feeling like she is being blamed or being pointed a finger at, a woman would take offense at the fact of being called a gossiper because of the fundamental difference in the way women look at gossip, as opposed to men. Gossip, for women, represents a mean to exchange information, to communicate and to bond. This goes hand-in-hand with the old meaning of the word. I guess that is why one of the women's magazines is actually named Gossip! (And believe me, that magazine sells like crazy!) Gossip in this sense is healthy (and not that it concerns much with the topic, but let me say that is why i believe in 'Gossip is good'!). Gossip has however, long lost its 'good' meaning, and now the term is used derogatorily. Gossip is sharing information; but what makes gossip bad is if this information that is being shared is biased, judgmental, spiteful, or simply intentionally incorrect.

How Did Gossip Evolve? - The Psyche of Gossip

Evolutionary psychology is a new and fascinating branch of psychology that inspects the evolutionary roots of certain psyches or tendencies that humans have. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that gossip is a form of indirect reciprocity. We were all brought up to believe helping people is good, and one should always help others. However, society always has its individuals who are 'selfish' and 'cheat' by not helping those who help them. To take care of this, evolution can be said to have created 'punishing cooperators'. Punishing cooperators are people who live by indirect reciprocity - "I will scratch your back, if you scratch his"! And what if you don't scratch his back? I will bad mouth you! This is believed to have been the origin of gossip - to stress upon (by word of mouth) the presence or absence of morality among fellow beings so that cooperation is reinforced among people of the society. Gossip then, in this sense, can be looked at as something that plays the role of a mahout (a person who drives an elephant); something that makes sure we are all good to each other!

Workplace Gossip

The previous paragraph may have already helped you understand at least partially, the dynamics of workplace gossip. Workplace gossip typically focuses on
  • an employee's private life
  • his/her daily on-goings
  • his/her after hour activities
  • his/her behavior in the organization
Workplace gossip hence typically includes from things as petty as the in and out timings of the person, whether the person sleeps or eats at his/her desk, whether he/she takes too many or too long breaks, if he/she is approachable or not, to things as personal as if an employee is romantically involved in anyone, does he/she have many friends outside office, does he/she 'have a past', etc.

Frankly, it is nobody's business to get involved in a colleague at that personal a level. But given the psyche of gossip, the urge to want to get involved can be understood. What is unhealthy about workplace gossip, however, is that most of the time it is used less as a mahout and more as a circus-trainer! More often than not, gossip in workplace spreads about an employee that is 'not liked' rather than an employee who is really a bad person. This leaves everybody at the mercy of the majority in the office. People do not like somebody, so they gossip about him/her until the person changes to become someone that the people like. But the bad thing about gossip is that gossip is addictive! So an employee who the office has started gossiping about, is never really 'left alone' and out of workplace gossip.

More Effects of Workplace Gossip

Apart from the ill-effects of gossip listed in the earlier section of this article, consider the following - a worthy employee may quit an organization due to workplace gossip induced stress. This in turn will lead to the company gaining a bad reputation outside the walls of the company. Gossip is such a powerful tool that if you are the subject of gossip or if you are being subjected to gossip, you may feel ostracized in such a way as only gossip can make you feel. Gossip may even lead to serious psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and an increased suicidal tendency. Many organizations have recognized these ill-effects of gossip and have become more diligent about their work ethics. Employees are specifically instructed through employee handbooks about which of their actions will or will not be regarded as an instance of gossiping and what kind of action may be taken against an employee who fails to comply by the rules set by the employer.

One may not be able to exactly put into words how they know if and when they are 'being talked about'; but one surely knows an instance of gossiping even without actually having to eavesdrop on a conversation. So I will not dwell upon that. However, I would like to give you a few tips on how you can stay away from and out of workplace gossip. Workplace gossip - as many of you will agree with me - is something you cannot avoid; because there is already too many people out there who are doing it. However, you can control your involvement in gossip. The best policy is to adopt a 'no comments' strategy. If someone gossips about someone to you, simply hear them out, but refrain from making any comments. If that person specifically asks you for an opinion, respond with "Oh I don't know, I haven't much interacted with him/her." As to staying out of workplace gossip, the best policy is to remember why the company hired you. They saw in you something that they did not see in the rest of the interviewees. Respect that, appreciate that, and live up to it every single day. Wish you success!