How to Stop Gossip at Work

Is gossip toxic and how to stop gossip at work?

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Is gossip toxic?

Gossip is toxic, it is a negative and destructive behaviour. It is surprising how socially acceptable it is in spite of that. 

Creating a gossip-free environment

As a leader you want to create a happy and positive work environment. Everyone wants to like the place where they come to every day and they want to enjoy their work. However, workplaces are full of people gossiping about each other, about their boss, about the organisation etc. So, how to deal with gossip at work as a leader?

Bring out the best in people

How to stop gossip at work

To deal with workplace gossip effectively, first you have to identify the following:

  •  What gossip is
  •  What culture you want to create
  •  What type of people create gossip 
Foggy landscape with birds and horses - how to respond and stop gossiping at work

How to manage gossip at work as a leader – a playbook for leaders

8-step process to stop gossip at work

  1. Have a zero-gossip policy

    Every single person prefers to work in a good atmosphere rather than in a bad one. Surprisingly, even the gossips like the idea of zero-gossip policy. (They even don’t think they are gossips). 

  2. Lead by example

    As a leader you need to model the positive behaviour. All humans have a tendency to gossip so do you, that’s why you need to learn self-management strategies to stop yourself from negative talk. 

  3. Start during onboarding

    Communicate the zero-gossip policy during onboarding
    Tell the new hires that gossiping can get them fired very quickly (and keep the promise). 

  4. Address gossiping in one-on-one meetings

    If it happens, deal with individuals first.
    Remind your employees that they are hired to solve problems, otherwise they wouldn’t be working with you. It’s unproductive to moan about problems – it doesn’t solve them. 

  5. Build awareness about gossip and remind about the rules

    Have workshops to address the issue and raise awareness.
    Give them information about: what is gossip, who creates it, how it affects individuals and organisations. Pass books around, so people understand how gossip affects individuals and culture.
    Use reminders in staff meetings. Remind people about your zero-gossip policy in staff meetings and that they can get fired for gossiping (to do it once a month is not too often). 

  6. Teach your staff how to respond to gossip 

    Encourage positive talk about each other and give them ideas how to do it. 

  7. Do not ignore gossiping

    If it happens, act quickly. 

  8. Ask people to report gossiping

    You need to act quickly if someone reports gossip. People need to know that if there is a problem to solve, they need to tell the manager about it. Put emphasis on problem solving here, gossiping is only a symptom. 

Create a strong inclusive community

Why do people gossip?

The reasons why people gossip include:

  • Feeling inferior 
  • Wanting to feel superior or important
  • They want to create group bonds, although it’s an unhealthy way to do it
  • Feeling angry or frustrated
  • Jealousy
  • Boredom
  • Feel competition from others
  • They failed at something and are trying to make up for it

What are the dangers of gossip?

Gossip is harmful to your health and well-being. Long-term exposure to gossip can cause various mental and physical health issues. It’s also detrimental to the organisation’s productivity, the conditions of work and causes high staff turnover. 

Strong bonds and trust to win as a team
What gossip does to individuals:
  • anxiety
  • people become cynical
  • people feel burdened and burnout faster
  • loss of creativity
  • loss of trust
  • the feeling of guilt
  • loss of productivity
  • depression
  • even suicidal thoughts in the most severe cases
  • gossiping individuals appear unprofessional 
How gossip is affecting organisations:
  • Loss of long-term vision and meaning
  • High staff turnover
  • Loss of productivity
  • Negative comments and gossip destroy culture

Concerns that managers have around gossip in the workplace and managing it

The main concerns managers have around gossip at work and when they want to stop it include: 

  • If I fire the gossip, their skills will be difficult to replace or it will take time and we are already overworked. 
  • I don’t know if this is important enough, maybe I should ignore it.
  • How can I handle gossip in a tactful way? 
  • If I fire the gossip, others will be upset.

Here are some answers to such concerns about gossip.

Replacing the employee
As a manager you will naturally have a fear of not finding a good replacement. But you will. 

Should I deal with gossip as a leader or should I ignore it?

Don’t ignore it, fight it!
I did make the mistake of letting it go. My justification was that it was just my hurt ego and I should ignore it. But in fact it’s not just about you, the whole organisation suffers when moaning and negative talk happens. 

How do I handle gossip as a manager in a tactful way? 

First of all, have a zero-gossip policy. If you don’t and you need to address this issue, or if this is about a new employee, you can do it this way:

  • Confront the person individually. Use a low tone of voice, be calm and do not attack them. Blame yourself for not being clear about the zero-gossip rule before and be very clear at the same time that you don’t tolerate it and you won’t be OK with it in the future. 
  • Tell people that if they have a negative comment or a problem, they need to come with it to you. They need to know it’s not OK to bring it to their colleagues or anyone who cannot solve the problem – this is unproductive and toxic. 

It can be a very short conversation. Be kind and clear. 

The fear of upsetting others

One of the surprising outcomes of firing someone who gossiped may be positive feedback from the team on the right decision. It happened in my experience too. People may start talking only after the person has left. They usually know that the gossiper had a negative influence on the company and often feel relieved and happy when the atmosphere improves. 

You will have even bigger concerns if the gossip is one of your key employees. Fire them immediately. If they are disloyal, you can’t trust them. Someone who hates the organisation and their boss should go elsewhere. If someone doesn’t have faith in you as a leader, they can’t stay with you – fire them.

How to target gossips in the workplace if you don’t know who they are?

Sometimes you may have a feeling that there’s something going on but you don’t know what it is. The atmosphere may not feel right, you may sense that there’s a problem in the company culture, but you can’t figure out the reason. It may be someone gossiping and criticising you behind your back. 

Address the gossipers indirectly in staff meetings.

How to work on yourself as a leader to stop gossip

Well, you’re only human, sometimes you moan, gossip or have negative thoughts. Do develop your own zero-gossip skills you can:

  • Praise others. Ask yourself these questions: Do I have the ability to praise others? Do I do it often enough?
  • Ask yourself these questions:  Do I talk about others in a positive way? What is the purpose of what I’m saying about other people? Is my communication empowering my team? 
  • If you catch yourself gossiping, ask yourself what has caused this, go through the list of possible reasons I’ve included here and see if they are true for you.
    Watch your thoughts about others.

How to increase your team’s awareness about gossiping 

Very often creating awareness about a problem is already part of the solution. 

To raise your team’s awareness about gossip, communicate the following facts:

  • If someone is gossiping with you, they will gossip about you with someone else
  • What kind of people gossip
    People who gossip have low self-esteem and are jealous. This itself should help stop gossip as nobody wants to appear as such.
  • How gossip is affecting individuals (see the list above)
    Individuals can easily enter a spiral of negative thinking which will affect all areas of their life. 
  • Gossip is a double-edged sword – it equally harms the offender and the target.
  • Ask yourself and your team if they want to work with the type of person who spreads gossip.

The next thing you need to do to stop gossip in the workplace is to give your people directions on what to do if someone comes to them to gossip. 

4 steps to handle gossip – a solution for employees

  • Do not tolerate gossip. If you do, you become equally guilty.
  • Deflect the gossiping. Say something positive about the person they are talking about
    Force the person who is gossiping into thinking something positive about the gossip subject – turn it into a positive talk.
    What to say to the gossip – examples:
    ‘Well, I know [gossip subject’s name] and it doesn’t sound like him/her. Let me take it to him/her.’
    ‘Well, he’s a good guy though…’
  • If there is a problem which needs to be solved, tell them to talk to the person who can do something about it. Either talk to that person yourself or, if the gossip is a new hire, tell them who can help. 
  • Redirect the conversation – change the subject by asking a question, e.g. How is your mother doing? How was your weekend? 

Help your team develop self-awareness about gossiping and create positivity:

  • If you catch yourself gossiping, ask yourself:
    What is your pain causing you to think and talk negatively about someone? What are your emotions around it?
    Why do I feel like hurting someone? 
  • Is what you’re saying about others  helpful, empowering, inspiring, healing?
  • Is what you are saying making others enjoy your presence? 
The disagreement concern

In some cultures it is rude to disagree with someone’s opinion and this may be the reason why people are reluctant to confront the gossip. Instead of saying something contradictory they will try to be polite and agree or at least be neutral. If this is the case in your organisation, you need to increase the awareness about gossip and give them tools to deal with it. 

How to filter out the people who gossip during the recruitment process?

Find out if the candidate is aware of their own evil side. We all have it. If they are unaware, this is a red flag. Find out if they have the ability to coach themselves out of negative behaviours and work against them. 

Interview questions examples:
  • What was the situation you’re most ashamed of in your leadership and how have you created it?
  • A follow up question: How did you get yourself out of this?
    What you want to hear: is there a sense of regret? How do they deal and get out of problems?
    Red flags: if you are asking a question about a ‘low point’ and it isn’t really that low. This means that someone lacks awareness or is hiding something.
  • How do you address gossip as a manager?
  • Try to lead the candidate into criticism, especially about their previous bosses.
    Question: Tell me about the manager you worked with and you respect the least?
    People may tell you surprisingly a lot in the answer. 

Be very clear already during the recruitment that you don’t tolerate gossip in your company. 

More about stopping office gossip

Here is an interesting TED talk about this subject: “Why Gossip Starts and Spreads at Work”. This video explains the gossip behaviour patterns in a clear and humorous way.

Do you think it is possible to completely stop gossip in the workplace?
How do you deal with it as a leader?

Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Related books about workplace relationships

Games At Work: How to Recognize and Reduce Office Politics

by Mauricio Goldstein and Phil Read

How to Resolve Bullying in the Workplace: Stepping out of the Circle of Blame to Create an Effective Outcome for All 

by Alan Sharland

Employee Relations: A Practical Introduction – HR Fundamentals

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