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Heard Any Good Gossip Lately?: Why the Office "Dish" May be More Harmful than You Think

A Cautionary Tale

A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a person who went about slandering the town’s wise man. One day, he went to the wise man’s home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, scatter the feathers to the wind and return when done to the wise man’s house. Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be let off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers and returned to the house.

“Am I now forgiven?” he asked.

“Just one more thing,” the wise man said. “Go now and gather up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible. The wind has already scattered them.”

“Precisely,” he answered. “And it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak.”

Office Gossip—An Infectious Virus

David Verani, a divisional president based in New Hampshire, says, "In all my travels with my company into various offices over the last eight years, the one common denominator that I find in the under-performing offices is the propensity for the staff to gossip." He adds, "It never fails. After spending some time trying to figure out how to get an office back on track, I find the root cause of many of the problems is people spending more time on gossip and rumors than on their goals and objectives. The offices that gossip more tend to sell less."

Gossip is defined as any type of harmful or hurtful information that is not absolutely necessary to share. With this definition in mind, it should be made clear to everyone in your employ that there is absolutely no such thing as "good gossip.” Gossip should not be confused with "networking," which is a sharing of information designed to benefit everyone involved.

Office gossip can be among the most debilitating aspects of one's employment. Whether through actual water-cooler or coffee machine discussions, e-mails, notes, dirty looks or
person-to-person communications, the harm caused by this venomous "water-cooler talk," works steadily. And, over time, it affects the morale and productivity of the company's employees and leads to sick days, resignations and premature job searches and an unhappy work environment.

Combat Gossip by Changing Behaviors

  1. Change the subject. Be prepared by having a positive topic in mind. For example, does the gossiper have a son or daughter who has accomplished something great athletically, scholastically, or charitably? Once the person takes a breath, bring that up. He or she will be only too glad to talk about that much more positive aspect of his or her life.
  2. If that doesn't work, and the person continues gossiping, gently and politely say, "I feel uncomfortable talking about 'Jill' while she's not here. Can we talk about something else?”
  3. If you're in a group conversation and the first two methods didn't work, politely leave the conversation. Do this consistently, whenever gossip raises its ugly head, and people will begin to get the message that you aren't the person to gossip around. You may just get them to thinking it isn't a great thing to bring up around anyone else, as well.

If you slip up and you find yourself gossiping, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, acknowledge your mistake (you’re only human, after all), amend it if possible, decide to not do it again, and move on. You’ll get the hang of it . . . and you’ll become an effective role model for your employees.

Remember, as Emerson once said, “Speech is power.” And, like every other principle of life, it can be used for good or bad, to help or harm, as a blessing or a curse. It is up to each of us to use that power in a way that benefits and builds instead of denigrates and destroys.