My workplace is a generally nice place, but there is a lot of gossiping and complaining. Voices carry and we have a lot of people coming through, so there’s a risk that if people are gossiping, other people could end up overhearing colleagues talking about them or someone they know. It doesn’t help that some people work in the office all the time (including me) whereas others come and go, which I think creates an in group and an out group. When gossip comes up, or the urge to gossip, it’s tough to be empathetic if you don’t have a real in-person relationship and primarily interact with that person over email.
I am a good listener and generally want to hear people out, but there is so much potential for problems when people are talking harshly about others. Could you give me some advice about how to politely shut it down when people are gossiping to me?
In particular, I’m interested in knowing how to shut it down if the gossiper is senior to me, versus a peer, or versus junior to me. Also, should I handle it any differently if I agree with the comments being made or if I don’t? What if the person is sharing something confidential that I know they shouldn’t be talking about? And does it make any difference if the information is work-related or not?
Gossiping at work is one of those things that can give you a thrill in the moment. The pleasure of knowing something that isn’t public! The lure of unflattering information! But there can be a hangover afterward, when you feel guilty and have to wonder if whoever gossiped to you might also be gossiping about you.
More broadly, a gossip-heavy work culture can also be pretty toxic. It can create an us vs. them dynamic or one where rumors carry more weight than public announcements, and it can spread a generalized negativity that lowers people’s quality of life and is unkind and disrespectful to the people being gossiped about. So you’re right to want to shut it down.
That said, it’s useful to distinguish between times when gossip is harmful and times when it’s not (and when it might even be helpful). The former is probably pretty clear — if something seems mean-spirited or is clearly none of your business, like information about a colleague’s marriage, go ahead and shut that down. The same goes for gossip that’s just idle speculation, like “Bob has been out a lot lately; I wonder if he’s looking for another job.” But other times the information might be genuinely helpful for you to know — for example, that a senior colleague has a track record of creeping on women or that the company is considering eliminating a project you spend most of your time on. If the info falls more in the “this isn’t public but might assist you professionally” category, I’d make an exception for that. A lot of really useful information gets shared informally in that way.
But as for harmful gossip, how to shut it down depends on the details.
So let’s tackle each of the scenarios you listed.
Possibly the hardest scenario to navigate is when the gossiper is senior to you. There’s a higher bar for politeness there, but you can still convey that you’re not up for talking about Kate’s financial trouble or Luther’s divorce proceedings. The easiest way to do it is with one short, neutral acknowledgement and then a quick subject change. For example: “Hmmm, that sounds tough. Hey, while I have you here, can I ask you about these revenue reports?” (Other neutral transitions: “That’s too bad.” “Oh, I hope she’s doing okay.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Oh, I hadn’t heard that.”) If the quick subject change doesn’t work and the person tries to steer the conversation back to the gossip, you can say more directly, “I feel odd talking about it behind her back,” or “That sounds like something I’m probably not supposed to know,” or even “I think I should pretend not to know that.”
With peers or people junior to you, you can use this same approach. But there’s more room for also saying something like, “You know, I feel unkind talking about this. We should probably give her privacy on this.” And if you want to address it more broadly: “I’m trying to be better about not gossiping! I’ve realized how harmful it can be, and I know I don’t want people gossiping about me, so I’m trying to be more disciplined about it.” If it’s someone you’re pretty close with, you could even ask if they want to join you in doing that; sometimes it’s easier to stop gossiping when you can reinforce each other’s resolve.
If you know the information someone is sharing is supposed to be confidential, you can say that too. For example: “Oooh, I think Jane actually intends for that to be kept confidential, so I don’t think we should be talking about it.” That’s useful whether it’s work-related or not; if you know that someone doesn’t want something shared, it’s a kindness to all involved to make sure that’s clear. One exception to this: If it’s work-related and you believe the confidentiality is against your co-workers’ interests (like if the company is doing something illegal or unsafe), you’d have different ethical obligations here.
You asked if you should handle it differently if you agree with the comments or if you don’t. If someone is badmouthing a colleague and you disagree with their assessment, it’s a good move to push back with something positive (just as you’d probably want someone to do if you were the one being talked about). For example: “Huh, really? I’ve always found Jane to be really easy to work with” (or smart, or great at her job, or whatever your experience has been).
In fact, you might think about counteracting your office’s gossip culture with “good gossip” — positive comments that you wouldn’t mind getting back to the person you’re talking about, like how much you like working with them or how much a client raved about a project they did. Over time, making a point of sharing sincere, positive comments can have a real impact on the culture in your office, or at least on the culture in your immediate vicinity.