If you’ve been in the working world for more than a few months (and have been at least slightly paying attention), it’s very likely that you’ve come across an office gossip (or two) at your company. Whether you’ve been personally involved in a run-in with the company’s unofficial drama queen, or you’ve simply heard through the grapevine about Marc from accounting’s recent snafu with HR, I’d be willing to bet you can think of an instance when a co-worker’s personal business was the topic of conversation.
Working with people you like and enjoy speaking with—especially about non-work related topics—makes the eight hours most of us spend at our jobs every day more enjoyable. There are so many aspects of work that can be a little bit (or very) irritating. Things like having a long commute, working irregular hours, or dealing with a difficult boss only scratch the surface of the many reasons people hate Mondays.
This is why it’s like a breath of fresh air when you wind up in a situation where your colleagues are easy-going, normal human beings—people you can not only collaborate with on a work project, but also debate your thoughts on Sunday night TV. People to grab a happy hour drink with or vent to about the latest annoying thing your boss said at Friday’s team meeting.
But, how do you know when you’ve crossed the almost microscopic line of sharing personal frustration and observations about work to the dark side of gossiping?
It’s perfectly harmless (and normal) to engage in conversation with a trusted co-worker about your observation that Tommy’s LinkedIn profile has been extra active lately and you think he might be ready to leave the company. But, when these conversations start to happen every single day, become the catalyst for rumors, or teeter into malicious territory, you’ve most likely gone too far. If you’re not careful, you might get labeled the office gossip—and that is not a reputation to be proud of.
Of course, the concept of work gossip is not a new one, and it’s something that human resource departments and managers have been dealing with since before the cubicle was invented. Most advice on avoiding it revolves around one central theme: Shut the perpetrator down. This involves saying things like, “I’m not comfortable talking negatively about Emily” or “I don’t think Ryan would like us talking about his personal affairs.” Yes, this approach does have its place and can be successful, but as a former office gossip queen, I can tell you that this method is often not the most realistic.
So, what can you do if you want to make sure you avoid any mean-spirited conversations about your colleagues? Or what should you do if you accidentally find yourself in a questionable conversation with the office blabbermouth?
1. Don’t Ever Vent (Personal or Professional) Frustrations to Someone You Don’t 100% Trust
The easiest way to get sucked into an inappropriate conversation with a co-worker who gives you anxiety after the fact is to give an “in” to someone you don’t know well. When you start sharing your thoughts on people in the office, the rumor you heard about someone in your department, or the status of your recent job search, you become an accomplice, giving your chatty colleague an opportunity to use you as a source or worse, spread your own personal business around the office.
Instead, keep your personal thoughts to yourself, to your non-work friends, or to your very closest office pal. If you are speaking to a co-worker you don’t know that well, stick to non-controversial topics only. It’s important to be extremely selective about who you share anything with while you’re on the clock so to speak. Venting to the wrong person can lead to unnecessary workplace drama, and you don’t need it.
2. Learn to Identify Trigger Situations and Topics
Whenever I was about to divulge some information that I had no business repeating to someone else, I would usually start off by saying something like, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone.” As soon as the person I was speaking with gave me the OK, the floodgates opened and all the juicy details I was holding in would come rushing out.
It’s extremely beneficial for you to train your ear to hear when gossip is about to come your way so that you can be better prepared to avoid it if you’ve already been toeing the line. Think back to any of the times you were on the receiving (or delivering) end of this conversation, what were the common intro tactics? Be on the lookout for these so that you can be ready to divert it. If a colleague comes at you with the old, “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone else” line, that should be your cue to respond with something like “Well, you probably shouldn’t tell me then—I’m not the best at keeping secrets.”
3. Change the Subject Smoothly
If you’re like me, then you agree that it can be unnatural (and super awkward) to cut your co-worker off mid-sentence and launch into your rehearsed lecture on the perils of gossip in the workplace. The good news is that there’s still another way to stop her in her tracks. Nothing beats a good old-fashioned change of subject.
Colleague: “Did you hear about Todd? Apparently he had a little too much to drink at the holiday party last night and told his boss exactly what he thinks of her.”
You: “Yes, the drinks at the holiday party were really strong. I can’t believe I was able to wake up in time to make it to work today! BTW, do you know the name of the band that performed? They were amazing!”
What office gossips need (besides some good, juicy tidbits) is a captive audience. Don’t let that audience include you. Regardless of the topic at hand, there’s almost always a way to lead the conversation to safe waters.
4. Never Repeat Anything That Shouldn’t Be Repeated
Even when you try your best to avoid engaging in gossipy conversation about your co-workers, your boss, or your boss’ boss, it can be challenging to be 100% mum, and sometimes, you can’t do anything about being caught in the middle of this type of chatter.
But even if you know how to identify the trigger words and have gotten really good at changing the subject, there may be times when you still find yourself privy to information you should know nothing about. The simplest, most effective way to ensure you don’t get caught in a web of controversy is to keep your mouth shut! File the information away in your mental safe deposit box and carry on with your day.
There’s no reason it needs to go any further—at least not on your watch.
Gossip at work can result in low morale, reduced productivity, and even disciplinary action. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for that. What’s important to remember is that it’s often not what you say, but who you say it to. I obviously don’t condone this kind of talk in the workplace, but if I’m being realistic, it’s safe to say that it’s nearly impossible to never talk about someone else’s business. But the safest way to avoid getting caught up in office chatter—besides avoiding it altogether, is to be extremely cautious about who you share anything with in the first place.
Photo of people talking courtesy of Sam Edwards/Getty Images