You know that you should avoid office gossip at all costs. But, you’re not perfect—and every now and then you fall into the trap of whispering about a co-worker’s marital drama or developing wild hypotheses about why your boss is in such a bad mood.
For the most part, it seems harmless—until you get caught red-handed.
Then what? Obviously, it’s too late for you to steer clear of gossip altogether. You’re already involved. So, what’s the best way to deal after you’re caught in the act?
Well, your damage control all depends on who overhears you.
When You’re Caught By Your Boss…
I can’t blame you if even the mention of this scenario sent your heart leaping into your chest. There are very few things that are more cringe-worthy than having your manager overhear you trash talking one of your team members in the mailroom.
Saving your reputation all starts with this one question: Are you absolutely sure that your boss heard the conversation?
You don’t want to shine a spotlight on your bad behavior if it’s not necessary. So, before calling attention to the situation, you need to be fairly positive that your supervisor is already aware of your transgression. Trust me—it’ll be pretty obvious to you.
If you think your boss missed the whole thing? Then it’s not worth saying anything and stirring the pot any further.
But, if there’s no doubt that your manager was literally slapped in the face with your gossip? You’ll want to act fast to patch things up.
This repair is better handled in-person—email has a way of feeling a little too formal and impersonal. Keep the conversation casual (there’s typically no need to set an appointment when the exchange will be quick) and swing by your boss’ desk to say something like:
I wanted to apologize for what I said in the break room earlier. That was inappropriate, I’m embarrassed, and that sort of office gossip won’t ever leave my lips again.
Will it be awkward? Yes. But, chances are, your supervisor will be impressed that you were willing to step up and own your bad judgement call.
When You’re Caught By the Person You Were Talking About…
Alright, I lied. There is something more cringe-worthy than having your boss catch you gossiping: Having the person you’re talking about wander out of a bathroom stall when you thought you were alone with your trusted colleague.
Being caught chattering is always uncomfortable—but, especially when the subject of your gossip is the one who stumbles into your conversation.
In an ideal world, you’ll be able to act immediately to hopefully save your reputation and maintain your relationship. Look that person in the eye and say something along the lines of:
I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were in here, but that doesn’t make our conversation right. This is none of our business and we shouldn’t even be discussing it. I know this apology won’t make up for it, but I truly do apologize because I know hearing that couldn’t have felt great.
If you were too busy standing there with your heart racing and your jaw on the floor to rattle off an eloquent apology? It’s still worth following up with that person to express your regret using a similar statement to this one. That can be done face-to-face or via email—depending on what you think the situation warrants.
Be forewarned that you’ve done some damage to your relationship. That co-worker probably won’t be too quick to trust you in the future. But, making the effort to apologize and extend an olive branch is still well worth the effort.
When You’re Caught By a Random Colleague...
Out of these three scenarios, this one is the least anxiety-inducing. Getting caught gossiping is never ideal. But, if you had to choose your boss, the subject of your trash talk, or a random co-worker, you’d probably choose the random option.
Even still, this situation deserves some care and attention.
When you’re sure that your colleague couldn’t help but to overhear your whispers, of course, stop gossiping immediately. Then, take a minute to assess how serious the situation is. Was your chatter pretty lighthearted and harmless? In that case, you’re probably better off ending the conversation and just going your separate ways.
But, if your gossip was particularly rude or inappropriate? Much like any other mistake in the workplace, it’s better to take ownership of your slipup—rather than trying to sweep it under the rug entirely (as tempting as that may be).
If you’re able to react in time, say something like this right then and there:
I’m sorry, [Colleague’s Name]. We shouldn’t even be talking about this—it’s none of our business. I’m embarassed you caught us, but also happy because it’s a great reminder that I shouldn’t be gossiping.
If your co-worker left before you were able to spit out an apology? Next time you’re alone with that colleague, take the opportunity to admit to your mistake. In that case, you can use a similar statement to the one you’d use to apologize to your boss.
Those strategies should hopefully help you repair your reputation after you’re caught engaging in those no-good rumors.
But, the main lesson you should take away from this? Office gossip is absolutely never worth it, so it’s smarter to just stop participating. Seriously.