There’s conflicting beliefs around gossip in the workplace. Some studies suggest it creates a stressful environment for employees, whereas other research hints that it might actually have some benefits.
For example, anthropologists suggest humans evolved to gossip with each other because throughout history it has created stronger bonds between us. By this logic, though, those who didn’t fit in with the conversation or were being gossiped about ended up being isolated.
According to Dr. Jack Levin, author of Gossip: The Inside Scoop, modern day gossiping can be good for our emotional health. He writes that although talking behind other’s backs can be malicious, in general it ties together social groups and business networks.
However, it’s still pretty annoying if you find out your co-workers have been spreading rumours about you, or have told the whole office something you let them know in confidence.
According to Dr Berit Brogaard, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Miami, workplace gossip can be a method of power play, or a way of bullying others into submission. In a blog post in Psychology Today, she gives some advice about what you can do if you find out your colleague has been spreading rumours, whether it be out of envy or because they’re trying to get ahead.
Think carefully before approaching the person.
Brogaard says confronting the bully may not work, and could lead to vindictive behaviour. Chances are they consciously – or unconsciously – singled you out as a person who could be taken advantage of, and they gossiped about you to bully you into submission.
If you already think you’re the victim of their gossip, there’s not much chance they’ll stop once you confront them. It may even add fuel to the fire, egging them on to make up more malicious rumours.
The same goes for your boss.
This one depends on the relationship you have with your boss or manager. Talking to them about the situation could be helpful, but they may be the sort of person who is already inclined to side with office gossip.
If you think the rumour-mill is seriously affecting your reputation, or your ability to work properly, Brogaard suggests a better idea is to approach Human Resources, but this could have messy consequences of its own – a defamation lawsuit, for example.
If you have faith your company will deal with the complaint professionally, it’s likely they’ll be able to move the teams around so you won’t have to deal with the same colleagues again. Either way, it’s a good idea to start collecting evidence, like emails, or allies who could testify for you.
Be smarter than your opponent.
According to Brogaard, your most valuable tool against gossip could be reverse psychology. If you don’t find it too hurtful, you can try talking about the rumours as if it doesn’t bother you at all. If there is truth to the gossip, then you can admit to it, and make clear the problems have been rectified. For example, if you were struggling with a task, you can be honest about it, and tell everyone how you learned from the experience and improved.
However, you certainly shouldn’t admit to things that were never true. With these more harmful lies, it can be difficult to deny them without looking defensive. Instead, Brogaard recommends you simply focus on doing your job as best you can. For example, if someone is spreading around a rumour that you have a substance abuse problem, it’s unlikely anyone would believe them if you’re performing so well.
Act strong and confident, even if you don’t feel it.
As gossipers will often have picked you out of the crowd, their behaviour can get worse over time in response to how you react to the little things. If a minor conflict happens, don’t just brush it off. You should confront the person, just don’t be aggressive about it.
For example, if they criticise you publicly, don’t shy away and apologise. Instead, Brogaard says you should stop what you’re doing, turn to them and quietly tell them a better approach would be to talk to you privately.
If they respond with anything other than an apology, reiterate that you’d much rather talk in private. This way, you have immediately responded to the conflict and it will make you appear like someone who shouldn’t be messed with. If you go quiet and allow yourself to be embarrassed in public, you’ll likely become the victim of further gossip and lies.