Workplace Gossip – Ultimate Guide to Stopping It ASAP

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“Did you hear?” one employee whispers to another. The sound of coffee pouring and workplace gossip bubbling can be heard if you hold your breath. The employee, attempting to keep their voice lower than the ambient sounds of the breakroom, begins to share the enthralling news. “Jimmy only got that promotion because he lied about his monthly quota,” the employee says, waiting eagerly for the other to gasp.

Sarah tells Megan. Megan tells Bill. Bill tells Jacob. The list continues to spiral out until the entire staff knows of Jimmy’s deceit, with the rumor growing in size and intensity after each whisper. By the time it gets to Jimmy, he hears that he only got the promotion because he paid off the supervisor with tickets to the local basketball game, which may or may not have included asking the boss to accompany him.

Now, the entire workplace has grown toxic. Others are starting rumors, no one trusts each other, and workers are focusing too much on the he-said-she-said to complete full tasks. As a manager, you’ve lost the majority of your production due to one teeny lie.

How do you combat it? How do you stop workplace gossip in its tracks? Let’s get into it.

What Is Workplace Gossip?

Ultimately, workplace gossip is the act of employees speaking negatively about other employees. This gossip can include any number of things from work performance to outside life. Though it may be hard to decipher, it often leads to negativity surrounding the overall opinion of a person. It’s not necessarily straightforward bullying, but an inadvertent attack.

There is also seemingly harmless gossip. Two employees can be discussing positive or indifferent things about another person’s life or work performance. While it may seem as if benign banter, it’s a slippery slope. If an employee believes they can speak behind another person’s back, even if only positively, things can easily become negative.

Overall, workplace gossip is when an employee or multiple employees speak about another behind their back.

Gossip Versus Conversation and Kinship

How do you know if a conversation is just two people talking? How do you know something negative is underlying the icebreaking surface? It comes down to what the topic is and if it will hurt another.

There’s no hard and fast rule to figuring out if gossip is gossip. The aforementioned harmless gossip can still end up becoming negative or hurting someone’s feelings, though. Even if the conversation isn’t positive or negative, some people may still be upset about others discussing their private business (or work effort).

How to Tell When Gossip Is Brewing?

You may now be confused. Workplace gossip can be someone speaking positively about another?

At the end of the day, gossip can come in all shapes and sizes. Though usually based on negativity and the delight of someone’s downfall, the act of just speaking behind someone’s back can be bad enough. If your team sets the precedence that you can talk about each other, negativity is sure to follow.

Here are a few things to consider when deciphering gossip:

  • Is the information false? – Most likely gossip.
  • Is it making fun of someone else? – Definitely gossip.
  • Does it seem like private information about someone else? – Gossip!
  • Is someone rejoicing or gaining happiness from another person’s misfortune? – Extremely bad gossip!
  • Is it based on emotion or negativity? – Most likely gossip, but if not, it’s still bad.
  • Planning a surprise party behind a birthday-haver’s back? – Not gossip! Just fun!

The Dangers of a Toxic Workplace

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

― Henry Thomas Buckle, English Historian

As stated, setting the precedence that gossip is okay can quickly lead to a toxic workplace.

Though it sounds like a comic book villain, a toxic workplace is a very real and scary thing. So, maybe it is like a comic book villain.

Basically, a toxic workplace is when bad employees thrive and great employees have disdain for their jobs. A barren wasteland of all things productivity and positivity. Gossip and rumors fly around. Everything is gray. Everyone hates being there.

In all seriousness, a toxic workplace is bad. When gossip becomes the main production of a team, many employees pay more attention to the drama than their jobs. Anxiety and tension begin to grow in employees attempting to dodge the drama. Sides are chosen on topics, creating a large shift in workplace dynamics. Long story short, it’s bad news bears.

The worst outcome of a toxic workplace is the downward spiral of productivity. Good workers will no longer want to be in the workplace. Some may no longer take the supervisor’s management and some may lose all trust in leadership. It’s extremely important to nip this all in the bud before it gets completely out of hand.

If you are looking for more information on how to deal with toxic employees overall, check out our article
How to Deal With Toxic Employees – Without Causing Damage

Tips for Stopping Workplace Gossip

Now that we’ve covered all the bases on the negativity and possible workforce-ending outcomes surrounding gossip, it’s time to squash the beef.

How do you stop and/or prevent workplace gossip as a manager, supervisor, or another leadership role?

As a staffing agency, we’ve had plenty of businesses come to us for staffing needs after losing a majority of employees over toxicity. It can be a lubricous and steep hill to lie on. These are the things we believe can be used to help prevent that outcome.

Don’t let your workplace become the corporate equivalent of Mordor.

1. Lead By Example

The first tip may not be a definite way to stop gossip, but it is a way to prevent it.

GoRemotely found that only 2.6% of management is highly engaged. Therefore, a manager may miss that their workforce is growing sick with negativity until it’s too late. In a way, this is understandable. If the job is busy or super hands-on, it can be impossible to overhear or read the hushed rumors boiling at the bottom of the pot. If you (or your managers) are not highly engaged, prevention and stoppage of gossip can be hard to grasp.

Therefore, a great way to combat this is to lead by example. Your leaders should never gossip and should shut down gossip when they hear it. They should never let it get to the point of becoming an actual issue.

Furthermore, workforce leaders should spread positivity and speak directly to employees. They should never discuss an employee situation, whether negative or positive, with anyone other than the employee. Everything should be direct, clear, and based on open communication. It’s that simple.

If your leadership is the one starting the gossip, you are in for some trouble. They are showing that it’s okay for everyone else to act that way, as well.

2. Be Accessible to Your Staff

As we said, it can be impossible for managers to catch all of the ongoing gossip. Therefore, the manager should be accessible for unjudged and unbiased communication with all of their staff.

As a leader, be accessible to your staff. Have an open-door policy in regard to any situation or issue that employees feel is prevalent. If an employee is upset about the actions of another, they should feel as if they can approach you, the leader, about it instead of other employees. If an employee can come to you about a situation first, they have no need to discuss it behind backs.

Consequently, this also allows people to come to you when they hear troubling gossip. If the employee hears bad rumors and knows it isn’t tolerated, they will let you know, giving you enough time to stop the spiral. They will know that you are willing to listen and act accordingly.

Having open communication with your employees is more than just a gossip-buster, it’s a positive trait for leaders in general.

3. Act Fast!

We have mentioned this a few times, but we must reiterate it.

The quicker you handle a gossip issue, the better.

Through the telephone effect, gossip can quickly fray out into downright atrocious lies. Reread the example we started with. When one person shares a story that someone else shared from someone else, you end up with an amalgamation of misunderstandings and mishaps. It could snowball into a rumor that’s exponentially damming for an employee that was entirely unaware of the drama surrounding them.

If you catch a rumor at the source, you can find out who is starting the gossip and end the rumor before it spreads like wildfire. That’s just basic socially.

Secondly, the quicker you act, the less toxicity will grow within the workforce. If you miss the ongoing rumor mill, it can begin to grow into something negative and production-crushing. Act as soon as you find out about workplace gossip.

4. Enact a Zero-Tolerance Policy

The best way to counteract gossip is to state that it’s not allowed from the jump.

Think about adding a zero-tolerance policy to your rulebook regarding gossip. Managers aren’t allowed to share classified information, and neither should your employees. It’s entirely fair and justifiable to add a no-gossip act to your rulebook. It doesn’t make your company seem overbearing or strict. It’s an effort to keep and establish workplace culture.

Also, having a policy regarding personal information and gossip can give you the opportunity to discipline employees that refuse to follow it. You can write up gossiping employees for doing just that. It sounds harsh, sure, but it’s better to have a disciplinary track in place before trouble starts bubbling.

Finally, this allows you to discuss the negativity of gossip in orientations and team meetings. You can point to the policy and drive home how bad gossip is in the workplace. This may persuade some gossipy workers to avoid their negative vices.

5. Speak Directly to the Gossiper

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Novelist

When you, or another worker, notice that an employee is spreading workplace gossip, it’s important to speak to them directly. Ask for a private meeting with them and attempt to figure out what’s going on. As a leader, it is crucial to be direct and affirmative when speaking in an authoritative manner. Don’t be harsh, but don’t be soft.

Sometimes employees may not understand that they are in trouble. They also may not understand what you want from them. Clear all of this up with direct communication. State that you will not tolerate gossip in the workforce and you will have to write the employee up if it continues (if a no-tolerance policy is in place).

Following the discipline, it’s important to ask why the employee was gossiping. There may be something bigger at play. If there is a conflict between two employees (and not one-way gossip), then you may have to bring them both in for a discussion. There’s also empathy at play here, but we will get to that later.

Quote from our article Leadership Skills – The Best Tips for Workplace Success:

Linkedin survey in 2018 found that a boss having unclear expectations is the most common complaint made by employees. There are droves of examples proving this, and if you have ever talked to a disheveled friend or employee, they probably have said the same thing.

Nothing is worse than a manager getting upset about something not being done when they never expressed that it needed to be done.

It does not take a communications major to be clear about what needs to be done. Sure, it may take a bit of courage to be direct and confrontational (when applicable). As a leader, this is your responsibility. 

Furthermore, try to be clear about things you say. It’s completely okay to ask the employee if they understand what you are getting at. Things should never be lost in communication; this can lead to mistakes and frustration.

6. No Favoritism

A recent survey by Niagra Institute found that 56% of executives admitted to having favorite employees.

We aren’t here to begin waxing poetic about how one should avoid emotional bias. We, as humans, are a species based entirely on emotion and choice. Regardless of what we’re discussing, everyone will always have a preference. Favorite bag of chips? Everyone has one. Favorite book? Favorite employee?

It’s just nature.

The point here is to not have workplace emotion but to not outwardly express favoritism. After all, favoritism is a quick way to bring down your workforce. It is also a quick way to create rumors and gossip. Some may begin to gossip about you choosing an employee for certain roles or duties because they are your ‘favorite’.

While seemingly harmless, these rumors may turn into a whole slew of negative gossip. They may convince other employees that you do, in fact, have a favorite, causing division and suspicion in the entire workforce. The soup will begin to sour, or whatever analogy you want to use here.

If your team meets a goal, be sure to compliment the whole team or every worker individually, not just one. If everyone feels their work and effort are appreciated equally, they are unlikely to start gossiping out of jealousy.

7. Remember Empathy

It can be easy for apathy to bubble up towards the problematic worker, but try to remember that we are all people. Yes, you may be above them in job position, but we’re all equal people at the end of the day.

Therefore, try to remember that there is always a reason behind actions. There may be another factor that is negatively affecting the worker, causing them to act out irrationally. As a leader or even just a peer, it is your responsibility to recognize this and continue with respect.

When speaking to them, remember to avoid straight accusing. Try to figure out why the employee is starting gossip. Is there another factor at play? Are you, as the supervisor, able to help cool the situation in some way? Does the employee need a mental health break or a change of pace?

If the employee is a great worker outside of the gossiping, try and find a way to keep them around and make a positive change in their actions. It could be a simple problem holding them back.

Overall, be the leader your team needs.

8. If You Need to Move On, You Need to Move On

If all else fails, moving on from the employee may be the best possible solution.

Is workplace gossip really a fireable offense? Absolutely. If your company has instilled a no-nonsense policy regarding gossip or you have written the employee up multiple times, you can surely fire them. Though it may seem harsh in theory, it can save your company time and stress.

As stated, a toxic workplace can be a quick way to lose fantastic employees, lower work effort, and create a workplace that no one (not even the best employees) wants to be a part of. All of this can soil your future reputation with applicants if word of mouth spreads.

Don’t be known for a toxic workplace. Cut ties with the employee if their actions aren’t correctable.