Harmless office chitchat - or poisonous gossip?

If your co-workers just won't stop badmouthing each other, Fortune's Anne Fisher explains how to get the damaging chatter to stop.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I started a new job about a year ago, as part of a product-development team with about 30 other people, and I like it a lot, except for one thing. My co-workers spend an awful lot of time gossiping about each other. While some of the chitchat is harmless ("So-and-So is wearing a nice tie today" or whatever), much of it is really negative and potentially damaging to the people being talked about. At times I think all this scuttlebutt is poisoning the atmosphere around here, and I know a couple of my colleagues agree with me, but we're at a loss as to what to do about it. Any suggestions? -Speak No Evil

Dear Speak: Apparently you aren't alone. According to a new survey that just crossed my desk, staffing firm Randstad USA (www.randstad.com) and pollsters Harris Interactive recently asked more than 1,500 employed adults to name their biggest pet peeves about their jobs. Workplace gossip was the clear winner, cited No. 1 by 60% of respondents.

(Those polled were allowed to choose more than one gripe. Coming in second and third were others' poor time-management skills, at 54%, and people who leave a mess in a communal space such as an office kitchen, at 45%. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, the fourth-biggest complaint at 42% was "potent scents" - too much perfume or aftershave, or burnt burritos in the microwave.)

The office grapevine can be a useful source of information, of course, and some kinds of idle chitchat are actually conducive to getting the work done. Beyond that, we've all taken part in a few conversations over the years that we wouldn't necessarily want preserved on tape: Who hasn't traded a shady rumor or two now and then, or had an unkind snicker at a colleague's expense? But as you note, gossip can do real damage, and an office where people spend a lot of time undermining each other's reputations is not a healthy place.

"Gossip can ruin people's lives," says Sam Chapman, CEO of Empower Public Relations (www.empowerpr.com), who started his Chicago PR firm two-and-a-half years ago after leaving another firm where, he says, vicious gossip was endemic.

"It tends to snowball, because people start projecting things onto the person who's being talked about," Chapman explains. "If you say something like, 'Joe's not pulling his weight around here lately,' that rumor not only spreads, it gets worse, because everyone will start finding new 'evidence' that Joe's not pulling his weight."

Before long, Joe is toast, through no fault of his own. Haven't we all witnessed this kind of piling on, at one time or another? It's not pretty.

So what can you do about it?

"If you really want to fix this problem, senior management has to be committed," says Chapman, who made his own small company (with 15 employees) a gossip-free zone six months ago. "We got everyone to agree not to say anything about anyone that they wouldn't say if that person were in the room, and to go and talk to the person instead. Our policy is, if you have a problem with Jane, go and talk to Jane about it. Don't tell me."

Chapman explains the zero-tolerance-for-backbiting policy to anyone who applies for a job at the firm; all new hires must agree to it.

Short of starting your own company and declaring it gossip-free, you - along with your colleagues who dislike the nasty water-cooler talk as much as you do - could try enlisting your boss's support for more open communication, maybe even suggest bringing in a coach or trainer to teach people how to quit sniping at each other.

Unfortunately, in plenty of offices, the boss is part of the problem. "Gossip is poison, and sometimes it seeps into the whole culture of the company," Chapman notes. "If that's the case, just get away from it. Start looking for another job."

What if you can't change jobs right now? You're unlikely to shut down the rumor mill singlehandedly if everyone around you is bent on keeping it running.

"But you can lead by example," Chapman says. "Don't spread gossip, and if anyone tries to tell you some, politely suggest they take it up with the person it concerns. Then change the subject." Good luck.

Readers, do you think the office grapevine is beneficial, or is gossip a big problem in your workplace? Have co-workers ever made you the subject of unfair rumors? Any ideas on how to keep the rumor mill from running amok? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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