October 9, 2014

What to do when you're the subject of the office rumor mill

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on January 4, 2018.

    Office gossip can range from harmless chitchat to damaging innuendo, but workers who find themselves the subject of gossip have a range of options to deal with problem, experts tell the Wall Street Journal.

    Learn how to put Behavioral-Based Interviewing (BBI) into practice

    Here are the eight things you need to know about dealing with office gossip—especially when it is about you.

      1. Don't sweat the small stuff. If the rumors are harmless, consider doing nothing, says Dana Brownlee, president of an Atlanta corporate-training firm. If you are not careful, you can "make the mistake of legitimizing a rumor" by engaging with it, she cautions.
      2. Keep it simple. Groundless rumors don't require anything complicated, Brownlee says. If there is no basis to the gossip, your best bet may be to issue a simple denial and move on.
      3. Laugh it off, especially if you are a manager. When you are in a management role, confronting subordinates about office gossip directly can make things worse. Instead, you should consider using humor to disarm them. "If you don't, they're going to eat you for breakfast," says executive coach Peggy Klaus.
      4. Take a stand before it drives you out. Gossip can take its toll on mental health and distract from work. Christina Steinorth-Powell was driven to leave her job at a psychotherapy clinic by rumors about her romantic life. In retrospect, she wishes she had said something to the female colleague who was spreading them—just to see if it would have curbed the talk.
      5. Avoid putting people on the defensive. Gossip is often spread by employees who lack power and are trying to gain informal influence. In those situations, Brownlee suggests avoiding the word "gossip"—because of its negative connotations—and having an informal conversation with them. In confronting a colleague, she suggests saying something like, "I certainly don't think you'd think anything like that. I just want to make it explicitly clear, that [the rumors] could not be farther from the truth."
      6. Avoid details. Don't dignify office rumors by repeating details when trying to set the record straight. It can unintentionally spread misinformation.
      7. Leverage trusted colleagues.  Executive coach Michele Woodward says that since gossip usually happens when you are not around to defend yourself, you should enlist a trusted colleague to defend you when you are "out of the room." To stamp out rumors in different contexts, consider reaching out to several colleagues at different levels.
      8. If it gets bad, ask for help. Most employers have workplace conduct policies that cover gossip. If rumors are proving truly harmful and distracting, reaching out to human resources may solve the problem.  At a minimum, they can remind employees that harmful gossip is prohibited in the workplace.

    Experts were careful to note that not all office gossip is bad.  Research shows it can help relieve stress and frustration over perceived injustices. Gossip can also be an indirect way of signaling to low performing employees they need to improve (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 10/7). 

    Learn how to put Behavioral-Based Interviewing (BBI) into practice

    Health care is in the midst of another labor shortage. Vacancies are on the rise and the national health care turnover rate is trending steadily upward. All too often, the reason employees leave is because they were a bad fit for the organization. That is why it is critical to hire candidates for organizational fit—not just technical skill.

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