Gossip has its place in the office. In fact, lots of studies have found evidence that proves how beneficial gossip can be. For instance, it can feel therapeutic to share your utter disdain with someone about lazy Jim’s unwarranted bonus or smelly Sue’s bacon-esque body odor!
At the same time, while talking about other people can facilitate bonding, it can also blow up like a wildfire.
“Left unchecked, gossip can wreak havoc on company morale and efficiency,” says Beth Weissenberger, CEO and co-Founder of the Handel Group in a column for Businessweek. “It breeds resentment and becomes a roadblock to effective communication and collaboration.”
So tread lightly when you’re chit-chatting with your work buddies, and consider this as you create boundaries for gossiping at work:
Trash Talking is for Saps
Have you ever bonded with someone over your dislike for someone else? It might seem harmless at the time, but speaking ill of coworkers who aren’t present to defend themselves can bite you in the long run.
“While people might agree with you outwardly, and even chime in with their own complaints about the person you're gossiping about, you've actually diminished yourself and become less trustworthy in their eyes,” says Adrian McIntyre, professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
In other words, that brief bond you create with your gossipmonger is at the expense of your reputation as a trustworthy colleague. After all, if you’re talking so poorly about smelly Sue today, who knows what you might say about another coworker tomorrow!
“Take the high road by refusing to participate in the negative conversations, and you'll develop a reputation as a loyal and reliable employee and friend,” McIntyre says.
‘Prosocial’ Gossip Holds People Accountable
At least two big studies have found that gossip isn’t always malicious. One study from the University of Amsterdam found that up to nine in 10 conversations is gossip, but harmless.Another recent study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that a specific type of gossip is actually necessary for the good of humanity (and even productivity!). They call it “prosocial” gossip, which is basically gossip that is well-intentioned and functions as a way to call out folks in the office who are underperforming or untrustworthy.
“A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects,” says Robb Willer, co-author of the study in a press release. As a society, this type of gossip can act as a way to hold each other accountable for serious issues and protects others from being exploited (hint: Susie’s body odor would not count!).
A blog post by WebMD offers this example of prosocial gossip: “when women in an office spread the word about a male colleague who has a history of pursuing women purely for the thrill of the chase.”
Tread Lightly with Therapeutic Gossip
The same UC Berkeley study discovered the therapeutic effects of gossip after monitoring the heart rates of volunteers who witnessed someone behaving badly.
Turns out, “spreading information about the person whom they had seen behave badly tended to make people feel better, quieting the frustration that drove their gossip,” Willer said in the press release.
Before you start gossiping to relieve stress and protect your work clan, ask yourself: is this really for the better of the group in the long run or is it just a minor, personal issue?
Does Susie’s body odor really matter on a larger scale?
Chances are, you’re better off venting to your dog, neighbor, therapist, friend, mom or anyone else outside of work. By being more mindful about with whom you share your work distress, you’ll dodge unnecessary wildfires.