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For many workers, office gossip is one of the perks of the job.P'SORNRANISON/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The buzz. Scuttlebutt. Hot goss. The office grapevine.

For many workers, office gossip is one of the perks of the job and an aspect we missed while clocking in from home. Work without the watercooler chatter is just, well, work.

Talking about people when they aren’t present is ubiquitous and serves many important functions, says Elena Martinescu, a research associate at Vrije University in the Netherlands who has studied the social phenomenon of gossip.

“People gossip to exchange and validate information about others in their social network, to create an emotional bond with their conversation partner, to have fun and relax, and to protect group members from potentially dangerous or uncooperative people,” Dr. Martinescu says.

Still, there is positive gossip and negative gossip, she says.

At work, for example, colleagues may warn one another about a team member who is likely to take credit for the work of others, or for colleagues who may behave inappropriately toward coworkers. Dr. Martinescu says that gossip may help people identify how they could improve their behaviour, but it may also spur perceptions of a threat or fear.

“Receiving negative gossip makes people worry about their own reputation in the group and how others might judge them if they misbehave,” she says. “This is a very important aspect of negative gossip, illustrating its role in keeping people in line with group norms.”

It’s nice for colleagues to chat at the office, says Denise Burrell, president and a facilitator at Performance Group OE Inc, an Edmonton-based consulting firm that provides leadership coaching and workplace training.

However, she warns gossip can also be the first step in escalating incivility that can lead to unprofessional conduct, bullying and even harassment or violence.

“It is normal, but it’s hard to differentiate between conversations where we’re connecting and building rapport as colleagues and when it just starts to get nasty,” Ms. Burrell says, adding that office gossip is raised as a problem in about eight out of 10 client teams she’s brought in to work with.

The company offers a popular workshop called The Gossip-Free Workplace, in which she works with them to define gossip and asks participants to raise their hands if they gossip.

“Of course, people kind of sheepishly look around,” Ms. Burrell says.

The corporate and team culture set the tone for workplace conduct and publicly stating that gossip is unacceptable is the first step, she adds. A lot of team culture is implicit and isn’t discussed or defined.

It’s best to come together and talk about the important norms and habits for the team to be successful, Ms. Burrell says.

Gossip is often just one element in a team implosion, she notes.

“The gossip isn’t the issue, but it is an early warning signal that things could move into that more unprofessional conduct, people ganging up. When you start to gossip, that starts to create cliques, which then can lead to bullying, or perceptions of bullying and accusations of bullying,” Ms. Burrell says.

Ignoring it isn’t leadership, she says, adding that occupational health and safety regulations in every province include workplace behaviours.

“Psychological safety in the workplace is the responsibility of the organization,” Ms. Burrell says.

Workplace gossip is very common, says Ester Pike, program director of organizational psychology and psychometric assessments at ActionEdge Executive Development’s Vancouver office.

She cites a 2019 Office Pulse survey by the marketing company Captivate which found the average worker spends about 40 minutes a week gossiping. That adds up to about 33 hours a year – almost a full work week for every employee, and that doesn’t include time on social media or general watercooler chitchat.

More women than men admitted to gossiping at work (79 per cent compared to 55 per cent) but, on average, women spent 34 minutes a week dishing the dirt, while men, on average, spent just shy of an hour.

There are many reasons people gossip, and there is a difference between venting, sharing information or just building camaraderie and gossip as a form of control or coercion, Ms. Pike says.

Understanding the motivation is key, she says.

“Unless the gossiping behaviour is actually done with the purpose of causing harm to another person’s reputation or work environment, the issue with gossip often lies in those unintended consequences, including negatively affecting workplace dynamics or lowering job efficacy or distraction from collective goals,” she says.

Keeping up on the office chatter can seem to leaders like a way of staying abreast of what’s happening with their team, but it can end up encouraging negative behaviour, she warns.

Leaders need first to understand how they and the management culture may potentially contribute to the pervasiveness of office gossip, she says. Then, they need to have a frank discussion with all staff involved without punitive measures that curtail openness, she says.

She suggests managers discuss with the entire team how to change the culture.

And finally, they need the lead the team to include a method of enforcing the new behaviour and helping one another to commit to the change, she says.

“Nobody wants to work in a toxic environment,” she says. “It’s usually a matter of showing that their own day-to-day experience will actually be easier if they commit to the new behavioural standards that are set in place.”

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