Office gossip: the good, the bad and the life saving

Some say gossip is detrimental to office morale, others say it’s not so bad and some even say it’ll make us live longer. HRM takes a look at the ins and outs of gossiping.

Spill the beans. Tell me everything. Spare no detail.

Most people have dabbled in the dark art of gossip – whether we’re proud of it or not – and interestingly, there’s some research floating around suggesting that gossiping actually isn’t so bad.

We can all agree that spreading destructive comments about fellow colleagues is never a productive, or kind, thing to do. But some researchers suggest that perhaps we’ve got the concept of “gossip” all wrong. They suggest there’s a difference between the various types we engage in and perhaps, somewhere along the line, we’ve changed what it means to gossip.

A quick history of gossip

The human ability to socialise has been attributed to our evolutionary success. With the development of language, we’ve been able to create relationships and exchange vital information.

Professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University Robin Dunbar says that gossip is an essential communication tool in determining who we can trust or who to keep a watchful eye on.

Apparently, the malicious nature of gossip wasn’t introduced until the 18th century. Prior to that it simply meant “the act of engaging with one’s godsibs”. Basically, just chewing the fat with your mates.

Not only does Dunbar believe that gossiping defines our species, he also thinks it can help us live longer. He says the most important life-expectancy factor, other than kicking that cigarette habit, is the size of our social circle and how often we interact with it.

Of course, this only makes sense if you take the view that gossiping is merely talking to people or keeping up with social events – which many people will disagree with. Dunbar himself says that his research is based on gossiping in its earliest form, with aforementioned “godsibs”.

What was once used as a tribal tool to sniff out the untrustworthy amongst the pack has morphed into a negative communicative measure that often preys on those who are most vulnerable.

The positives (?) of gossiping in the workplace

Google “positive effects of gossiping in the workplace” and you’ll be hit with a deluge of content spruiking the benefits of gossiping for employee bonding or stress relief. Putting the click bait-like nature of these articles aside, some of them might actually have a point…maybe.

Take this article from the Sydney Morning Herald for example. In it, the author says “researchers concluded that gossip assists newcomers by helping them determine who wields the greatest power, something that’s often hard to detect from an organisational chart. Other studies show how gossip can build bonds between co-workers and enhance the sharing of information.”

This is a fair point. If you recall your first day in a new job, think about the intel you were privy to. You probably got a lowdown on where to sit, where to eat, which bathroom to avoid. Mixed in that was a pinch of the latest office drama and subtle guidance as to which side of the fence you should sit on. Is this helpful? Well…yeah, kind of. It’s always good to get a lay of the land. But this shouldn’t happen to the detriment of anyone else, should it?

Others have argued that gossiping can be an effective tool for managers and leaders to identify what needs to change in their organisation – as the gossip is likely to filter through to them at some point. Or that it can increase trust levels between colleagues who are passing sensitive information onto each other.

These benefits make sense, but why not just send staff to a team building workshop? Or provide an effective and confidential avenue for staff to air their grievances? Or just do a trust fall? Surely gossip isn’t the answer to our work related problems?

There’s no such thing as a healthy amount of workplace gossip

While gossiping may have once had a different meaning, Grevis Beard, an ex-lawyer turned co-founder of Worklogic shares another definition.

“We need to be clear about what gossiping is,” he says. Beard personally defines it as a process where selective pieces of information, which are sometimes factually correct, are then massaged into something that’s much less factual.

“Then it becomes speculation or possibly even innuendo. Obviously, that then has a negative effect on the workplace because if conversations are no longer focused on truth and positive intent, then some people become negatively affected.”

When rumours and gossip infiltrate an office environment, it can really affect people’s sense of wellbeing, identity, inclusion and their worth in the workplace.

“Gossip can be very destructive for team cohesion and morale. It shifts the focus away from what they’re there to do,” Beard says.

“Once you start allowing a culture where people feel comfortable spreading rumours, it can very quickly become problematic because you’re losing a sense of trust and lowering the minimum standard for which people will engage and talk about each other in the workplace.”

Who has the loosest lips?

When you think of a group of people gossiping, your mind is liable to jump to women sipping cocktails in a dimly lit bar, à la Sex and the City. So you might be surprised to know that according to research from Wollongong University, the workplace that spends the most time on the rumour mill is male-dominated – the police station.

It seems men and women engage in the same amount of gossip, but the nature of it often changes between the sexes, according to research by the Journal of Gender Studies. Apparently, while women are more likely to gossip about physical appearance or social relationships than men, their gossip is also usually more positive than that of their male counterparts.

Other research suggests that while gossip outside the workplace isn’t too bad, HR managers should be wary of when it’s work related, because this can breed a culture of cynicism.

How should organisations deal with gossipers?

Beard’s advice is for employers to ask themselves why their staff are gossiping in the first place. Is there a breakdown in the culture? Are they stressed about something? Do they have appropriate channels available to air their grievances?

He also suggests that leaders educate their staff on how harmful gossip can be.

“This can be done by running a facilitated training program which allows people to look at what they want from the future,” Beard says.

It’s also important to train your staff on how to have candid conversations and call out gossip. “You need to increase people’s ability to be upstanders when there’s salacious gossip going around,” he says.

So, even though gossip may have sprung from humble beginnings and has the potential to be beneficial to our health, it’s probably best we steer clear of the stuff because as Stuart Heritage quips, “it is the sociological equivalent of eating kale – it might save your life, but people will slowly abandon you if it’s all you ever do.”

This article was originally published in HRM Online