On the Job

Dealing With the Office Gossip

By Kenneth Bredemeier
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 1, 2005; 1:45 PM

Every office seems to have one, a gossip in chief, the co-worker who always seems to have the nitty-gritty on who's up and who's down in the never-ending shuffle of staff.

But often the gossip's remarks drift into the more personal, who's dating whom on the sly, who's pregnant, who's slipping out the door a little too quickly each day, who has managed to do less than stellar work and somehow still get a raise and promoted as well. And along with the sometimes factual comments come some twisted remarks, some embellished suspicions and catty asides.

Eventually, many workers can take no more of the back biting, the gossiping, the unkind aspersions; they often suspect or know that when they're not around, they're likely to be the target of the gossip. And yet they don't have a clue how to deal with it, such as this worker looking for help.

"I have a co-worker who seems to act friendly face to face, but I have observed him to be a gossipmonger and to talk badly about people behind their backs while seeming to be friendly on the surface. He is also constantly complaining about his job, his boss and the organization in general. Lately there has been some tension between us because of my annoyance with him. My distrust of him is bubbling to the surface and I am getting more and more overt and finding less and less patience in listening to him and his complaints and talking about people. Now I feel he may be trying to get other people to talk about me behind my back, ruin my good reputation, and make me the butt of jokes among my co-workers. How do you deal with a guy like this? Ignoring him and trying to be civil is not working in terms of making me feel better."

Sandra Crowe of Rockville, who advises government agencies, corporations and associations on difficult workplace situations, says the behavior of these co-workers has "become tit for tat, who can frustrate the other more, who can denigrate the other more. They're stuck in a pattern and can't move forward."

Crowe, author of a book called "Since Strangling Isn't an Option," says this aggrieved worker will have to go to the gossip and say something like, "I'm feeling frustrated with our interactions."

"Notice that I didn't say 'frustrated with you,'" Crowe adds. The effort is to keep the conversation civil and productive.

She says if the gossip retorts, "Well, you're the problem," the questioner might say, "That's possible." 

Crowe adds that "they need to move into a way of working toward a solution."

She says the aggrieved person should be forthright, perhaps saying, "I've observed you speaking about a couple of our colleagues and saying negative things about them that I know to be untrue."

Crowe says that the gossip is "probably going to be defensive or on the counteroffensive and make an accusation. The response to that is, 'We're not talking about that.' The [aggrieved person] has to say that he views the offending remarks as inappropriate and say, 'Frankly, from my perspective, it's wrong. I'm asking that you really pay attention to what you're saying and curtail your tendency to talk about and gossip about co-workers.' If he cites something [about the aggrieved person], say you're willing to watch your own actions.

"I think this could take their relationship to a new level," Crowe notes.

But just in case it does not and the gossiping continues, Crowe offers her "Rule of Three" for such conversations:

* No threats in the first stage (the conversation they have just had).

* A reminder of their previous discussion if the gossiping has continued and a pointed warning that human resources or a superior company official will be alerted if the gossiping does not stop.

* And last, report the offending party to a company official or HR.

Crowe says that in many instances, "If you give people the benefit of the doubt, they'll at least take a look at themselves. The next time he's about to gossip, he'll look at his behavior."

And hopefully keep his mouth shut this time.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company