Like to Gossip? Catch Up, but Don't Get Caught Up

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

I'm not much for fridge magnets, but I do have one that I'm fond of. A gift from a friend a few years ago, it features four chatty-looking women with the words: "We're not gossiping, we're networking."

What are you doing when you're standing around the water cooler, or trading conspiratorial tales with co-workers at the local coffee shop? (You know the news is going to be juicy when you need to go off site to so much as whisper it.) Do you walk away from these "don't tell anyone I told you this but" gab sessions feeling empowered or guilty?

Of course, there are advantages to staying "in the loop," but being privy to unofficial information can also put you in an awkward spot, as one recent participant in my online chat found out. The person's boss had chosen to share the news a few weeks ago at a staff meeting that the work done by their department was going to be contracted out starting in October. The official announcement had not yet been made.

"He had been told not to tell us, but many of us have families, and he wanted us to know. Everyone appreciated what he did," the chatter wrote. "By telling us, he is putting his job in jeopardy -- the directors weren't supposed to mention this to the employees."

The problem? One co-worker couldn't keep this news to herself. "[She] has been vocal in her agitation. We have asked her to keep quiet since our director would be fired if this got out. But she keeps pushing."

The chatterer wanted to know if there was anything his colleagues could do to protect the director from the potentially dangerous blabbermouth. "He isn't regretting what he did, but he is worried."

Unfortunately, when you share information like that, there's always a chance someone will misuse it. Clearly, there's a good way to gossip at work and a bad way. How can you tell which is which?

Bad gossip . . .

· Is petty. This isn't high school. Unless you're working at a beauty salon, or someone's grooming habits are so out of the ordinary that they affect the business's bottom line, talking about people's looks is just dumb. Same for any conversation you're tempted to start about what people eat for lunch.

· Is indiscreet. Even in the case of information that is clearly important to a lot of people, it's best to pass on news one person at a time, not at a staff meeting or with a small group of people over drinks. And if it's something that could embarrass or upset another person -- including the person you're sharing the information with -- take it behind closed doors. This rule applies even when other people aren't being discreet and something has become common knowledge in an office. And watch the e-mails; they create a trail back to you and can easily be taken out of context.

· Is primarily intended to harm someone. Fine, you don't like Sue from accounting. But if every time you open your mouth, all that comes out is some new gripe about her, pretty soon people aren't going to like you . It doesn't matter if you have a good reason to hate her (she keeps sending you half-finished reports, forcing you to scramble to meet your own deadlines) -- or goofy ones (she stole your boyfriend during freshman year in college).

Good gossip . . .

· Is relevant. So you can't slam Sue from accounting in random conversations, but if someone asks you what you think about her work habits, you can share the troubles you have had in getting the reports you need from her. This will carry a lot more weight if you don't already have a reputation (see, this cuts both ways!) for having an ax to grind.

· Helps people make important decisions. The tip-off by the online chatterer's boss is a classic example. (Though he would have been better off telling his department members one at a time.) Passing along this information early gave his charges crucial weeks to adjust to losing their jobs.

· Helps people do their jobs better. Before you share some tidbit, especially if it's a negative thing you heard about the person you're about to share it with, ask yourself: What can this person do with the information? Is the issue something she can change? Put yourself in our lazy accountant's position. Maybe Sue didn't realize she was doing the reports wrong, and now she can find out what the problem is, saving her own job and saving the company a lot of money.

Of course, there's probably not much she can do to make up for that freshman-boyfriend-stealing incident.

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