Dealing With Workplace Betrayal, Part 3 (Gossip)

workplace, betrayal, trust


For many years, I kept a tattered post-it taped to the edge of my computer monitor with one word written on it:  GOSSIP.  It lingered in my line of sight every working moment to remind me that no matter how much fun it is to be “in the know” and to prove it by gossip, at the heart of every juicy tidbit is somebody else’s pain. 

This is the third in a four-part series on workplace betrayal.  It discusses workplace gossip in the context of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of betrayal as “to reveal secrets or information entrusted as confidential or personal.”

Gossip Taints the Gossiper

I cannot talk about gossip without stating the reason I hate it.

When I talk about the destructive force of gossip, I include the destruction to your own sense of self-worth.  That note was not on my computer merely to protect others but to stop myself from chipping away at  my own integrity.  It reminded me that no matter how good the intimate moment of gossip feels between those who share it, gossip is a temporary security.  It causes you to doubt your own trustworthiness.  And no matter how eager the listener may be to hear the latest scuttlebutt about a colleague, he, too, walks away with a diminished belief in your integrity.  He or she is less likely to share confidential information with you because you have just proven yourself untrustworthy.

Once your reputation for discretion is gone, there is virtually no act you can perform to reclaim it. There is no cure but time for having a reputation as untrustworthy.

Gossip is Destructive.

Gossip is by definition a false or harmful communication. To spread gossip is to tell what you know or can guess about another’s secret failings.  After all, “no one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.”  (Bertrand Russell).

Gossip exists only to make the gossiper feel better by comparison.  Accordingly, the subject of gossip is made to appear less worthy or to have greater problems than the gossip.


Gossip can make you feel powerless.  It is difficult to stop a rumor (regardless of whether it is true or false) once it takes hold in the workplace.  You may never be able to stop people from talking about a mistake or failing, but you can add positive material to the dialogue.

  • Get the facts.  Discover the story that is being told.
  • Determine the truth.  If someone is gossiping about a mistake you made or how you handle yourself, do a little soul searching.  If it is true, if you could have handled yourself better, walk away from the gossip. Learning not to repeat the mistake or misstep is the best way to combat future gossip.
  • Seek verification of the truth and support from those who possess accurate information.  If the rumor or gossip is false, think about who would know the truth other than you.  Your manager?  A co-worker?  Discuss the gossip with that person and ask them to address the problem.  If it is a big deal – a false rumor that you are to blame for a lost account, for instance, ask the manager to publicly correct the false dialogue.  If it is less important, a bit of gossip about your manner or habits, ask your manager or colleague to deny the rumor or add a positive comment to the dialogue should the opportunity present itself.
  • Confront the gossip.  If you know who is spreading the false word about you go to the source.  Do not beat around the bush.  Tell them that you heard the rumor and that you believe that they are the source.
    1. Describe exactly how the story is false and tell them that you expect that they will stop spreading the story.
    2. If, on the other hand, the story is true but hurtful, explain to the gossip how the problem is being addressed between you and your supervisor or other workplace colleagues.  Remind them that gossip is hurtful and destructive, that no one is perfect and that you would not spread the word about their secret failings if given the same opportunity.
    3. Sometimes gossip – especially gossip that has a bit of truth in it – hides a real grievance.  When you confront the gossip, ask them if there is a reason they feel compelled to spread this story.  Do they have a problem that you can help them with?  Is there something you can do to address their grievance?

Contrary to popular belief, most people feel guilty (some less than others, of course) about spreading false or hurtful stories about colleagues. Confrontation will usually get those people to stop talking – at least stop talking about you.


Part 1:  Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When Someone Tattles on You at Work

Part 2: Dealing with Workplace Betrayal, What to Do When Someone Steals Credit for an Idea.

Mary Wright

Mary Wright is the Founding Editor of HR Gazette, an online magazine for HR professionals and employment lawyers. She is an employment lawyer with 25+ years' experience in helping employers reach workable business solutions to complex human resource problems. She is currently a Shareholder with Ogletree Deakins and the firm's former General Counsel. Connect with Mary.


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