how can I stop gossip on my staff?

A reader writes:

I am a new manager with a team of six administrative staff. There is a pervasive culture of gossiping among the team that I am at a loss about how to address. The gossiping is all about (perceived) work performance – two of them will stand in a corner and whisper about how a third did the mail run late today or wasn’t at the reception desk when an important guest arrived. And it’s not just two bad eggs; they all gossip about each other.

I’ve encouraged all of them to come to me with any issues about team performance or tasks being completed (especially since often the gossiping is unfair – the gossipers don’t realize I have given their colleague a specific task with instructions that it is to be done in advance of their other duties). This doesn’t seem to be working.

Should I sit them all down at a team meeting and tell them that gossiping is not OK and I won’t tolerate it? And call them out when I see them doing it? I worry that would make me seem like a teacher, not a manager.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I can’t do my new job’s required travel
  • Should we tell our new boss about our terrible department assistant?
  • Anxiety leads me to back out of workplace social events
  • Who should attend an exit interview?

{ 103 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Specialk9

    Wow, the COO wants to loom menacingly during the exit interview of someone who left because the COO was being aggressive? Yikes. Yeah, that stinks. Not sure you have any push against a bully C- level.

    Reply
    1. Another Steve G

      Tell the COO you expect feedback about his aggressive communication style. When the COO argues with and screams at you about it, tell him or her your point has been made.

      Reply
  2. Mike C.

    With the gossiping issue, make sure you explicitly identity what it is that you’re talking about. Something like, “you are not to discuss the performance of your coworkers between yourselves”. This isn’t about rules lawyering, this is about explicitly defining how you want things run. It’s too easy sometimes to dance around a topic or rely on shared/common knowledge, but in this sort of toxic environment the current culture itself is what needs to change.

    An even better way is to follow up by laying down that you want a respectful environment and what that actually looks like. The positive approach is another way to reinforce what you’ve already talked about, prevents rules lawyering and sets expectations and goals about where you want to see the team going forward.

    Good luck and thanks for being willing to take this on – toxic environments last when management does nothing.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I especially like that second point. This is a bit of a mental habit, and it’s a lot easier to change one of those by replacing it with a desirable habit than by simply saying “Cut it out.”

      Reply
      1. Jesca

        I agree. Man nothing is more toxic than a gossiping culture. What is odd is how people in these environments almost default to this just to relate to one another after it has gone on so long. I would make goals that would move the dynamic away from this and into a better communication model for the group. This is tough though, and I have only seen very few occasions where it was corrected successfully.

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    2. NotAnotherManager!

      I think that this is a great way to approach the problem and ensure there is no ambiguity.

      I also find that bringing things back to having people ask themselves how something they are getting ready to say/do helps us reach our goal/organizational objective and make this a place people want to come to work affects the work place. Most people I know are happy to escape middle school and don’t want to go back as an adult.

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    3. Annie

      Seriously, gossiping is the worst. Especially when they are complaining about someone but only know half the story (why Lucinda was late for the mail delivery). My previous manager was the worst gossip ever and it just trickles down to the staff.

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      1. Tired of gossipers

        Totally! I am about to leave a job after just a few months part because of the nature of the work and part because of this atmosphere.

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    4. Queen of the File

      Piling on to say I agree with providing specific examples of what respect is/isn’t. I think it’s easy to get lost in exactly how negative you’ve become and how toxic gossip is when the whole workplace is using it as their conversation default. It can be hard to see a clear way out. Hopefully this will at least help the 80% of people who really don’t want to gossip but got pulled into it, even if it’s a little harder to change the 10% who do.

      Reply
    5. Artemesia

      Great advice. Don’t gossip won’t work because gossips don’t define what they do as gossip. I’d focus on a culture of talking about each other that undermines the team and then give examples that are specific enough to be clear.

      And yes, focus on specific types of interaction you want to see.

      Reply
  3. Amber T

    Oh, administrative office gossip. I don’t miss those days.

    OP, you don’t mention if one of your admins brought the gossip to your attention or if it’s something you’re just observing on your own. If one of the admins brings something to your attention regarding unfair gossip, be sure to circle back with them somehow. I was the subject of constant gossip and complaints by one particular admin, the one super frustrating thing is that I never got any resolution from it. I brought it to my manager’s attention, she said she’d handle it… then nothing. The gossip and complaining did slow down, but didn’t end. I eventually was promoted out of an admin roll, and while I’m still somehow subject to gossip and complaints from her, it doesn’t affect me as much now. But I really would have appreciated if my manager came back to me and said something like “I spoke to Lucinda about X. It should no longer be an issue, but please let me know if it continues to be.”

    Reply
    1. Lily in NYC

      It was so bad where I work that the president’s office made all of of the admins sign a confidentiality agreement that explicitly included gossip. Of course, all of the managers are just as bad but they just see it as analysis instead of as gossip (insert eyeroll). I find it interesting that they don’t consider themselves gossips. The only difference is their job titles – the behavior is exactly the same.

      Reply
  4. Emmie

    What kind of tips do you have for working through social anxiety? I’m not implying that the OP should do this. I’m asking because I notice those patterns in myself.

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    1. DecorativeCacti

      I know for myself that the hardest hurdle is actually getting out the door. Once I am at whatever it is, I can usually have a great time. So I don’t give myself a chance to flake out. If it’s, after work I won’t go home first, for example.

      I will echo Alison’s advice and say that if you know you won’t go, don’t say you will. It will lead to you becoming That Person that everyone knows will flake and could lead to you not getting invited to start with and feeling further isolated. It’s better to surprise them by showing up.

      Reply
      1. Blue

        This is the case for me, too! As an introvert with depression, I will talk myself out of going out for drinks or attending an exercise class or whatever in favor of staying on my couch, even though I know that, after the fact, I’d be happy I went. Honestly, a sense of obligation is the main way I force myself to attend things I may really, really not want to go to. If someone is expecting me to be somewhere, I will follow through because I can’t bear the thought of inconveniencing them. Once I realized that about myself, I took to committing to both social activities and exercise classes well in advance and, like you, trying to be strategic about the scheduling so that I don’t give myself the chance to bail.

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      2. Jayn

        I took a similar tack when I realized that anxiety was keeping me from doing stuff I wanted to do–I decided to go ahead and Do The Thing regardless (and typically once I hit a point where it was hard to back out it subsided). Over time the issue lessened, so while I still feel anxious before certain events it’s not as bad.

        YMMV of course.

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      3. Bye Academia

        I also have a hard time getting out the door because I’m thinking through all the what ifs.

        What I have found helpful is not giving myself a choice to go. If I waffle in my head about am I up to this tonight, etc., I usually talk myself out of it. As an incentive, I always give a time limit. For example, I’ll make a plan to stay at the happy hour at least one hour, and then I can go home. Usually once I am there, I end up having a good time in the moment and deciding to stay longer. Sometimes I leave at my time limit, and that’s fine too. At least I made the appearance.

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      4. Elsajeni

        For a while I made a rule for myself that my default answer to invitations was “Yes” — I could say no if I had a specific reason, but if I was just feeling “ehhh, could go either way, and it would be less effort not to…”, that became a yes. It had the intended effect, which was to get me out of the house more, but it also had an effect I wasn’t expecting, which was that I got better at distinguishing the feeling of “I don’t want to go to this thing in particular” from my baseline level of anxiety about going to any thing. So as I got better at that, I got more comfortable turning down invitations that I just wasn’t into, because I knew that there were invitations out there that I would be into.

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        1. Artemesia

          Brilliant. I can see that sharpening the distinction between ‘ick I don’t want to do karaoke’ and ‘meh, I don’t feel like going out.’

          Reply
    2. Jesca

      With me personally, I have sought help in regards to what *causes* my social anxiety. I will say it can help tremendously if you find some therapy/self help that appeals to you. But at the same time, I have also learned to just accept the fact that I am an introvert and this will always be a part of my personality. I will force myself through large social events from time to time, but I am also rather open with some key people about my personality traits as in I make sure no one takes it personal. I will not come out and say I have an anxiety disorder, but I will use words such as “not overly excitable” or “I find I need downtime after long days/week of work”. I will be honest, once I got over feelings like I was “wrong” for feeling this way and just accepted it as part of who I am, I don’t worry too much about it.

      But if you want to socialize more, I find that it is helpful (as odd as it sounds) to sit with the loudest group of extroverts you can find. They are normally so engaged that they don’t even notice you have not contributed and have just been sitting there listening/laughing.

      Also, I was thrown into a customer interfacing role at my previous employer. This helped me so much with navigating small talk. it is so rote to me now, that it has become less exhausting.

      These things have worked well enough for me as I am a very successful professional in a field where I do have a lot of interactions with teams and customers, but I will say what works for me may not work for everyone? But hopefully you can find something useful in it.

      Reply
    3. CC

      I have had social anxiety in the past (which I somehow seem to have largely overcome). First off, I would go easy on yourself and understand that you simply may need more downtime or time to yourself than other people, and that’s okay. It can also help to address the elephant in the room with good humor and a mild explanation. Not necessarily, “I have social anxiety,” but a good-natured, “I know, I turn down every request, I am just such a homebody! I’m not a big going-out person! I appreciate you asking, though! Don’t be offended!” (I once had a colleague who rarely went out on after-work events, explaining she just really needed to go home and exercise and recharge and just didn’t like bars or whatever, but she became very well-liked because she was very personable in the office, and clear about her reasons for not going out.) As others have said, I’d avoid accepting invitations and then backing out at the last minute, as this is more annoying to people than just declining (though part of my anxiety leads me to accept because I really WANT to join…I just can’t make myself go when push comes to shove, so this is a toughie).

      As for larger social anxiety outside of work, I try to give myself pep talks, like, “If you go to this social thing, you can leave early and take a cab if you’re having a bad time and that can be your social event for the week.” One thing I often do at social events is spend a lot of time in the bathroom when I’m feeling nervous. Works either when you have no one to talk to or when you need a break from the action (“Excuse me, I need to freshen up…”). Same for taking a solo trip to the food or refreshment table. Also helping, when you can–activities are distracting. I’ll offer to carry coats to the bedroom, or help in the kitchen, or whatever. I often overcompensate for my anxiety by being “on” when I’m out but honestly people are mostly just happy you showed up.

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    4. IANAL (I Argue Nightly About Llamas)

      Find an extrovert and latch onto them.

      Really! I am painfully shy and have social anxiety, and I’m also very introverted (not all the same thing, BTW!). At my law school orientation, I found one person who looked friendly and approachable and introduced myself to her. Then I kinda followed her around (not in a creepy way, in a “we’re friends and we go places together” way) the rest of the event until I had met more people and felt comfortable talking more. She’s one of those never-met-a-stranger types, and she’s still one of my best friends at school! I’ve done that several times in several places, and it helps me get over the hurdle of being anxious with new people.

      YMMV, but I find that I’m more comfortable around people when I have a specific “role” instead of just going up and chatting. So, I volunteer fairly often at an animal shelter and a local theater because it allows me to practice meeting people, but with a specific goal in mind. It’s much easier to start talking to a stranger about the kittens in front of them or the play that’s about to be performed instead of just asking, “how are you” and going from there.

      Reply
      1. Snork Maiden

        I used to be really shy and awkward. I did the same as you, latched onto an outgoing person, copied their approach, and now…I’m the outgoing one, haha. (Your mileage may vary. I suspect my anxiety and awkwardness came from being a secret extrovert who was overly concerned with what people thought of me.) Now I try to help out quieter people when I see them, because I know how that felt. I figure everyone I meet does or knows something interesting, and if the other person is trying to connect a bit too, it’s usually fairly easy to find a connection and go from there. And then you can introduce people to each other, if you know they have a thing in common, and baby, you got a stew going!

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      2. Nic

        “Find an extrovert and make friends” has been one of my go-tos. That way I can hang back in the shadows as new people come and go, and if I want to peek out and get into conversation I can. It has worked out super well, and I’ve met some other great folks through the original extroverts.

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    5. Anxiety Anonymous

      A few things that help me: find a buddy to go with. Is there someone you’re particularly close to- maybe you can tell them about your anxiety and they make an effort to stick close by? It also helps me to know ALL the details. Not just, “Hey, we’re all going out for drinks to celebrate Jane’s birthday!” I like to know where (location, how to get there, how to get home {if I’ve never been there}, menu), who else is going, for how long, etc.
      Good luck. Anxiety is a beast.

      Reply
    6. Emi.

      I find it helps to set small (and then increasing) but clear goals: “I am going to send this email.” “I am going to text this person I think is cool.” “I am going to text this person I think is cool and ask her if she wants to hang out.” And then I explicitly congratulate myself on doing it and on how well it went: “See? You sent that email and IT WAS FINE. You got assigned to the project you wanted, and your boss doesn’t hate you. Amazing!” It sounds hella dorky, but it does help me. I try to be especially conscious about this with trivial on-the-fly things, like making hallway small talk, to keep myself from using their triviality as an excuse to take the easy way out, and I know that’s a bad habit. Aristotle was right–virtues like courage take practice! :)

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    7. Anon16

      I used to suffer from social anxiety (still do to a large extent!), this is what has helped me:

      1) Fake it till you make it
      2) Remember that people are people and probably don’t notice/think about you as much as you think they do
      3) Ask others questions about themselves. A lot of people enjoy talking about themselves and their interests and if you focus on them, people respond really well to that. Also, people are interesting! I often like to hear what others have to say about subjects they’re passionate about. :)
      4) Focus on who you genuinely enjoy spending time with. I care a little too much what people think of me, and so try to shift my mindset so I’m focusing on whether or not *I* enjoy spending time with them rather than the reverse
      5) Sometimes I just have to nip the negative self-talk in the bud. A lot of it is mental and has to do with my own self-esteem.

      Not sure if this is the type of social anxiety that you experience, but this helped me! If you’re going to a party, I’d say focus on the people that are the most interesting to you. If you don’t know anyone, ask people about themselves/their passions/their interests. This can come up naturally in small talk and is a good jumping point.

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      1. Anon16

        One last thing that has helped – if you’re feeling anxious, I’ve honestly found sometimes it’s fine to just leave the conversation/interaction for a few minutes and get some time to yourself. Sometimes, I’ll notice I’m anxious when I’m talking to somebody and I’ll make an excuse to get away and just take a few minutes to myself to recollect. Realizing that it’s okay to do this has helped a lot. Good luck!

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    8. Liz2

      The more confidence you have in yourself in general, the less social stuff will be a thing. So I do things I love more, and make a practice of self care as a priority. I have also realized that I’m a very cool person with interesting things to say and contribute.
      It hasn’t gone away and I still hate small talk or situations where I can’t just “be me.” But knowing that’s a function of context and not some lack of understanding in myself has really helped.

      Reply
      1. Bibliovore

        For me.
        Find a specific role- If I can be helpful- – it is easier.

        Go late and leave early. One round of drinks- I don’t drink alcohol so that usually is a cranberry and seltzer.

        This has been fun. Gotta go. The dog is home crossing her legs.
        or I wish I could stay, but I’m on deadline. (FWIW, I’m always on deadline)
        or wish I could stay later, I’m teaching an early class tomorrow.

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    9. Just a person

      I’ve found momentum helps. I can be incredibly anxious about going, and doing a lot of “lead up” tasks makes it easier to…well, keep going. For example, I’ll start out doing something very simple like brushing my teeth. If I’m standing at the sink anyway and I’ve got the time, I’ll do some makeup. Just a whole laundry list of little preparatory tasks that 1) aren’t directly social 2) easy and 3) cumulatively, would be a shame to waste. Some of those tasks can include writing down a couple random observations or comments to have on hand (What’s your favorite movie? If you weren’t X, what do you think you’d be doing?), in case I get one of those “Oh no now we’re conversing and my brain is frozen and everyone is staring!” moments.

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    10. LaSalleUGirl

      Knowing my triggers helped. Bars are my #1 trigger. Happy Hours are really, really difficult, if not impossible, for me. When I’m comfortable enough with the people I’m socializing with, though, I can push back a little: This small cozy, comparatively quiet craft brewpub vs. that giant, loud, claustrophobically crowded one. A bar where we can sit at tables and get served by waitstaff vs. having to stand at the bar. I’m lucky enough to have been valued and liked at my jobs so far, to the point that the people organizing events were willing to work within my trigger limits, at least some of the time, because they wanted me to be able to join them. I was comfortable enough with my coworkers and with my anxiety disorder that I was able to flat-out tell them what I could and couldn’t do and why. But if you’re not, just being able to suggest places or activities that WILL work for you might be enough to get those options into the rotation at least occasionally.

      The other suggestions in this thread are great, and I’m going to be using some of them for myself, so thank you to everyone who weighed in.

      Reply
  5. I GOTS TO KNOW!

    I really think only HR should be present in an exit interview otherwise you might not get candid responses because people are afraid of burning a bridge or turning what would have been a good reference into a bad one.

    Reply
    1. Ama

      Yeah, I did an HR only exit interview and even then I was somewhat vague about my precise reasons for leaving because “the director is in denial about how understaffed we are” probably wasn’t going to go over well.

      Reply
  6. Callalily

    #4: I am practically you… or you’re practically me… one of the two.

    I am always ostracized from the social circle from turningdown events (or flaking out) due to my extreme anxitey. I’ve been seen as rude, a b-word, and stuck up. Once a coworker theorized that my husband was abusive because I would flake out after I went home that evening.

    Now I just tell people (when I decline or cancel) that I am not an ‘event’ person or I explain that loud events cause me migraines and it is best to stay home. While there is always an ‘excuse’ to use, it starts to look like you are grasping at excusing for some darker reason than you are too anxious to go.

    Reply
    1. k.k

      Uhg, I hate when people try to come up with the “real” reason you don’t want to go to things. Is it that hard to believe that I’d rather cozy up on the couch with my dog or have a quiet dinner with my spouse than to sit through polite small talk at happy hour?

      Reply
      1. Jesmlet

        It’s probably because a lot of people are egocentric and only see things from their extroverted, I’m awesome to hang out with point of view. I’ve had people tell me they feel like I dislike like them because I declined work social events when I just didn’t want to spend another 5 hours with them on top of the 9 I’m already at work.

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      2. Detective Amy Santiago

        I don’t think it’s hard for people to believe that. It’s when someone gives dodgy ‘excuses’ or changes plans at the last minute that people will be suspicious or curious that there’s more going on.

        When people ask me what my plans are for the weekend, I say things like “my goal is not to leave my apartment at all” or “I am really looking forward to not dealing with people for two days”. It’s all about framing.

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  7. a Gen X manager

    OP1 It seems like this behavior is a bad habit that has developed into the team culture, but I’m wondering if they have too much time on their hands – ? Is it possible that you’re overstaffed?

    Reply
    1. Magenta Sky

      The gentle reminder I’d use, after the team meeting in which they are told not to gossip, would likely be “If you’re talking about how other people are doing their jobs, you’re not doing *your* job.”

      After that, the reminders wouldn’t be so gentle, and would likely involve documentation of a disciplinary nature. As others have noted, a gossip culture will destroy any company’s ability to function.

      Reply
  8. Jen

    This may sound silly but at one past job, everyone had in their cubicle a little print-out with that saying on it:

    Before you speak – THINK
    Is it True
    Is it Helpful
    Is it Inspiring
    Is it Necessary
    Is it Kind

    And the VP had a larger one in her office. Kind of silly in a way but it hung right above my phone so every time I answered the phone I saw it and it sank in. It’s very “elementary school” but it is a good guide.

    Reply
    1. Gingerblue

      I know other people like this sort of thing and I’m glad it works for them, but there is very little that would make me more vicious feeling than having a printout of this imposed on my work space like a naughty five-year-old.

      Reply
    2. JHunz

      Necessary and Helpful are sometimes mutually exclusive with Inspiring in a work environment. It’s fine for elementary school, but the first thing I’d think if I walked into an office and saw that was that they were seriously fostering a yes-man culture.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I first saw this idea as “True, Necessary, Kind: If it’s at least two of those things, say it. Otherwise, keep it to yourself.” That is, a true and necessary thing should be said, even if it might hurt feelings. A true and kind thing should be said, even if it isn’t mission-critical. And a necessary and kind thing should be said even if it is a white lie.

        Quite different from insisting that something must be all three of those things, plus helpful and inspiring!

        Reply
  9. Trout 'Waver

    OP#4, if don’t plan on going to something, don’t say yes and then flake out. Just say no. It’s really frustrating as a host or planner when people do that.

    Reply
    1. paul

      So much this.

      I’m generally not an event person….but if I RSVP and say I’m going they’re going to purchase food/supplies/materials to cover my attendance. Saying you *will* do something then repeatedly not doing it is a bad look, even if they’re after hours events because it does impact other people.

      Just say you aren’t attending; decent workplaces won’t mind.

      Reply
    2. B

      Agree with this wholeheartedly. Not going is one thing and you can certainly say you are always busy after work, saving money or something along those lines. However, saying you are going and then flaking out is very frustrating for those who keep trying to invite you. So yes, that will make you start to look like a grump in their eyes.

      Reply
    3. Breda

      YUP. Or even just as a friend. Speaking for myself, I need to mentally prepare myself for hangouts with all but a handful of people – even if I really like them! I can’t just do, “Oh, let’s get drinks after work tonight.” So I put it on the calendar, keep it in the background, and get psyched up for it. Last-minute flaking is so frustrating as a result: I’ve done all this emotional prep that’s now wasted, AND I’m not going to do the fun thing I’ve been looking forward to. I’ll only go through that a couple times before I stop making plans with you.

      Reply
    4. NotAnotherManager!

      YES. My spouse’s family is awful about “not wanting to disappoint anyone” by saying that they can’t (or don’t want to) come to something, so they say they are coming or defer and then bag at the last minute. It drives me INSANE, and I made my spouse call his brother once to ask whether or not his family was coming to something because the only thing that pisses me off more than the flaking is the flaking AFTER I’ve spent a lot of money on food and other supplies for company.

      I come from an RSVPing people; he does not. It is maddening. I had to activate his goddamn family phone tree (actual, not hyperbole, there are a lot of them) to get a head count for our wedding.

      Reply
  10. a Gen X manager

    OP4 You’re SO not alone. I’ve struggle with this very thing. I usually don’t go, but I’ve found that I can make it easier for myself by doing these things: 1) consider going when it is in a familiar place that I’m already comfortable in 2) make contact in advance with someone who is going (e.g. hey, are you going on Thursday? I’d love to catch up with you about that XYZ you mentioned last week) 3) If the circumstances are right and I think I *might* go the most I’ll commit to is “I plan to/think I can attend” – I never say yes. 4) if possible, find an extroverted buddy – they’ll carry the bulk of the conversation for your whole end of the table if you sit next to them 5) I arrive early and sit in my car and wait until someone I feel comfortable with arrives and then I walk in with that person.

    Reply
    1. DecorativeCacti

      One and five are really helpful. If there are a lot of events, it could be better to say, “I can’t make it to X, but I plan on doing Y next week.” That might help cut down on the stigma. The buddy system is always helpful.

      Reply
    2. Breda

      Yeah, I do one of two things when I get to an event: either go straight to the bar, which gives me a landing spot and something to do while I survey the scene (and something to do with my hands when I approach people), or find someone I like and go straight to them. My biggest problem with events is feeling adrift in a sea of strangers, and both of those give me a place to stand, quite literally.

      Reply
    3. AnonCoward

      And what if people get tired of carrying the conversation? I’m a very quiet person, but do ok when in a “role”. But in a purely social setting, I get nearly mute.

      Reply
  11. Statler von Waldorf

    I agree with Alison 100% on #5. Your best chance of getting good info as an employer is to do it one on one.

    Now I’m wondering from an employee standpoint if there is every a reason to do an exit interview? I’ve only been asked once, and I declined. I knew what the problems where, or who the problem was to be more specific, and it wasn’t going to change. Rather than lie, I just declined to participate. But now I’m curious, and I am wondering if anyone has seen positive change because of one.

    Reply
    1. Magenta Sky

      It shouldn’t affect your severance package, but in a company where you’re leaving for good reason, it might. It certainly could affect your reference.

      Reply
    2. Been There, Done That

      Years ago I was part of a layoff and asked to do a written exit interview. An attorney advised me not to do it because they can come back to bite you. I have always declined since then.

      Reply
  12. Stellaaaaa

    OP1: Do your staffers feel uncomfortable coming to you with legitimate concerns? The two examples mentioned don’t sound like baseless gossip to me – these people were discussing fairly legit problems with the way the office is running. Ideally they shouldn’t be standing in a corner together and talking sh!t about other employees, but I also don’t think that valid concerns about office procedure should be written off as mere gossip. I’ll be honest – I’ve fallen into a blame game of “but I’m not the one who screwed up – Lucinda missed the delivery and didn’t give me my mail in time!” when I was 1) being blamed for stuff even though I wasn’t the one causing delays in the chain of procedure, and 2) when I was made to feel like a tattletale for speaking up for myself and naming the names of the screwups.

    tldr – Your staffers shouldn’t be talking about each other, but it won’t stop until the underlying problems are dealt with.

    Reply
    1. Stellaaaaa

      Which is to say, if people are waiting on their deliveries and Lucinda will be dispersing them late on your orders, you need to make that clear. There’s no need for privacy on that count, and when people come to you with problems about what they need to do their jobs, you assure them you’ll deal with it, but there’s no change in Lucinda doing stuff late, that might make it seem like you’re not listening. Tell them that Lucinda’s other tasks are taking priority.

      Reply
      1. Anon16

        Eh, not that I disagree with you, but I’ve found most gossip seems to be a little petty. “He or she is coming into work half an hour late!” and doesn’t necessarily warrant speaking to a manager or could come across like sticking your nose into other people’s business. The only time it feels worth it to mention it to your manager is it if it’s actively impacting your work/success or if it seriously causes concern. I’m basing this off experiences in retail, in which 90% of gossip (even performance-based gossip) was kind of dumb and not worth going to a supervisor about. That’s just been my experience.

        Reply
        1. Stellaaaaa

          It’s possible. I was only going by the examples given, which reflects that one employee is repeatedly late completing tasks that relate to other staffers’ jobs, and that OP is not actually telling anyone that it is okay for this one employee to be late completing these tasks. It reminds me of work situations I’ve been in where, “Jane told Lucinda she can be late delivering the mail” doesn’t overlap with, “But Amy still needs to get her mail on time unless there’s a larger conversation about how Amy can now be a little late doing the work that can only be done after getting her mail.” Like, this isn’t directed at the OP in any pointed way, but if OP is giving someone little behind-the-scenes tasks without relaying that information to other people in the chain of procedure, that’s how you end up with different managers telling employees different things. OP mentioned she is new to management. My advice to her is to not be secretive about things that shouldn’t be private, and to recognize when/if redirecting one employee’s task list is going to affect the other people who work with her.

          OP wants her coworkers to stop talking about something even though she’s actively not telling them something that would solve this problem. If I started getting my mail late and no one was fixing that despite the supposed “open door” management culture, I might wonder aloud to a coworker too.

          Reply
    2. Cassie

      I was going to say the same thing. If people have legitimate concerns about other people’s performance that are impacting their work, but they can’t bring them up constructively, they’re likely going to find another outlet. I think better planning and communication could solve the issue – e.g. send out an email that Lucinda is working on Project Z today so the mail will be distributed at 4pm or you can come to reception to pick up your mail before then (or something like that).

      I remember from a college anthropology course that gossip has a purpose in communities/societies. It teaches the members what is acceptable to that community and what is not.

      In the workplace, I think the scope should be narrower – it should focus on that which impacts other people’s work or what is/isn’t acceptable to the organization. The standing in the corner whispering thing is unacceptable – if you have something to say, say it. At least if they said it directly to Lucinda, she could have told them that the OP asked her to do something else first. If they’re not willing to bring it up to Lucinda or the OP, then that’s their problem.

      Reply
      1. Julia

        This.

        At my last job, the only way to get through the day without exploding when Co-Worker A did something egregious again like sabotaging my work or being an outright bully, was to vent to Co-Worker B who suffered from her just as much. Our boss refused to do something (people had quit because of Co-Worker A before and still nothing happened) and we were on the verge of breaking.

        It wasn’t great and I’m not proud of it, but we couldn’t deal in any other way.

        Reply
        1. Anon16

          I think there’s a difference between gossiping and venting. Just wanted to make that distinction. Venting feels okay to me, as long as it’s out of the office or out of earshot. Gossiping feels distinctly different and more mean spirited.

          Reply
      2. Stellaaaaa

        Exactly. The part that sticks out to me is this:

        —–
        (especially since often the gossiping is unfair – the gossipers don’t realize I have given their colleague a specific task with instructions that it is to be done in advance of their other duties)
        —–

        It’s not up to the employees to realize that Lucinda has been given other tasks to complete with secret instructions to prioritize them. OP needs to be proactive and make sure everyone knows when she decides to do stuff like this.

        Reply
  13. Marcy Marketer

    Regarding LW2, my job has required travel twice so far, with more to come I think, and it was not brought up in the interview. I also have only worked here 3 months. Maybe this is a thing now! My husband has a flexible schedule so we make things work, but I still think it’s weird that it didn’t come up during the interview!

    Reply
  14. stefanielaine

    I just went through a very similar gossip issue with one of my staff! Her gossip was mostly focused on timekeeping (Did you notice that Fergus came in 20 minutes late today?? in an office where arrival time doesn’t matter at all) but once she decided she didn’t like someone, she would also complain incessantly about their behavior, like, “Can you believe how loud Sara’s spoon clanks against her bowl when she eats?? Did you notice how many times Dana has walked past my cubicle today??” She would complain when people didn’t talk to her enough, and she would complain when they asked her questions she felt were invasive, like, how was your weekend?

    We ended up having an extremely productive private conversation in which I explained that she may not realize that she was creating an incredibly and inappropriately narrow spectrum of acceptable behavior from her coworkers, and that policing her coworkers’ behavior and timeliness to that degree was outside of her scope as a coworker. I explained that work performance and timeliness are my purview as the team’s manager, and that if she has any concerns she is welcome to bring them to me directly, but it’s inappropriate for her to complain to her coworkers about it. I explained that a happy and productive work culture was important to her and our team, and that she was creating a stressful environment by making her coworkers worry about whether she would gossip about them.

    As I had feared, she reacted very explosively, complained that her coworkers had betrayed her by coming to me with their concerns, and said fine, she would just stop talking to anyone about anything. I offered that she could come talk to me about anything anytime after she’d had time to process the conversation. She sulked for about two weeks, but since then she’s been much more appropriate and easier to work with.

    Reply
    1. Queen of the File

      Good for you for facing it. I often have fantasies about what would happen if our manager addressed this kind of behaviour in my similar colleague.

      Reply
      1. stefanielaine

        It wasn’t easy, and in fact my very conflict-avoidant direct manager (the department director) encouraged me not to do it, though he made it clear that the decision was ultimately mine. It was difficult and I dreaded it for weeks actually working up the nerve to do it, but I feel very strongly that it was the right thing to do.

        Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      This is an excellent example for the OP.
      Before you start the conversation, OP, think through your reasons why gossiping is so toxic. This explanation becomes part of what you will say to them.

      I went with, “No one mentions this, but part of what you are being compensated for is your willingness to get along with other people. Outside of work, is none of my business. But what happens here is my business. We are all being paid to show a willingness to get along with each other. Remember, you can’t pick your family and you can’t pick your coworkers. You did not pick them, but they did not pick you, EITHER. Out of respect for other people’s need to eat and have a roof over their heads, we have to get along with each other. I expect people to use basic respect at all times and have a helpful attitude. This means you can’t be gossiping and running people down. We are not going to berate the people we work with.”

      The next step was I made DARN sure that I was not berating people, even if it was subtly. This is much harder than it sounds, because it’s real easy for people to misread something. I had to take a look at everything I said and how I said it. I had to role model the behavior I expected. What happened next was interesting. The high employee turn over went down, the sick days went down. People would comment, “You never talk about others behind their backs.”
      No work group is perfect, but no manager is either. Apologize when you are wrong, if you make a mistake then just admit it and expect the same of them. This will help you a lot, if you set this type of tone. I ended up with a group that caught so many mistakes/flubs and saved my butt so many times. They had ideas to streamline the work and make it easier on all of us. It was a privilege to work with them.

      Reply
  15. Formica Dinette

    OP 4, I can relate because I also struggle with social anxiety. Can you tolerate going out to lunch with them? If so, perhaps you could invite them to lunch sometime. In addition to Alison’s great advice to make a deliberate point of being warm and friendly, bringing snacks for the group occasionally could help them see you as the not-grump that you probably are.

    Reply
    1. Sarah

      I like this idea — I feel like I have bonded with a lot of coworkers over lunch, and maybe it would feel less difficult since it’s during normal work hours? At one of my old workplaces, we had a regular day of the week during warm-weather months when we’d all bring brown bag lunch and eat at a park right near our office — it was really nice to get out of the office, and cheap because everyone just brought a lunch from home. Maybe you could suggest something like that if your area makes that possible?

      Reply
    2. Marillenbaum

      Also, if you find large groups challenging, seek out opportunities for one-on-one engagement, like grabbing a cup of coffee. It can also be helpful to ramp up to larger social situations. When I felt more anxious about social events, I would give myself a rule: I have to talk to three people, and then I can go home. Sometimes I went home immediately after talking to that third person, but more often I ended up having a lovely time.

      Reply
  16. Sarah

    OP2: That’s bizarre that the travel was never mentioned at all during the interview process! So many people have various commitments that mean regular overnight travel is going to be an issue…it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest to confirm with potential employees that they’re both able to do that travel and interested in it (for some people, travel can be a plus, and ideally you’d want people who enjoy travel — at least to some extent! — in these positions!). I’m sorry, this totally sucks. :(

    Going forward, though, I’m not sure it’s really realistic to just completely opt out of travel if it’s an expected part of your job and others in your same position are doing it. Is it that all travel after 5pm is impossible because you’re a single parent? Or is it possible to make arrangements with your spouse/partner as long as you have reasonable notice (i.e. not “Overnight travel three days from now!” or “Whoops, we need you to travel until 9pm…tonight!”) I feel like a request of “I really need to book travel 2 weeks out so my spouse and I can make appropriate childcare arrangements” is going to be both better received and more realistic to accommodate than “I can’t travel overnight, ever.” Even if it were allowed, I think you’d quickly start to get coworkers resenting you for not pulling a normal load for your position. It sucks you’re in this position, but realistically this is where you are so you need to decide what to do going forward with what you not know to be the real story of the position. My dad had a job with fairly significant overnight travel when I was a young child, and although I’m sure it was difficult on my mom at times, it’s definitely doable if you otherwise love the job and can plan around it. So, that’s something to weigh as to how much you like/need this job vs. how much of a pain the travel will be.

    Reply
  17. Ms. Minn

    #1 – I started my working life in the receptionist/assistant/admin realm, and this is pervasive in every single admin group I worked in, regardless of the company or age of the group. I still see it in admin groups from a distance. It’s very junior high/high school mean girls, and typically comes down to one or two nasty women making the whole group a mess. (I know, I’m stereotyping, but speaking from personal experience that it’s always been female.)
    I agree with Allison that a no-gossip zero-tolerance policy should be put into place. If it keeps happening afterwards, then root out the ringleaders and let them go. The rest of the group will probably be relieved if one or both of those actions is taken.

    Reply
    1. Liz2

      It’s so ruthless because the stakes are so low…

      It’s frustrating for me as an admin because I hate it but it’s used as a social lubricant and if I don’t engage in some level I become one of the enemy myself. So I have to think of the stupidest innocent things to mention just enough to be “included.”

      Reply
      1. Boo

        Omg YES THIS.

        At Ex-Job I was part of a group of executive PAs to directors in local government. My director was the whipping boy of the director’s group (and he wasn’t great at his job either which didn’t help) anyway the PAs asked me out for xmas lunch so I went along and they immediately started trying to get me to talk smack about my boss behind his back “oh he’s so weird isn’t he, lololol he said this to me/he did that, you must have heard some funny stuff…?” I didn’t engage because it was a no-win situation for me – joining in I would look bad and I knew they’d all repeat everything to their bosses for further ammo, but then not joining in made me a target too. I tried to laugh it off by saying “oh are we all telling stories about our bosses? You first” but it didn’t work. They also tried to slag off another PA who had retired, but I wouldn’t join in and said that I’d always found her very helpful. The rest of the lunch was super awk and I became the pariah of the PAs same as my boss was with this peers.

        Reply
    2. Been There, Done That

      I see it as a workplace class issue. Administrative staff are the lowest rungs, a lot of people give only lip service to respecting them and the work they do. My dept. head’s references to her “team” clearly include everyone but her office workers. She makes no distinctions between the temp receptionist and the Big Boss’s executive assistant who’s been with the co. for decades. I don’t think it’s right, in fact I think it’s horrible and inexcusable, but I still understand when some people’s frustrations come out mean.

      Reply
  18. travel hater

    OP2: that is my worst nightmare, to suddenly have travel dropped on me after I did everything in the job application process to avoid any job that requires travel.

    How can job seekers screen for this if it’s not in the job description or brought up in an interview? Is it something to bring up at the offer stage? Would “I just want to clarify what, if any, this job’s travel requirements might be” something that would come off well during earlier in the process?

    Reply
    1. JHunz

      It’s an extremely appropriate question for the part of the interview where they ask you if you have any questions. That’s not to say that the job requirements can’t change after you’ve started, of course, but for nearly any position they should be able to honestly answer percentage of travel / percentage of overnight travel off the top of their head.

      Reply
    2. Pomona Sprout

      Imo, anyone who hires for a position that requires frequent travel and doesn not mention this at any point in the process is, not to put too fine a point on it, an idiot.

      This reminds me of a very inept boss I once had, a library cdirector who was trying to hire a department head and didn’t think to mention this fact in the ad he placed. Based on tbat ad, there was no way to tell that the job had any supervisory responsibilities at all. There were no preliminary phone interviews, so the candidates didn’t learn about the true nature of the job until they showed up to interview. Aside from one guy, who turned the job down for other reasons, none of the interviewees was interested in a job of that nature. Boss man couldn’t figure out why they all turned the job down!

      He ended up wasting a ton of money flying in people who had no idea what kind of job they were interviewing for and wouldn’t have applied if they’d known. If he’d worded the job posting properly, he would have gotten a completely different pool of applicants who were really interested in that kind of a challenge.

      Unfortunately, this was only one of many bone headed stunts that boss pulled, and he didn’t last long in that position, from what I heard. (I left before he did, so my knowledge of the circumstances of his leaving is spotty at best.) But my point is, if you want to hire a prrson who is willing and able to do certain things, you nedd to say so UP FRONT, as early in the process as possible. What happened to this OP was totally unfai, imo, and I sincerely hope that they are not made to suffer due to some hiring manager’s bone headed mistake.

      Reply
    3. Pomona Sprout

      Imo, anyone who hires for a position that requires frequent travel and doesn not mention this at any point in the process is, not to put too fine a point on it, an idiot.

      This reminds me of a very inept boss I once had, a library cdirector who was trying to hire a department head and didn’t think to mention this fact in the ad he placed. Based on tbat ad, there was no way to tell that the job had any supervisory responsibilities at all. There were no preliminary phone interviews, so the candidates didn’t learn about the true nature of the job until they showed up to interview. Aside from one guy, who turned the job down for other reasons, none of the interviewees was interested in a job of that nature. Boss man couldn’t figure out why they all turned the job down!

      He ended up wasting a ton of money flying in people who had no idea what kind of job they were interviewing for and wouldn’t have applied if they’d known. If he’d worded the job posting properly, he would have gotten a completely different pool of applicants who were really interested in that kind of a challenge.

      Unfortunately, this was only one of many bone headed stunts that boss pulled, and he didn’t last long in that position, from what I heard. (I left before he did, so my knowledge of the circumstances of his leaving is spotty at best.) But my point is, if you want to hire a prrson who is willing and able to do certain things, you nedd to say so UP FRONT, as early in the process as possible. What happened to this OP was totally unfai, imo, and I sincerely hope that they are not made to suffer due to some hiring manager’s bone headed mistake.

      Reply
  19. CA Admin

    Oh gossip. In my experience, gossip tends to be a reaction to ineffective management or a weird corporate culture. Gossip is endemic at my current company, especially among the admin team, but it didn’t spring from nowhere. The VP of Administration is the worst culprit of them all, so everyone else feels safe doing it. Our CEO is batshit insane and gets talked about constantly. Our VP of Administration refuses to actually manage the admin team unless absolutely forced to, so the rest of the admins don’t feel like their frustrations are heard unless they talk to each other.

    It’s absolutely nutty and will never change. Our VP has been with the company for 15+ years and our CEO is also the founder and majority shareholder, so neither of them are going anywhere. The gossip focuses on anyone who’s mean, bad at their jobs, or behaving oddly. 80% of the employees are reasonably nice, normal people and nobody gossips about them.

    But the EA who likes to act like everyone else’s boss and micromanages all the other admins she comes into contact with for no reason? Yeah, she gets talked about. The EA who’s been claiming she’s going to quit for 4 years, but keeps pushing out her end date because she doesn’t actually have a life outside of work and doesn’t know what she’d do with herself, even though she’s currently miserable and makes everyone else at work miserable too? We’re all wondering when she’ll finally decide she’s had enough. The COO who likes to brag about how she refuses to let the live-in nanny have a night out with friends and treats her like a slave? The EA who shows up late every day, doesn’t do her work, wears inappropriate clothing (think jeans under a white eyelet skirt in a business office), smells like she’s been out drinking all night before dragging herself into the office, can’t follow instructions to save her life, and doesn’t see any consequences for months on end?

    It’s hard to keep yourself from talking about all that disfunction, even when you know it’s a bad habit. It’s even harder when you know it’s never going to change, you’re never going to feel heard, and you feel like you’re going crazy because this all can’t be normal, can it? In cases like I’ve seen, gossip is a defense mechanism for those who feel powerless and gaslit by a totally dysfunctional workplace. It’s not good, but it doesn’t come from nowhere.

    Reply
    1. Bean Counter

      Agreed that gossip can be a defense mechanism when things are really bad and management is failing to manage.

      This may or may not be the case in the OP’s office, but ordering people to stop gossiping may be less worthwhile in the long run than looking at and resolving some of the problems that they feel the need to vent about.

      Reply
  20. Switching to Anon for this

    Gossiping recently led to someone getting fired at my work. The whole company but especially one particular department gossips and I admit I’m guilty as sin because I participate. I think it’s become a coping mechanism because I do work with some extremely DUMB people that make me want to slap my forehead every day so I have I guess what you’d call a comiserating gossip buddy. But there was this one coworker who was doing all kinds of sneaky things while everone thought they were the super star and for a couple years we thought nothing was being done about it, but turns out some things were being documented. The final straw, though, was one day she reached BEC mode because she knew people were talking about her and was super paranoid about it (due to her guilty conscience and btw she was a total hypocrit because she was the worse gossip herself), so she went in my buddy’s office when they had stepped away and read their chats. Then when my buddy came back, she confronted her and screamed loud enough for the whole floor to hear and told her to F off. She was fired the next morning. Buddy and I were warned to be kind and not use chat for things like that. It’s been a bit better, but I don’t think it’ll ever entirely stop unless we fire all the uselsss people and begin fresh, unfortunately.

    Reply
  21. UnderpaidinSeattle

    The most gossipy workplaces I’ve worked have all been toxic in some other fundamental way, unfortunately. Performance issues not dealt with, people kept around who should have been, micromanagers etc. It can without question feed a toxic culture and damage morale, and I think it’s crucial to address it, but in my experience, it doesn’t necessarily the toxic culture. It’s often a reaction to it.

    Reply
  22. Been There, Done That

    My boss has told me more than once that I can bring her my concerns–then she throws them back in my face and either makes the issue sound like my fault, or like I’m making a big deal out of nothing. If you really do want your subordinates to come to you, please don’t make them feel like fools if they do so.

    Reply
  23. Bbb

    Unpopular opinion here but if my manager sat us all down an told we were not allowed to discuss coworkers’ performance with other coworkers, I would absolutely find that schoolmarmish and obnoxious. You need to make sure you are explaining to your team WHY this pattern of gossiping is hurting them. You also need to prove to them that you will address their coworkers performance issues. When people trash talk peers at my work it’s usually because management does little to address poor performance. Griping is all we’ve got left!

    Reply
  24. NotAnotherManager!

    Re #2, I have a friend who went to a job interview, got the job, and was then told that she had to be in a city that is 3 hours away for the job. Her children are adults, but she has to arrange pet-sitters for weekdays when she is not there because it’s easier to stay in the other city than commute six hours a day (and they do pay her hotel and mileage — within 4-6 weeks). She stuck with it because it comes with hazard pay.

    I thought that was insane and said it should be mentioned in the job ad. She said it was, but they got no responses, so they started leaving it out and telling people during their phone screens, which resulted in a high drop-out-of-candidacy rate. They told her they got better results getting people into the job and then dropping that bomb on them rather than stating it in advance, which I think is just insane. I have small kids and pets and would mark a company off my list permanently after quitting if that happened to me.

    Reply
    1. Sarah

      That is bizarre….why aren’t they just advertising the job/recruiting in the other city 3 hours away???

      Reply
  25. RB

    I hate gossipy work teams and this one sounds particularly bad. That sort of toxicity is hard to fix but you should keep trying because it pervades the entire atmosphere and is hard for some people to deal with, even if they seem to be going along with it.

    As for the exit interviews, yeah, you’re wasting your time if the COO is present because you won’t get valuable feedback. What about e-mail? Would the exiting staff members feel comfortable sharing their comments in an e-mail?

    Reply

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