should I let my coworker know someone is spreading gossip about her?

A reader writes:

In my office, two of my coworkers share the same office. I believe they have a good relationship, but Coworker A constantly tells Coworker B’s business to EVERYONE in the office. From Coworker A, I have heard about Coworker B’s miscarriage, her other interviews within our company, her counseling at her church,her debt, her problems with her husband. I cringe every time Coworker A comes by my desk because I know she is going to tell someone’s business in the office, especially her office mate’s. I even try to ignore her intentionally so she won’t start to spill the beans…again.

Although Coworker B may not know not tell her personal things to people at work, it’s a given that she is giving her words on confidence that it won’t be spread.

Would it be wrong for me to intervene and tell Coworker B that she can’t trust her office mate?

I think you’d be doing Coworker B a huge favor to discreetly let her know, saying something like, “Hey, I wanted to give you a heads-up that Coworker A has been sharing a number of personal things you’ve shared with her. I wanted to make sure you realized that in case you’ve been assuming that you were talking to her in confidence.”  Don’t get into language like “you can’t trust her,” etc. — just simply state the facts, be concise, and leave it there.

Be prepared, though, for the fact that if you do this, she may take this up with Coworker A, mentioning you by name. Which may cause you issues with Coworker A, so you need to be prepared for that.

Meanwhile, though, there’s another thing you should absolutely be doing, whether or not you decide to talk to Coworker B about how her business is being spread throughout the office … and that’s to tell Coworker A explicitly that you’re not interested in hearing this stuff and that it’s inappropriate for her to be spreading it. The next time she starts gossiping about Coworker B, speak up!  Say something like, “Wow, I don’t think you should be sharing that.” Or, “That doesn’t sound like something Coworker B would want shared. Let’s not discuss this.” Or something else that clearly says, “This isn’t yours to share, and I’m not interested, so please stop it.”

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Not So NewReader

    ICK! It is really hard to have respect for coworkers when you know waaay too much about them. In reality, probably half of what you are hearing is not even real- but rather the gossip’s version of what she thinks is going on. And then there is trying to retain some level of respect for the gossiper….

    There are things you can say such as: “I am sure her counselor at church will help her work through that.” OR you could suggest that “I have always thought of work time as a time out from at-home problems. It is an opportunity to take a mini-break from things going on in life.”
    Then quickly shift the conversation to a work matter.
    I kind of like the approach of “We are all adults. I am sure she will find a way to handle that problem.” What I like about this is it takes away the shock value of the gossiper’s story. Basically, the gossiper wants to see the look of shock on your face. If all the gossiper sees is your confidence that this lady will handle her problem, the gossip queen will move on to find someone else to shock.

      1. Esra

        Depending on what you know? Sure. I had a manager who really, really over-shared about his home life. The way he talked about dealing with his wife and kids totally made me lose respect for him. For coworkers, I’d really rather just see their workface.

        1. Not So NewReader

          This times ten. I have heard stories of abuse, cheating the IRS, beating the dog, fraudulent business deals, cheating on the spouse, the list is endlesss…. waaay, waaay too much information.

        2. Sara

          Yeah but in this case, isn’t it that the coworker’s personal life is being gossiped about unbeknownst to her? In that case I’d say it’s a bit unfair to lose respect for them when they don’t even know their personal life is displayed so much. But I see what you’re saying in the sense that if it’s a coworker who tells everything about themselves.

          1. Not So NewReader

            I agree and I start at that point- giving the benefit of the doubt. And some times that works out fine. It’s the volume and type of information over a period of time that makes me start to wonder about both people. It sounds like OP has gotten quite a bit of information over a significant period of time.

            I probably sound cold- but that is not where I am going with this. I have seen this scenario play out so badly and in so many ways for the gossiper and the person being gossiped about.

            I think it was Mark Twain who said “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” A good rule of thumb is not to say anything to a coworker that you would not want the whole department to know.

            1. Sara

              I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be able to have a friend you can trust at work. On the other hand, B may be fully aware of what A’s doing and still trusts her….if that’s not the case, and is assuming that A is keeping things in confidence…..then I can imagine how hurt and betrayed B would be.

  2. Blinx

    It’s also possible that B never confided in A, but A gleaned all of her information from B’s overheard phone calls. I’ve learned TONS of info about my cube mates when they made personal calls, since cube walls may as well be made of paper. But I’d never share the info or even let on that I know about such things. It’s called discretion.

    At any rate, let B know what’s going on. You never know. Maybe she wants people to know what hardships she’s going through, so that people will be more understanding. But I doubt it – she’d probably be mortified!

    1. Sara

      If that was the case, then that would be even worse (more so than it already is) of A to be spreading that news around.

      1. Kate

        I have to disagree. If A is overhearing B saying all of this on the phone, she should not be spending so much time on personal calls. My co-worker spends pretty much all day on personal phone calls and I know so much more about her life than I have ever wished to know (as in, I know the last time she and her estranged husband had sex). I do not gossip about it to other co-workers (although I have to admit, I tell everything to my boyfriend), but if B is on the phone all day, A is probably just going crazy listening to the daily drama.

        1. ARS

          I don’t get the feeling this is the case. If it were, the story from the OP would be “Coworker B shares way too much about her personal life to Coworker A. Coworker A is going crazy hearing about it and is turning to me, but I don’t want to know about it either.” The problem here isn’t Coworker B, it’s Coworker A sharing what she’s hearing as gossip.

  3. Anony

    I’ve been in a similar situation with my Boss… I had been to a few poker games with mixed office people, at one there were a couple new people and the Gossiping got real heavy, particularly about my boss messing around with another Manager. This was fueled because they often chatted with each-other, went to lunch, etc.

    I told him that I absolutely don’t care, that I’ve no interest in this gossip and I’m not going to that poker party anymore, but FYI rumors seem to be flying. He didn’t seem surprised and seemed to appreciate the feedback. Years later he’s moved on, I have his job, we’re still social, and ironically I walk for a breakfast bagel with that other Manager almost every morning and wonder if there are rumors about me now…

  4. A Bug!

    “I don’t think that’s any of my business; if Coworker B wants me to know I’m sure she’d tell me herself.”

    I’ve known people that could be Coworker A. AAM’s advice is spot-on: the most effective way to deal is shut them down at both ends. The source stops sharing, the audience stops listening.

    Of course, it’s always a good idea to be choosy about what you share about yourself at work, but your coworkers shouldn’t be trying to gain your confidence in order to farm juicy information.

  5. KarenT

    Whatever you decide to do, tread carefully. The last thing you want to do is put yourself in the middle of a fight (or gossip war) between the two of them. I agree with AAM, and at mininum when Co-worker A starts gossiping tell her you are not interested in hearing it.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Good point to mention, Karen T. These things usually land on the A and B being best buds and OP will be odd man out.
      OP, you don’t know if B wants advocacy. So don’t go too far out on a limb for B.

      1. Amouse

        Yes! Seconded. There are so many unknowns. If B is actually OK with people knowing and isn’t a really private person, you could potentially make them both upset at you for getting involved.

  6. RWPoorman

    Office gossip, one of the two things in the workplace that I detest most. The other being office politics.

    One of the quickest ways for me to lose respect for a co-worker is when they start gossiping about fellow workers. And of course it alerts me to the fact that they are totally untrustworthy.

  7. Not So NewReader

    The way people talk about others to you- is how they talk about you to others. That is the rule of thumb at any rate.

    I think we all gossip once in a while- so we just over look small amounts. But large amounts of gossip gets very tiring.

  8. Amouse

    Based on my experience with office gossip, I see this as a potentially very implosive situation. I’d almost sooner recommend saying to the gossiper next time that you aren’t comfortable hearing these details than going to the gossipee. I understand Alison’s point about you doing a great service to the person being gossiped about by “stating the facts” of what’s going on but I don’t see it having anything but an annoying ending where you’re plunked squarely in the middle. Gossip has this weird ability to turn people back into school children. If you’re Ok with the potential consequences to you then I do agree it would be a service to let the gossippee know as Alison recommended. Just be prepared for the potential consequences.

    Either way, I’d still say to the person gossiping that you really aren’t comfortable hearing about people’s personal lives at work secondhand. I’d love an update on this situation. See what gossip does?

  9. Elizabeth West

    I would say something to B, but like “I’ve been hearing some things that seem mighty personal, and I’m not sure you meant that to happen. I thought you might want to know.” I’m willing to bet B will figure out that A is the source, especially if it came from a phone call where A was the only other person in the office. But that way OP won’t have to say flat out that she heard it from A.

    And the next time A comes up with some gossip, say “I’m not interested, thanks. I have work to do.” If she won’t shut up stick your fingers in your ears and go “La la la la la!” (Ha ha, just kidding, but if it works…)

    1. Nichole

      I like this approach. It’s not foolproof, you could still end up on the spot (“What did you hear?…Who told you that?!?”), but it gives B a heads up without pointing fingers. As someone else mentioned, something like a miscarriage is highly personal, so unless B is an “open book” type (and gossip probably wouldn’t be necessary if she was), she deserves to know that her confidences have been misplaced.

  10. PuppyKat

    Sorry, this is off-topic, and may have already been posted somewhere else in the comment sections of the other Q&As the last couple days. But I just wanted to say: Thank you, Alison, for working over the Thanksgiving holiday so that all of us could get our daily AAM fix!

  11. jesicka309

    The worst part for coworker B is that it sounds like these are true confidences. A miscarriage is heartbreaking! Coworker B might have told coworker A in full confidence (I’m going to be out tomorrow, don’t mind me if I’m a bit weepy and miserable today etc.) and that’s getting shared around! That’s horrible.
    On the flip side, you could definitely go to HR about the gossip about interviews internally. I recently went for an interview internally, and the news got gossiped about. When HR found out they were Not Pleased, as it completely undermined the confidentiality of the interviews. So if you feel like the gossip is something that’s affecting coworker B’s status within the office/her chances of getting a transfer, please speak up.

  12. Anonymous

    We have a gossip free policy at work that is actually written in thee employee code of conduct policy. In plain english, it defines gossip and consequences if you break the rule. (ie termination) Gossip is toxic , unprofessional and distracts from the work you’re trying to get done, I know it stills goes on at some level, but it is no where near what the OP is describing. Perhaps this can be suggested to HR. In the meantime, the person who is the subject of the gossip needs to know these details are being shared. It would then be up to her to decide what she wants to do about it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm. I’d be interested to hear other opinions on this, but that sorts of policy strikes me as overreaching when you’re dealing with adults, who shouldn’t need their non-work-related conversations policed or codified. If something causes a problem that’s interfering with work, that person’s manager should address it, but I’d feel kind of infantilized if my company felt the need to codify this in policy.

      1. Amouse

        yeah I also feel it would be near impossible to inforce and that people who want to gossip would just find more covert ways to do it.

      2. Sara

        Do you think this workplace has had a history of problems that were related to gossiping and HR felt that implementing it would be the last resort? I imagine that there are the set policies/codes that is set by HR and then there are new policies drafted once they realize there is a need for it?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If so, that’s just poor management. When there’s a problem like that, you address it via your managers; you don’t need to create a policy for something like that.

    2. Not So NewReader

      I’d be interested in seeing that definition of what gossip is. I have seen gossip addressed as a component of work place bullying. In other words, this would be to address an employee who had several habits under the umbrella of bullying, possibly malicious gossip could be one of those habits.

      I that that people’s idea of what gossiping is varies.

      1. Jamie

        This was my question – how do you define it?

        “Did you notice, Jamie got a new car? I wonder how they can afford that?”

        “Did you hear Jamie’s cat won first place in a pageant? She’ll be on the cover of Cat Fancy soon!”

        “Jamie’s husband sent her flowers they were just delivered – he’s so sweet.”

        “I think Jamie is having an affair with the Mayor of Newfoundland. She’s using her feminine wiles to try to get him to make the unofficial flag the official flag…because she’s on a mission to see more pink in international flags. They meet every day at the Burger King down the street. Definitely up to something.”

        “Jamie is dressed up today – she’s wearing grown up shoes. I wonder if she’s got an interview.”

        “Jamie’s been really quiet lately and using a lot of vacation time. I wonder if everything is okay.”

        All gossip – most harmless…some could be uttered out of genuine concern. I really am curious as to how they are defining it.

        1. Sasha

          Grown up shoes. LOL. If I could wear my Chucks all day every day, I would. Damn the days I have to look professional.

          1. Jamie

            I vacillate between my pink Chucks and Hello Kitty Vans.

            IT has a lot of leeway and I take advantage of all of it below the ankle.

  13. Lisa

    You know what? You shouldn’t say anything to the person being gossiped about. I did and it screwed me over big time at work. It’s not worth it, and when I think about it now, it seems like it’s just more gossip. Bad move on my part. Bad, bad move.

  14. Michele

    I would say to Coworker A that you’re not comfortable with hearing Coworker B’s issues from her because you feel it’s a private matter. And even ask Coworker A how she would feel if the roles are reversed.

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