how to shut down gossip at work

A reader writes:

My workplace is a generally nice place, but there is a lot of gossiping and complaining. Voices carry and we have a lot of people coming through, so there’s a risk that if people are gossiping, other people could end up overhearing colleagues talking about them or someone they know. It doesn’t help that some of our employees work all of their time in the office (including me) and the others come and go, which I think creates an in-group and an out-group. When gossip comes up, or the urge to gossip, it’s tough to be as empathetic if you don’t have a real in-person relationship and primarily interact with someone over email.

I am a good listener and generally want to hear people out, but there is so much potential for problems when people are talking harshly about others. Could you give me some advice about how to politely shut it down when people are gossiping to me?

In particular, I’m interested in knowing how to shut it down if the gossiper is senior to me, versus a peer, or versus junior to me. Also, should I handle it any differently if I agree with the comments being made or if I don’t? What if the person is sharing something confidential that I know they shouldn’t be talking about? And does it make any difference if the information is work-related or not?

Gossiping at work is one of those things that can give you a thrill in the moment. The pleasure of knowing something that isn’t public! The lure of unflattering information! But there can be a hangover afterward, when you feel guilty and have to wonder if whoever gossiped to you might also be gossiping about you.

More broadly, a gossip-heavy work culture can also be pretty toxic. It can create an us vs. them dynamic or one where rumors carry more weight than public announcements, and it can spread a generalized negativity that lowers people’s quality of life and is unkind and disrespectful to the people being gossiped about. So you’re right to want to shut it down.

That said, it’s useful to distinguish between times when gossip is harmful and times when it’s not (and when it might even be helpful). The former is probably pretty clear — if something seems mean-spirited or is clearly none of your business, like information about a colleague’s marriage, go ahead and shut that down. The same goes for gossip that’s just idle speculation, like “Bob has been out a lot lately; I wonder if he’s looking for another job.” But other times the information might be genuinely helpful for you to know — for example, that a senior colleague has a track record of creeping on women or that the company is considering eliminating a project you spend most of your time on. If the info falls more in the “this isn’t public but might assist you professionally” category, I’d make an exception for that. A lot of really useful information gets shared informally in that way.

But as for harmful gossip, how to shut it down depends on the details. So let’s tackle each of the scenarios you listed.

Possibly the hardest scenario to navigate is when the gossiper is senior to you. There’s a higher bar for politeness there, but you can still convey that you’re not up for talking about Kate’s financial trouble or Luther’s divorce proceedings. The easiest way to do it is with one short, neutral acknowledgement and then a quick subject change. For example: “Hmmm, that sounds tough. Hey, while I have you here, can I ask you about these revenue reports?” (Other neutral transitions: “That’s too bad.” “Oh, I hope she’s doing okay.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Oh, I hadn’t heard that.”) If the quick subject change doesn’t work and the person tries to steer the conversation back to the gossip, you can say more directly, “I feel odd talking about it behind her back,” or “That sounds like something I’m probably not supposed to know,” or even “I think I should pretend not to know that.”

With peers or people junior to you, you can use this same approach. But there’s more room for also saying something like, “You know, I feel unkind talking about this. We should probably give her privacy on this.” And if you want to address it more broadly: “I’m trying to be better about not gossiping! I’ve realized how harmful it can be, and I know I don’t want people gossiping about me, so I’m trying to be more disciplined about it.” If it’s someone you’re pretty close with, you could even ask if they want to join you in doing that; sometimes it’s easier to stop gossiping when you can reinforce each other’s resolve.

If you know the information someone is sharing is supposed to be confidential, you can say that too. For example: “Oooh, I think Jane actually intends for that to be kept confidential, so I don’t think we should be talking about it.” That’s useful whether it’s work-related or not; if you know that someone doesn’t want something shared, it’s a kindness to all involved to make sure that’s clear. One exception to this: If it’s work-related and you believe the confidentiality is against your co-workers’ interests (like if the company is doing something illegal or unsafe), you’d have different ethical obligations here.

You asked if you should handle it differently if you agree with the comments or if you don’t. If someone is badmouthing a colleague and you disagree with their assessment, it’s a good move to push back with something positive (just as you’d probably want someone to do if you were the one being talked about). For example: “Huh, really? I’ve always found Jane to be really easy to work with” (or smart, or great at her job, or whatever your experience has been).

In fact, you might think about counteracting your office’s gossip culture with “good gossip” — positive comments that you wouldn’t mind getting back to the person you’re talking about, like how much you like working with them or how much a client raved about a project they did. Over time, making a point of sharing sincere, positive comments can have a real impact on the culture in your office, or at least on the culture in your immediate vicinity.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

    1. Sally Forth*

      I was in a small cafe near the large public library where I worked. Two people near me were talking about a senior manager, a young woman who had had a huge promotion. The manager had the office across from mine. The people eating were evidently from branch libraries. One said, “I wish I’d had a manager like her 30 years ago. She has totally reframed how I look at my job.” The other said, “Me, too! She always acts so professional & I wasn’t expecting her to be so kind. There is a difference between nice and kind.” When I went back to the office I told the manager that I had just heard some gossip and told her. Good gossip!

      1. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

        This is a great story! I am happy to report I too get to pass on positive gossip like this.

        My boss started after I did. Since then, I thoroughly enjoy having so many people tell me how great she is to talk to/work under. Some who work with her directly, others who have met her more casually; all have great things to say.

        It’s nice to pass along these comments, especially since roles like hers have a lot of responsibilities and therefore come with stresses.

      2. K. Harrison*

        That’s so wonderful you told her! As a young senior manager, knowing that’s the impact I’ve had would make my month!

    2. Lily in NYC*

      Oh, wow, I am the one who wrote in to Alison about practicing “good gossip” and it got a lot of attention (it was a few years ago)! I remember being thrilled at the time.
      Anyway, I’d love to find out if people consider something like this gossip: Just today, I told a funny story about something that happened here about 6 years ago. The people involved are no longer here and I didn’t name names. I just told a funny story about something they did (it wasn’t malicious at all). Is that gossip? I never speak about current coworkers but I do sometimes tell stories about things from “back in the day”.

      1. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

        Hi Lily in NYC, that’s cool that you talked about good gossip here before. Could you provide a link to that post?

        I don’t think what you’re describing is a bad form of gossip. When I wrote in this letter, I was thinking mostly of people who are complaining about others. In some cases, when they are assuming bad intentions and haven’t approached the people they are talking about to discuss it directly.

        Your story sounds to me like something where if the people in the story were there, they would laugh too. That makes it different.

  1. Judgment day*

    The “positive gossip” approach is actually my first line of defense. It can actively shut down negative gossip in the moment. “Oh, Mary? She’s great over email.” Many people will reign in their negativity when they hear even one positive comment about someone.

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Yes. Plus if they know you won’t engage in continuing the gossip they’ll usually stop, and will learn that you’re not the one to come to with it in the future. If the whole office is doing it, one person probably won’t stop it. But at least they’ll stop coming to OP with it.

      1. Judgment day*

        I’ve actually found that a positive comment can shut down a whole group gossip session–not all gossip, but gossip about the person being complimented. But it depends on the people involved and how attuned they are to subtle social cues.

      2. SheLooksFamiliar*

        I use the ‘positive gossip’ tactic, too, but sometimes people are unfazed. If the negative comments continue, I say something like, ‘I’m really surprised to hear you say such things. It so unlike the nice things (subject of gossip) says about you.’ That usually fazes ’em.

    2. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

      That’s an interesting observation!

      People often think of others very unilaterally (probably related to the actor-observer bias/fundamental attribution theory), and it’s easy to fixate on the negative. If you challenge the mental notion that Mary = 100% the person who annoyed them for something & nothing else, they can let in multiple ways of thinking about her/them.

  2. Lilith*

    My line was a variation of “oh I feel a bit queasy (or whatever word you want) talking about Fiona when she’s not here to explain/defend herself.”

    1. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

      I like this! So often there are explanations for bad behavior or the person assumed to be at fault isn’t the one with control.

      How has it gone when you’ve said this?

    2. Gumby*

      I have said, to a friend rather than a coworker, something like “you really need to talk to Fergus directly about this” (said friend was complaining about how Fergus did this that and the other thing that annoyed her).

  3. Sloan Kittering*

    Ugh, I need to implement some of these same strategies about my office’s favorite past time, complaining about policies and leadership decisions. While I agree that some of these are stupid, and it does feel *extremely good* to vent something you’ve been holding back, and learn that other people actually agree with you … ultimately it’s created quite a negative, complain-y tone in our office that isn’t helping morale.

    1. Boop*

      There’s a fine line between venting and pointless complaining, sounds like your office may have crossed it. I think you have to know when to get over it – yeah, that policy is stupid and here’s why I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s the policy now so we’re going to have to make it work. Venting to coworkers and feeling validated that people agree with you can feel good, but then you have to shrug at the idiocy of management and get back to work. When you start repeating yourself and/or making snide comments about people it’s gone to far.

      My office has some serious complainers – stuff that happened 15+ years ago still bothers some coworkers. It’s much better for my mental health and job satisfaction to avoid those individuals as much as possible.

  4. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s SuperAnon*

    So timely! My cube mate apparently left the company last week but between her being new to our group and our direct manager being out on travel, we had no idea where she went. She just stopped showing up, but we figured she was on vacation! As soon as we started wondering why she left so suddenly, I said “I’m getting speculative, I need to reign it back in.”

    1. SezU*

      My closest friend (and me too sometimes) has a tendency to speculate. When the other says “Maybe she…” or “I think…”, we have gotten into the habit of saying, “Oh, just making it up again!” And then laughing because we do mean it nicely, but we have to help each other shut it down.

      1. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

        This sounds great! It’s great that you have a buddy in keeping accountable to noticing that. And sometimes it’s ok to speculate, especially if you’re super clear that’s what you’re doing.

        It’s writing life fan fiction for part of the story you’ve not heard yet, but in this case, the characters are real and spreading the fiction can affect their reality.

  5. Old fat lady*

    She is right about too much gossip creating a toxic work environment .

    I had a temp job where my manager would bad mouth everyone behind their back and this was in the open office.
    After awhile, it actually started to make me physically sick.

    She interviewed about 20 people and each time she would trash them to their recruiter. It was always the same comments but each recruiter didn’t know she always says the same for each person so they probably thought the person was horrific.

    I never participated in her bashing but I always wanted to speak to her directly about her negative comments. I never did because I assumed a temp couldn’t really counsel a manager. But when I left I should have said something even if it was for my own sense of ethics.

    1. Moray*

      New at my job: a team member and I were talking to someone from another department.

      When she left, my coworker turned to me and said “be really careful about what you tell her, she’s the worst backstabbing gossip.” Team member then proceeded to grace me with a flood of unflattering details about this woman’s personal and professional life.

      I really wanted to point out the irony, and tell her “you’re warning me about yourself way more than you’re warning me about her.”

      1. Former Employee*

        How would you feel if the team member didn’t warn you and you ended up being friendly with person from other dept and then you discovered that your personal business was all over the office and/or some vulnerability you had shared with them was being used against you?

  6. Princess prissypants*

    Oh, I recently worked with a SUPER gossipy receptionist! She was always up in everyone’s business, quick to share what she thought she knew, frequently got everything twisted, often would spin someone’s story even to their face (when she heard I was leaving she said to me, “I knew you were unhappy here!” when I never said such a thing to her or anyone else), etc. And of course, she was also one of those annoying office-food-spies, always commenting on who’s eating what, someone’s new diet plan, or whatever. After the first few times of me gently disengaging, I straight up said to her, “I just like to mind my own business.” I had to repeat it a few times, but she eventually gave up talking to me about it. Deploy with frequency.

    1. WorkIsADarkComedy*

      “I just like to mind my own business.”

      I like that response very much. It doesn’t just communicate that you don’t want to be gossiping, it also says very clearly that the gossiper is a glasbowl.

      1. Marthooh*

        Now, what I like the Princess’s response is that it doesn’t say anything at all about the gossiper, it just expresses lack of interest.

        Of course, if you use the right tone of voice, you can pronounce anything as “glassbowl” ;)

    2. A Nonny Nonny*

      Are you my former coworker? Because that sounds very similar to the receptionist at my office and a colleague who recently left.

        1. Letter Writer (LW/OP) - Thanks for answering my question!*

          Thank you for sharing your story! That sounds like a great response. The description of this gossiper was already frustrating, but add to that the food policing and it’s a micronightmare.

  7. Bridget*

    Something I’ve said before in the face of mean gossip/venting about other coworkers is a cheerful(ish) “wow, I hate to think what you guys say about ME when I’m not around!” Said in a joking way it’s not directly calling them out, but can call attention to what they’re doing and that I don’t want to be part of it.

    1. Auntie Social*

      We did that when we were cleaning out my mom’s house. Neighbors would come over with gossip (which might have mattered to Mom but we didn’t know who these people were) and I finally said “You talk this way about your neighbors?” and looked horrified. It pretty much shut it down.

  8. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    I’m glad that Alison indicates that “this isn’t public but might assist you professionally” category of gossip is an exception because without that kind of gossip, I’d never know ANYTHING around my organization. Just yesterday I was discussing wrapping up some projects with a coworker and found, through a bit of idle chit-chat, that our department is absorbing 4-5 people from another department effective July 1. WHAT? Apparently this has been in the works for a year and there has been no department or general announcement. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if those people had no idea they are about to be reorg-ed to my department in 2 weeks.

    1. Kimmybear*

      Way back when, I used to accompany my boss out for a smoke after team meetings. Then non-smokers started joining us because they realized that’s where the real information was shared, not just the bullet-point version.

      1. Lady Blerd*

        Same in my office but less and less of the higher ups smoke so the gossip quality isn’t what it used to be.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Yup…I’ve done that too, in my case to get training, because I didn’t think “on the job” should mean “throw her to the wolves and see if she can do it.”
        At least that place had good air flow so I didn’t have to breathe migraine-inducing levels of Marlboros.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Same. The team I was previously gunning for was moved to sit near me, and from that I heard that they were going to be moved to another segment and have half their functions (the ones I’m most interested in) pulled away and placed elsewhere, well before it was publicly announced. Definitely made me make some different decisions!

    3. Brownie*

      Yup. I’ve found out about so many things that directly impact my job through gossip/chit-chat only. Sadly, that’s usually because management forgot to inform us, which then sparks a lot of negative complaining and griping about the lack of communication and contributes to the growing split between management and lower level staff. And the gossip circle grows as now folks think that the only way to get accurate information about what’s going on is through gossip.

  9. Anonymous Librarian*

    Thanks for mentioning good gossip at the end! I love telling others nice things about my co-workers or bosses. Sometimes people take their “no gossip” beliefs to the extreme. I had a colleague who would shut down gossip of any kind. She felt it was impolite to talk about any person who wasn’t present…even if you were saying good things about them. It was bizarre.

    1. The Rat-Catcher*

      I love this concept! I’m in a role where I overhear lots of scuttlebutt, and I love getting to spread the positive things (when I know the speaker wouldn’t mind).

  10. Fortitude Jones*

    I’m so glad I work from home full time now so I don’t have to deal with this nonsense anymore, lol. People are exhausting.

  11. Duchess Honeybadger*

    Gossip in the office is in the category of what I call “eating the whole pizza.” Eating the whole thing feels realllllly good in the moment, but a half hour later you’re filled with heartburn, gas, and regret. It’s a visual that helps me stick to the high road, for my own good.

    1. Staples on Speedial*

      I love this metaphor! One that I use often is eyebrows. When you get invested in a project and you are improving (and probably changing) one element it leads you to change another and another… you have to pause, pull back, and look at the bigger picture/project. Otherwise you might over-tweeze the eyebrow!

      1. Anoncorporate*

        It’s really funny you use this metaphor because yesterday I was craving pizza, but decided against ordering one because I didn’t want the overly-stuffed-almost-sick feeling I get after eating pizza by myself.

  12. Anoncorporate*

    I’m all for gossip as long as it’s about sharing useful information (including knowing that a problem you’re having is a shared experience), but not for just bitter or mean-spirited griping.

  13. Magda*

    I like the “good gossip” idea in general. But I know people in my workplace who get really hostile when I respond to their criticism of a coworker with a positive remark. There is venting, and there’s being a bully, and being diplomatic only makes them angry. Sigh.

  14. GreenDoor*

    One thing under the gossip umbrella is the gossips to like to fish for information. In my role I become privvy to a lot of information that is highly confidential. People also mistake my friendliness as willingness to gossip so I do get people trying fish for the details. Stuff like “So is it true that so and so did X” or “Did so and so really get fired for Y?” My standard answer is a raised eyebrow and a friendly-toned, “How would knowing the answer to that question help you do your job here better.” No one ever has a good answer.

    Of course, I do get the expert-level gossips that try to press me or guilt me into answering so they get a terse, “If you are someone that should have that information, you’d already know the answer to your question.”

  15. What the What*

    Gossip is just icky. I’ve had a suspicion that a “friend” badmouths me and gossips about me. My gut feeling was confirmed when she sent a gossipy text to her sister about me…..aaaaand she sent it to me instead. It felt like she was licking her chops at what she hoped was salacious and juicy. She had seen me in a moment of obvious haste and “distress”and couldn’t wait to dish to her sister. Little did she know that “distress” was coffee and water overload and being in very dire need of a bathroom or a diaper RIGHT NOW haha. Her text hurt my feelings a little but mostly validated what I had suspected. I’m glad I went with my gut and had already started to pull away from the “friendship.”

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      How did you respond? I’ve gotten enough misdirected emails in the past that this feels worrying.

  16. Cloudy with sunny breaks*

    My friend and I once got into a negative feedback cycle when venting/complaining about a fellow coworker. The complaint was legitimate but we were creating our own little toxic environment and I had to just stop talking about it. My favourite way to shut down gossip is to actually ask the person involved, as long as it can be done in a nice way. It’s amazing how fast gossip stops when you can provide accurate info. It also lets the subject of the gossip know rumours are flying and gives them an opportunity to shut it down. Finally, I also like to redirect with a positive. So for example if someone is complaining about Jane’s bitchy emails, I would ask if the emails were bitchy or direct. I try to assume positive intent. Well, most days anyway!

  17. Isobel171*

    I used to work in a branch of a financial services provider, and one of the other local branches had a young woman manager who made a point of shutting it down any time people started talking about someone who wasn’t present. She deliberately implemented a no-gossip culture and that branch famously had the happiest team and the best atmosphere. I really admired that manager.

  18. Media Monkey*

    i have worked in a couple of jobs that were very gossipy. at one point we had a massively toxic co-worker. i mean she was awful – a slacker, a liar, a bully who made people below her cry. and to make matters worse, she thought she was too good for the job! we all hated her and used to talk about her a lot behind her back (she gave us a lot to say!). but i reaslly found it fuelled the fire and made her way more difficult to bear. although i wouldn’t have had positive gossip to say, i wish i had shut down the negativity about her sooner (before my boss hired a recruiter to find her another job on the QT – and yes, that really happened!)

  19. Peeptoe*

    Ohhh, I’m so glad this topic came up, because I’d love to crowdsource some opinions on an issue related to this. (Also I hope I’m allowed to post this here in the comments; does this count as derailing the original post?)

    I have a coworker who engages in gossip of the negative variety. But she’s very social and chatty and this also means she somehow gets the scoop on professional news way before everyone else. For example, she had news about someone’s mysterious termination,she knew who our new manager would be way ahead of everyone else, and just all around she hears a lot about the personal details of our peers and superiors that aren’t necessarily common knowledge. Whether she’s getting this professional information from the higher-ups or just through the grapevine, gossiping and being privy to gossip seems to have benefited her work in subtle ways (which really grinds my gears because a small petty part of me is waiting for the karma to kick in).

    I’ve already mentioned to this coworker that I’m not interested in the meanspirited gossip, but this has also meant that I’ve been locked out from hearing the actual useful information from her too. Now I’m just wondering if this is one of those things where I have to just deal with the fact that not engaging with her negative side means I won’t also get the perks of her gossip?

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