As employees strive to achieve a healthy work-life balance by curtailing bad habits such as junk food, alcohol, or nicotine, one impulse that often falls under the radar, yet can be just as addictive and cancerous, goes unaddressed: gossiping.
“Gossip is truly meant to discourage and condemn another,” says Pat Thomas, executive coach with The McNeill Group and founder of the East Elmhurst, New York-based THOMAS Coaching Co. Inc. who defines workplace gossip as real or fictitious criticism. “And it’s often caused by jealousy and insecurities on the part of the persons initiating it.” According to Thomas, having a reputation as a gossiper can ruin the viability of an employee. “I’ve seen situations where gossiping has damaged the long-term contributions of an individual and overshadowed that person’s appeal as a candidate for future advancement,” she adds.
Avoiding gossip is a good practice, says Doreen Wilburn-Smith, the New York-New Jersey regional director for INROADS, a nonprofit organization that trains talented minority students for professional careers in business and industry. “When we teach our interns about proper workplace etiquette,” continues Wilburn-Smith, “we advise against gossip because, quite simply, it’s career suicide. You never know who is listening.”
Although negative gossiping is easily recognizable, employees may have difficulty identifying the difference between innocent office chat and gossip. Toya Beasley, programming manager and on-air radio personality for WRKS in New York City, says she defines her own boundaries and suggests others do the same. “If you and the person you’re engaged in conversation with are discussing something in which neither one of you is a part of the problem or the solution, then you’re probably engaging in meaningless gossip,” she says.
Of course, participating in gossip can sometimes happen subconsciously, as talking about others is so deeply embedded in office culture. Also, some employees may feel pressured to participate simply because it seems to be the norm among certain workplace groups. “Hardly anyone who is approached with gossip responds with, ‘You’re gossiping and I don’t want to be a part of it,’” says Beasley, who believes that if you stand firmly against negative behaviors, co-workers will appreciate your decision. “Yes, gossip is difficult to avoid, but if you let people know through your behaviors that you don’t welcome it, they will respect you.”
In addition, Thomas suggests that employees focus on engaging in conversations that will help their own professional goals. “Gossiping isn’t the best and highest use of time,” she asserts. “You have an opportunity to excel at work by simply shifting your attention away from others to yourself and focusing solely on advancing your own career.”