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Gossip gone wild: why being a gossip limits your career

original illustration by Billiam James © verbotomy.com

“I made a comment about a coworker that I know I shouldn’t have and now I think it’s going to bite me in the butt. I noticed that one of my coworkers leaves for lunch everyday and then comes back and eats his lunch at his desk… How should I play this?”

Dear Office Politics,
I try to be a nice person at work and to stay out of politics however about a couple weeks ago I made a comment about a coworker that I know I shouldn’t have and now I think it’s going to bite me in the butt. I noticed that one of my coworkers leaves for lunch everyday and then comes back and eats his lunch at his desk. I thought that maybe he does contractual work on the side during his lunch break and was curious about it. While chatting with some coworkers I mentioned it. It wasn’t to a supervisor or anyone of authority, I didn’t want to get him into trouble or anything. I felt bad right after I said it, but I guess I thought it wasn’t going to go past the room, and no harm no foul.
Well, today he loudly announced to my boss and other coworkers that we need to have a meeting about gossip mongering because people are saying nasty things about what he does at lunch. I don’t know what to do as I’m scared to admit that I’m the one that said it. Also this coworker has a bad temper and can be very mean. How should I play this?
In Some Hot Water

Office-Politics Founder Franke James responds

Franke James being interviewed for Electric Payground TV in 2012

Dear Hot Water,

Your last line “How should I play this?” is where I’m going to start. I sense from your question, that you see office politics as a game – and that you’d like to be able to play it to your advantage.

So that’s where I’ll focus my advice. Not surprisingly (given that I’m the creator of the game-book, Dear Office-Politics) I like to view office politics as a game. And just like all games, this one has rules (mostly unwritten), strategies, power plays, opposing teams, a scoreboard, and ultimately winners and losers.

But as in sports, you don’t need to play dirty to win. You can choose to play fairly. I believe that political skills are an essential life skill that can help you influence people, make change happen, sell your good ideas, and move into a position of power so you can do the right thing.

Gossip gone wild

Ok. So what does this have to do with your immediate issue of gossip gone wild? Inadvertently you broke an important rule. You’ll need to change your tactics if you want to play the game well – and by “well,” I mean ethically, and intelligently.

The office politics rule you broke is verbal discipline.

What’s that? Verbal discipline is the savviness to know that some things that pop into your head (like gossip) should never be said. Speculating on what your coworker Bob is doing during his free time is a perfect example. You thought it “wasn’t going to go past the room” but unfortunately it did – it flew right into Bob’s ears, and now you’re suffering the fallout of that verbal gaffe.

Whose fault was it that Bob caught wind of your gossip? Was it the person who heard your gossip and passed it on – or was it yours, for spreading gossip about him?

Verbal discipline is a skill

I’m going to guess that you lacked verbal discipline in this instance because the skill has never been properly explained to you. Perhaps no one has told you how gossip could ruin your career and limit your opportunities for advancement. They’ve just said, “Don’t gossip. It’s not nice.”

Certainly if you put yourself in Bob’s shoes, you would have known that your gossip would be hurtful and damaging. But judging from what you wrote, “this coworker has a bad temper and can be very mean,” you do not have a lot of empathy for Bob.

The Damage to Yourself and Your Career

So, let’s look instead at this gossip issue strictly from your point of view – and your company’s. What’s the damage you’re doing to yourself and your career when you gossip?

You are reducing the players you can work with

Going back to my analogy about the sports team: If you were a team captain, would you want a player on the team who badmouths her fellow players? A player who is so unsportsmanlike that she kneecaps her teammates to prevent them from scoring goals? When you view gossip in that light, it looks really awful.

If I was the team captain (or your boss), I wouldn’t pick you. I need players who can work together and help each other score goals. I don’t need someone purposely whacking their teammate just so they can hog the glory of the goal for themselves.

Is Bob your competition?

Your gossip planted a seed of doubt about Bob’s character and motives in your coworkers’ minds. It chipped away at his reputation, with the consequence of reducing his status in the office (and thus hampering his ability to score goals and move up). You were exercising a form of power to influence what your coworkers think about Bob.

But is Bob really your competition? Or is your competition the business on the other side of the country that’s producing the same widget as yours?

To be successful in business you need to turn your thinking around. Your coworkers are your teammates not your competition. Even if you don’t like them, you need to respect them and play fair. Otherwise you’ll be seen as divisive. And won’t get picked for the important playoff games.

You are limiting your future opportunities

Ask yourself this: When your boss catches wind of your gossip (and what you really think about Bob) is she likely to suggest that you two should be on a work project together?

Nope. But let’s say, that the boss hasn’t heard anything. She goes to your coworkers (the ones you like) and asks whether you’re a good fit to work alongside Bob on an exciting new project. A pained look may cross their faces as they remember all the awful things you’ve said about him. They probably won’t reveal to the boss what you’ve said, but chances are your coworkers will express doubts about you working with Bob – because they know how you really feel about him.

So you haven’t just damaged Bob’s reputation. You’ve damaged your own. And cut off a career path that you might have enjoyed and profited from.

Being honest about your feelings

Does this mean you have to hide your true feelings about people? That you can’t express opinions honestly about your coworkers?

Nope. You can express opinions – but don’t do it secretly behind someone’s back. Show that person respect and tell them to their face what your issue is. Funny thing is – you may find that those “strong opinions” you shared so easily when they were gossip, are not things you want to say to someone’s face.

Loose talk puts you in a box

The other reason for practicing verbal discipline is that loose talk puts you in a box. Gossip makes it very difficult for you to change your opinion down the road. As you get to know Bob better, you may actually get to like him. But if you’ve told everyone how much you dislike him, you’ve effectively made him into an enemy, and we all know it’s an uphill battle to make friends out of enemies.

If everyone knows that you don’t like or respect Bob, they may go to great lengths to reduce friction. They won’t want you two on the same work projects, or on business trips or at office parties or conventions. Before you know it – there’s a hard line drawn around you. You may as well be wearing a big neon sign that says, “Warning! I’m not a team player. I carve up my teammates and cut them down to size.”

Gossip doesn’t just put the other person in a bad light. It puts you in a bad light.

I know when I hear someone speak badly of someone, three red flags pop into my mind:

1. Why is she telling me this?
2. What’s her motive in damaging the other person’s reputation?
3. Would she speak about me this way, behind my back?

My conclusion? You owe Bob an apology. He may not accept it. But if you practice verbal discipline, and start thinking of your coworkers as teammates (and helping them score goals), you may just bring him around.

And next time you feel like sharing your “opinion” of a coworker — take a step back and ask yourself:

1. Would I say this to their face?
2. Will this exclude me from certain team projects?
3. Do I really want to make an enemy of them?
4. If he/ she spoke about me this way, behind my back, would I be upset?
5. What will their retaliation be? (e.g. Bob accusing you of gossip mongering.)

Those five questions may just help you to exercise a little more verbal discipline — and play the office politics game with integrity.

Good luck! I hope my reply helps you repair the damage, and move on to being an ethical and smart office politics player. Please send me an update on your progress! This could be a transformative moment in your career. If you work at it.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, Dear Office-Politics, the game everyone plays

Dear Office-Politics, the game everyone playsFranke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of the award-winning game book, Dear Office-Politics: the game everyone plays. It’s the dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It won an AXIOM Business Book Award for HR and Training.

Foreword Magazine reviewed Dear Office-Politics, “The dilemmas vary in seriousness, but all involve power plays as the universal theme… James’s splashy sense of humor and style catapults this book from the field of humdrum human resources exercises to an entertaining discussion of the pantheon of office types. And the game is attractively illustrated with zany color photographs and illustrations on every page of these office types. The “office crab” that is the grimacing head of a woman on the body of a crab; the luridly colored photo of a woman with a chef’s knife behind her that is emblazoned, “I have had firsthand experience with a backstabber”; and the cover of a suited woman in a shark tank are bound to attract the attention of congenial co-workers looking for an icebreaker. Winner of the Axiom Business Book Award for 2010, Dear Office-Politics is recommended for team-building meetings, as well as for pleasure reading.”

  1. 7 Answers to “Gossip gone wild: why being a gossip limits your career”

  2. If there’s anything worth adding to this, now is the time to do it before the office parties start up. “Hot Water” needs to remember what my mom always said: “You never know who you’re talking to unless you know who you’re talking to.” At parties, especially if families are invited, anybody you talk to might be a friend or relative of somebody you work with, and anything you say about your teammate can and will get back around.

    Also what you say at any time can get back to somebody you would rather not have hear it. More specifically, when you sound off on your hobbyhorses, you can almost count on one of your listeners knowing when you are talking through your hat, or knowing an expert in the field. Either the listener or expert might be somebody who can influence your future. When we are enthusiastic about a subject, we sometimes don’t fact-check other people who are enthusiasts, and they sometimes give us bad info. My experiences include a dental hygienist who talked about soil depletion (that doesn’t exist) making grocery store vegetables non-nuritious; a guy who mows my lawn and tried to give me advice on gardening without knowing half the plants that I have; and a nutrition claim based on a non-existent Johns Hopkins cancer study.

    Speech is silver and silence is golden.

    By Granny on Oct 12, 2012

  3. This is exactly why I don’t work in corporate places, having to play “games” with people and their personalities and we have to suck up to these damn people who get pissed off so easily and have to whine to a supervisor like a kid whining to their mom.

    By Chris on Oct 12, 2012

  4. Amen Chris

    By Katalina on Jan 4, 2013

  5. What I want to know is, what do you care if he eats at his desk rather than while he’s at lunch? Is he committing any crime? Maybe he’s taking care of his sick mother for that hour a day. Just because it’s different why do you assume it’s suspect or weird? Are you so conformist that something so innocuous would bother you? This is the kind of narrow minded bs over things that don’t matter which is currently driving me crazy at my current job. Instead if sticking your nose in what other people do, maybe you should become more preoccupied with self improvement.

    By Eve on Apr 4, 2013

  6. One of the worst things anyone can do is to indulge in office politics – and that frame of reference includes gossip. No matter what your assessments are about a fellow employee (or a manager or the owner), the moment you stop to listen to gossip, the moment you nod your head in agreement and indulge in any of it, you lose your self-respect and the respect of your peers. Moreover, you run the risk of someone repeating what you have said.

    I spent over thirty years in the corporate world, most of them as a controller. I worked hard not to become embroiled in that sort of thing but even I made the mistake of doing it when certain people made life incredibly hard for staff and management alike. I faced them, made them accountable, and if they wouldn’t be, I went to the owner and challenged him to do so for the sake of the company’s unity and mutual cooperation. That always hits home when you put things on a personal level. But unless you have a solid leadership position, I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Keep your opinions to yourself. Keep your own counsel. If someone presses you, simply say “I have no opinion on that” to anything that sounds like gossip or worse from a bad apple. Let them laugh – the last laugh will be on them. Meantime, you will continue to benefit from a positive and professional behavior and move up the ladder to a better position.

    Invest yourselves in doing the right thing and the best job you can. That’s what professional people do.

    By Tom Lowery on May 15, 2013

  7. This sounds so theoretical! Integrity, Honesty etc etc when it comes to office politics

    By Faraz on Sep 23, 2014

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