When you spend time with a someone, it’s only human nature to develop a personal opinion about them. And even when you genuinely like the person, it’s totally possible they’ll irritate you at some point. Where this basic reality of the world gets tricky, though, is at the office—a space that’s supposed to be reserved for professional business and actions and attitudes that match.
Alas, workplace gossip almost certainly predates the watercoolers where its fodder is often circulated. It usually starts out innocently enough: One coworker is getting on another coworker’s nerves and, thus laying the groundwork for the makings of a serious venting session with another colleague.
While there’s no question that the off-task chatter can serve as a bit of little bit of entertainment—some research even notes the activity can help people bond—the habit can spill into toxic territory in no time. In addition to the risk of hurting someone’s feelings should the gossip beans ultimately spill, the negativity spiral surely starts to drag down everyone and can create a hostile work environment.
But can airing out your feelings about a coworker to your #workwife ever be useful, or is it just a flat-out bad idea? Here’s what experts have to say.
Real talk: What’s the problem with office gossip?
First things first: Spending 40 hours (or more likely, more) a week with anyone can be rough, so if a coworker is just getting to you, definitely don’t beat yourself up about it. Do, though, try to be mindful about your actions before opening up to another colleague. After all, one seemingly tiny incorrect assumption about your vent-ee can lead to no shortage of office bad blood.
“It can certainly be tempting to want to vent to coworkers about other coworkers; they’re in our immediate orbit, and you probably feel like they may inherently understand the complaint or even feel similarly,” explains psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW. “However, this type of complaining can easily be misconstrued as gossip. It can really rub people the wrong way.”
“It can snowball and lead to a bigger conflict—it could even put your job at risk.” —Danielle Gonzalez, career coach
Plus, after quick check-in with yourself and some deep breaths, you may even realize that cathartic rant really isn’t as necessary as you initially thought. Danielle Gonzalez, a career coach at Ama La Vida Coaching, suggests slowing your roll and processing the specifics of the issue before ever even opening your mouth (or letting your fingers type—gossiping via Slack is a thing too, worker bees). “This allows for a response from a clear mind rather than having a knee-jerk reaction,” she explains.
Furthermore, Stone and Gonzalez agree that the potential consequences of office gossip are really never worth the fleeting relief gained from clearing your mind—even if it’s to your workplace bestie. “It can snowball and lead to a bigger conflict—it could even put your job at risk,” Gonzalez says. “Many places of business have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to workplace gossip. Spreading gossip may get back to HR and could bring negative consequences.”
So, how do you deal with a coworker is on your last nerve?
Okay, sure—the risk is real. But what are you supposed to do about your very real feelings? Surely not internalize ’em until you combust, right? Keep in mind that you know more people than just those with whom you work. To this point, Stone suggests airing your complaints to a neutral third party, like a therapist, friend, or family member.
There’s also always the option to go to your coworker directly. “The quickest way to diffuse conflict is to go to the source and have a calm and rational conversation,” Gonzalez says. “Perhaps they aren’t even aware that they did something to upset you, and a quick conversation can improve the situation and remove the need for further discussion.”
If there’s no real problem to raise beyond a grating habit that triggers you, what can gossiping even accomplish?
If this course of action doesn’t make sense, because, say, there’s no real problem to raise beyond a grating habit that triggers you, take it as a good indication that there’s no solution to to be had either. So what good would gossiping about it do? In this case, practice mindfulness. Acknowledge your feelings and their validity, but also know nothing good will come from sharing in a charged environment like the office when you have nothing nice or productive or constructive to say.
And, of course, if your coworker is doing something you believe to be a breach of workplace conduct, consider talking about it with someone in your HR department.
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