If you work in an office, chances are good that you're privy (or party) to daily discussions about your colleagues. That's pretty normal. People want to know who's gotten promoted and who's been disciplined. We like to hear about interpersonal matters, romantic or otherwise, and the strains on them. Tales of tiffs and arguments tend to travel swiftly.
Still, there's a tendency to think of office gossip as a bad thing. Many of the stories we love to repeat indeed have negative elements. Relationships go sour. Colleagues make mistakes and get chewed out or fired. There are also shared fears about impending budget cuts or layoffs. Even if these negative things affect us, there's still often a hint of schadenfreude in talking about others' misfortunes—a hint that others find distasteful and make a point of remaining outside the gossip circle.
But while gossip can lead to real fallout, it's important to recognize that it plays a valuable role in every organization's social structure. Here's how.
Strong, effective organizations function like a neighborhood. Neighbors share a fair amount of social interaction, which builds a level of trust that lets them settle debts over time rather than in the moment.
You can't borrow eggs from the grocery store because the people who work there are strangers and not part of your neighborhood. But you can go to a neighbor’s house and borrow eggs if you are in the middle of a recipe and run out. You just better bring over a slice of cake later.
Gossip helps to solidify these same neighborly relations among coworkers. It generates a set of shared stories that become part of the collective experience base of the people who work for a company—in other words, it's a key ingredient in a healthy work culture.
By gossiping together, people who might otherwise be seen by their colleagues only for their organizational roles ("that's Sarah in accounting"; "there's Jeff in sales") can interact with each other as full-fledged human beings, with the same foibles as everyone else.
Gossip also helps reinforce a sense of shared values within the company. When you tell stories about people who you think have done particularly good or particularly bad things, you're making a statement about what you think is important for a someone in your organization to do or not do. Even if there's no explicit discussion about the company’s values, gossip spreads messages about its heroes and villains.
So even while they're sidestepping its pitfalls, people who refuse to take part in office gossip are missing out on an important opportunity to bond with their coworkers. They'll be left out of a set of stories that solidify the neighborhood. Worse still, opting out of gossip erodes trust between that person and their colleagues—because that individual is making a tacit statement that they disapprove of other people’s social interactions.
That said, it's also important to make sure gossip retains its power to bind people together rather than tear them apart or vilify certain people. Because office gossip carries statements about shared values, that means it's also reasonable for you to point out situations where the conversation moves from sharing the fortunes and misfortunes of others to simply being malicious.
The best rule of thumb to avoid malicious and damaging office gossip is also the simplest: Just remember that even the people you're talking about are still part of your neighborhood. While it may not be exactly laudable, it's probably fine in the grand scheme of things to have a laugh at someone else’s expense every now and then. But be wary of situations that make you start to feel as though it would be hard to welcome someone back into your neighborhood because of the stories being told about them.
If gossip takes a turn in that direction and starts to make you uncomfortable—because people are crossing a line from being curious to being mean—it's important to speak up. It's often difficult to say something publicly in the moment for fear of being seen as a killjoy. So approach your colleagues privately and let them know your concerns about the stories going around.
Gossip may make your neighborhood function and thrive, but expressing your values is an important way to make sure it's thriving for the right reasons—and for the benefit of everyone, not just a few.