Rumors and Bad Vibes: The Problem with Office Gossip

Two Office Workers Gossiping About ColleagueJuicy tidbits about who is in bed with who are hard to resist, and sometimes people just tell you things that are really hard to keep to yourself. Everyone loves a good story, but when the stars in the story are your coworkers (or your boss!), it’s important to keep what you hear to yourself.

Here’s why:

  • Is it even true? There may be some truth to the rumors flying around, but you often find that there’s a lot of embellishment, too. Also, if the gossip happens to be negative and about someone you’re already annoyed with, you could be prone to confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret information and evidence in such a way that it comfirms your preconceived beliefs. You might think it won’t affect your interactions with that person, but that’s misguided.
  • Harassment isn’t just dirty pictures and jokes. If you are part of spreading rumors about someone that aren’t true and those rumors are defamatory in some way (and they often are), that can be construed as harassment. If things get really ugly, you could get fired, sued, or both.
  • Help create the type of work environment you want. Gossip is not all bad. Some of it can help set expectations and serve as a lesson for the “hidden curriculum” in work and life. It also serves as a reminder that if you slip up, someone will notice. Still, wouldn’t you rather work where you can rely on people coming to you with their issues directly instead of complaining to everyone else first? It’s a safe bet that if you’re in an office with an active rumor mill, it’s only a matter of time before colleagues find something about you that’s worth talking about … and it probably won’t be good.
  • Gossip at its most problematic crosses personal and professional boundaries. Hearing something about your organization from people in the know may aid survival, and sharing that with friends isn’t totally out of line. A healthy organization can stop that kind of gossip simply by keeping everyone informed instead of sharing important information with only “key personnel.” If layoffs are a serious possibility, you have a right to know. When the gossip is about individuals, that’s different. By spreading rumors about someone, especially when those rumors are negative, we treat that person as less than.

The best way to ensure that coworkers and supervisors are comfortable sharing important information with you is to prove that what they tell you stays with you. When you’re in the break room and you hear something juicy, it can be tempting to share, but when it comes to sharing another person’s story, less is usually more.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC, MCC, LPC, Career Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nell

    October 28th, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    It can be so tricky because you want to be in the know and have something to talk with colleagues about but then again you don’t want to cross that line and be the person that no one wants to even talk to because they are afraid you will spread some lie about them. There is a way to be close to people without being snarky to others.

  • ernest H

    October 28th, 2014 at 10:10 AM

    THE biggest problem with gossip is that whether intended or not there will always be someone who gets hurt.

    Do you really want to have to be the one who confesses and says that they are responsible for that hurt?

  • Kristen

    October 28th, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    Surely I will not be the only person on here who will admit freely to gossiping a little bit at work? I mean, this is something that we all do and I don’t think that there is anyone who can honestly deny that they do. Is there any harm in telling little things here and there? If it is not done with any malicious intent then I really don’t understand what harm there is in it.

  • Amy Armstrong

    October 28th, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Kristen, I’m sure everyone does it. I’ll admit that I’ve done it, and even I mentioned in the post that “gossip” is not always a problem. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get information that management isn’t freely sharing with employees. Of course, when it comes to getting caught talking about things like what other people are making even that can get you into trouble. In general, a good guideline for gossip is if it’s something you don’t want the person it’s about to hear, it’s best left unsaid.

  • bailee

    October 29th, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    I have pretty much resigned myself to being the topic of pretty much any office gossip that is out there to listen to.

    I try to tell myself that it must be because my life seems so much more interesting than what they have but I know that the truth is that other people there really don’t like me all that much so they try to say anything that will make me look bad to my boss.

    I am not really sure how I got into this environment where I am the one who is disliked so much but it makes my life pretty uncomfortable at times. And I don’t feel like I can stand up for myself because I am the low man in the office.

  • Deb

    October 29th, 2014 at 3:53 PM

    Bailee , I have been involved with my kids being bullied in school . I couldn’t change the bullies but I could teach me kid how to NOT act like a victim .. Always walk with your head up . Smile confidently . Have good eye contact but not aggressive .Don’t say sorry too often or be overly polite ! I had a girl at work that was targeting me and I finally said I wanted to talk to her in private after work … I told her I wanted her to stop talking about me immediately . No discussing it . I don’t care why u don’t like me ..Stop talking about me . She was so surprised that I stood up for myself that she stopped ! These are things that worked for me .. You must decide how to handle things … Good luck !

  • therapydoc

    October 29th, 2014 at 8:04 AM

    Good points. There’s another, too, which is that spreading negative things about a co-worker is an insidious form of competition on the job, climbing over someone’s shoulders on that ladder. That can get really ugly, very unethical.

  • Kelly

    October 29th, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    It can be all about competition I agree, but what makes this so bad is that when you use gossip as a part of that, that is not playing fair. You are insinuating something about someone that you know will not be beneficial to them in the workplace just to move up a step yourself. This should be about resting on your own laurels and not having to tear someone else down to get there.

  • Nico

    October 29th, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    I don’t mean to be sexist but where I work the women are FAR more guilty of all of this pettiness than the e guys are, it’s a fact that if anything petty is going around I can almost pinpoint who started it. It just seems to be the new way to back stab one another, and quite frankly, it is a bit unflattering. The best thing that any of us can do is to try to ignore it and rise above it.

  • Amy Armstrong

    October 29th, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    This topic seems to be sensitive one for a lot of people. @Nico, I think it takes a different form for men, but they definitely do have ways of keeping people “in their place” and I’m not talking about leadership skills.

    Deb & Bailee, I agree that spreading rumors and gossiping seem to be a method of choice for bullying people now, and email, social media, and camera phones with mms make it easier than ever before to circulate a rumor. It’s a shame that adults in a workplace often have no idea how to behave professionally, and that the onus is usually on the person who is being victimized to behave in a different way when they haven’t done anything wrong. Also, unfortunately, once people get used to you behaving in a passive way at work, they may become resentful if you become more assertive and change up what they are saying to other people (including your boss.) Having been through that myself, I have to say that if you find you have a supervisor who isn’t willing to support you, it’s time to look for another job because that limits your options in terms of standing up to someone who is bothering you.

    I do recommend reading Take the Bully By the Horns by Sam Horn. She has an excerpt from it on her website that you can check out as well.

    Anyway, workplace bullying is a real problem and it’s very hard to get managers to address it in a productive way. Always remember that you deserve respect at work. People don’t have to be best friends or even like each other there, but everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and if someone crosses that line, you are within your rights to call them on it.

  • bailee

    October 30th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    Thanks Deb!
    I needed that encouragement today! :)

  • Lamar

    October 30th, 2014 at 2:07 PM

    From the perspective of management all that I can say is that I really wish that it would stop, no matter who is instigating the talk. It keeps work from being done and it leads to a whole lot of hurt feelings all the way around. I try not to tolerate too much of the idle chatter too much in the office because I know that it slows overall productivity and it leads to low team morale. Any time I hear about anything this unsavory I always try to root out the source and find out if it is true. If not then e all need to move on. If it is then we have to wonder what business it is of ours. If it isn’t, then again, let’s all just move on and keep our private lives separate form the office.

  • ac

    October 31st, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    i once knew a woman who really did get fired from her job because of the malicious and untrue rumors that she would start about other people who worked there
    not really sure what her motive was because she was already pretty far advanced in the company
    but whatever it was it got her fired once upper management learned where it was all coming from

  • ZOE

    November 4th, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    @Lamar When management gets involved at my work it only makes it worse. Because then everyone is scared they will get punished and even MORE rumors circulate. It’s like a witch hunt from the boss and that is the worst ever. Really bad for productivity too to have management hunting people out

  • Amy Armstrong

    November 4th, 2014 at 7:50 PM

    @Zoe, I think Lamar meant that management at his company tries to find out if there is any truth to the rumors not that they fire people for spreading rumors. Regarding @ac’s comment, depending on the rumor, a company may not have much of a choice if they find concrete evidence leading back to the specific source of a rumor. Unfortunately, the nastiest rumors tend to emerge from the most toxic work environments, and this often is spurred by lack of reliable information from upper management. This underscores the need for management to be as transparent as possible with employees, especially when it comes to issues related to job stability. Also, the worst rumors I’ve heard and seen take hold in a workplace were started and perpetuated by managers who also happened to enjoy bullying people. So we had the insidious combination of someone in a position of authority spreading defamatory information (that was often fiction with enough facts thrown in to make it seem convincing), and, this person was convinced she was invincible, and for a while, she was. All I can say is each of us has the opportunity to rise above these situations and encourage others to do the same, if that’s an option.

  • Mike

    November 5th, 2014 at 10:14 AM

    And there is the rub Amy.
    Each of us may not have the opportunity to rise above these situations. the only option we may have is to keep quiet.
    The Problem with Office Gossip is how people choose to react to it. Many years ago I was put in a mid-level position in a place where Office Gossip (personal & Business) ran rampant. The only solution I saw to curtail it was to confront it head on.
    As the new guy, everyone (management & subordinate) were eager to fill me in on everything. No one cared if it were true or not. But I found there was some truth, or some cause for each rumor.
    I listened and for each business related tidbit, I went up the chain with it, declaring that management was responsible to squash these rumors.
    For the personal rumors I went to each subject to tell them what I heard, stating that I did not care if it were true or not, but they best find the reason why people would spread these so-called rumors.
    I am not saying my way is the way to resolve all issues. But in this environment, the rumor mill decreased and production was seen within the first 90 days of confronting everyone.

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