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The Office Gossip? Seriously!

A helpful take on how to deal with ruthless office gossip
The Office Gossip? Seriously!
Published on February 17, 2011

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The Scenario

Tiffany and Brittany do their usual huddle, complaining about anyone who walks by them. Today, they have targeted one of the office’s most efficient and effective customer service representatives. They announce to anyone within earshot that Julia “stinks.” They even spray perfume at her as she walks by—a cruel gesture to cover up the supposed odor. Just last week, this same duo mocked someone who had spilled coffee on herself, pointing out what a klutz she was to anyone who would listen. 

Meanwhile, you are the harried office manager who is ready to retire 20 years before your allowable retirement date because you “babysit daily” and are unable to focus on getting customers served. You are at your wit’s end.

This problem isn’t limited to small offices—it exists in midsize to large companies, too. Confronting childish behavior is on a leader’s least favorite list of the glory of leadingThen again, childish behavior ignored does come at a price.

The Employee Response

Every office has the Negative Nellies and Neds because negativity knows no gender bias. They find gloom and doom in everything unless they are the center of attention. The team suffers because of this dysfunctional duo. Technically, they get their work done, and your team earns praise from customers because of the service they provide to others. But at the same time, they do only what they have to do, and then only with prodding. These folks are contagious, and you need to take affirmative steps to avoid falling under their spell. As a co-worker of this toxic duo, here are some suggestions for not allowing them to permeate your space and your attitude.   

  1. Try to avoid these folks. Just avoid socializing with them. When they attempt to spread their toxicity, be firm and indicate that you prefer to see the positive side and not focus on the negative. Don’t be a kind listening ear—excuse yourself if you need to. You don’t have to subject yourself to their attitude, as they are the ones being rude, not you.
  2. Do not compromise getting your own work done.

  3. If you feel like you need to reach out to the person being targeted, suggest that he/she seek help from human resources, the manager, or (if available) the company supported Employee Assistance Program. 
  4. If the ongoing negativity continues to make you uncomfortable, seek guidance yourself. Office tormentors thrive on causing others to be uncomfortable. If the antics continue and you feel that you’ve exhausted all resources, and the demeaning comments are getting more frequent and tainting the workplace, you either resign yourself to acceptance of the problem or seek employment elsewhere. No one wants to leave a job—especially in this economy—but if the negativity continues (or worsens), there is no basis to believe that changes in the culture are coming anytime soon. 

The Employer Response

Alas, you thought you left behind these types of situations when you graduated from high school…only to find them alive and well in the workplace. Gossip and negativity adversely impact productivity—not only for the co-workers, but for you, too. When you learn of these hurtful behaviors, make sure to respond. Don’t assume that just because you’re dealing with adults, the problem will self-correct itself. Remember: If the demoralizing duo were really grown-ups, you wouldn’t be stuck having to fix the damage resulting from their adolescent behavior.

  1. Confront it as soon as you learn about it. Call the perpetrators into your office (separately) and address the concerns you are hearing. Ask them exactly what the problem iswhat help you can offer to correct it, and how the two of you (make sure to include each of them) can address it together.
  2. Don’t tiptoe around the problem. Speak directly to the impact of the troublemakers’ hurtful comments on others and the organization, and remind them that it’s not acceptable. Don’t bother telling these employees that they have a bad attitude—they won’t believe you anyway. In sensitive situations, you don’t need to get them to have an epiphany or admit their behavior; if you observed it, then that’s enough as far as evidence goes. If it has gone on for a while and you find it difficult to fight the momentum of their actions, remember that your obligation is to the business. You don’t owe these employees any explanation other than saying that behavior like this will not be tolerated.
  3. Discipline when necessary. If your little talk doesn’t seem to persuade the employees to change their behavior, then after the next incident pull them back into your office and start officially disciplining them. Make sure they understand that it’s their behavior that is causing the problem and that it’s not acceptable to the team. You do have to ask yourself, “How far do I go with discipline?” Maybe it’s severe enough to hurt their annual performance evaluation, possibly resulting in lower pay. If you don’t have consequences, the behavior won’t change. For some employees, a single warning may be enough. But for the employee that lives for gossip and negativity, it means nothing—as soon as you’re done talking, he or she will be out complaining to anyone who will listen. If the behavior becomes legitimately destructive, you must go through your discipline process. Again, make it clear what is acceptable and what is not for your workplace culture. As the leader, you have to seize the situation and remain on top of it. Toxicity cannot be tolerated—or you will lose the talent and depth you have built.
KNicoliniKathleen A. Nicolini, SPHR, MBA President, Favor Human Resources Consulting

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