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Think twice before you share your boss’s latest ‘secret’ in the boardroom

Office gossip can slow employees down and erode corporate culture, experts say

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Young woman whispering something to her male colleague during a meetingA recent Office Pulse study found that Canadian workers who described their offices as “cliquey” spent an average of 46.8 minutes a week gossiping (Shutterstock/Pressmaster)

It may seem like whispering about your colleagues by the water cooler is all in a day’s work, but office gossip can put a dent in productivity and morale—particularly if your office is cliquey, experts say. 

A recent Office Pulse study found that Canadian workers who described their offices as “cliquey” —55 per cent said “kind of”, while 16 per cent said “yes” —spent an average of 46.8 minutes a week gossiping, or 4.87 working days per year (three times as much as those who said their offices weren’t cliquey). And, we are doing it more than our American counterparts, according to the survey.   

“[According to our research], conversations in Canadian offices [happen] more, so people are talking more, therefore it’s not surprising that office gossip is a little more prevalent in Canada,” says Carly Littman, research manager at digital media company, Captivate, which was behind promoting the survey. “In cliquey offices, it’s significantly more likely to be a gossipy environment and the average time spent gossiping is much higher.”

This gossip also compromises employee morale. Of the 150 white-collar workers surveyed, 21 per cent said they had left a company due to workplace drama, while 59 per cent said they would get rid of office gossip if they could. 

“It definitely does have a negative impact, if it is malicious in intent,” adds Alexia Chicles, associate research manager at Captivate. 

ROOT OF THE BANTER

It seems natural to chatter with, and about, people you spend so much time with, Littman says, adding that it can also be a chance to offload your woes with those who can relate. 

“There are so many different pain points that you experience throughout the [work] day,” she says. “Being so close with your co-workers, it feels like a safe space to express some of the frustrations that you experience.”

But there’s a clear line between gossip and conversation. The former potentially has other harmful effects, including compromising one’s reputation and credibility, polarizing employees and toxifying corporate culture—particularly if lies are spread—explains Rhonda Scharf, trainer, consultant, speaker and author at Ottawa-based On the Right Track. With the most outlandish topics (according to the survey) being affairs, sleeping with the boss and drug use/over consumption (of alcohol), it’s no wonder things can go awry. 

“What makes it gossip is the intent or motivation behind it,” says Scharf. “There are effects from office gossip, especially if it takes you away from what you’re supposed to be doing or dominates your thought process…relationships will be damaged dependent on what people say and what the gossip is.” 

EVERYBODY’S DOING IT

It seems there is something in it for everyone, with no limits to who participates in a little elevator chit-chat, says Scharf, or who is talked about (top three survey responses are: executive/management team, HR and one’s boss). There are, however, some typical scenarios, she adds, that can play out. 

In professional environments, for example, where competition for promotions, raises and bonuses thrive, jealousy can brew and erupt into a rift, she explains, fueling gossip. 

“As much as [gossiping] is universal [behaviour], it’s also human nature to be at the top of the pack,” she says. “It really is about being the dominant and protecting your place in the pack.”     

There are also those who simply join the crowd, Scharf adds. They may not like the back-stabbing talk, but feel pressured to fit in. “We are still 13 years old…[we] just want to belong,” she says.

Management can also be the culprit of, or encouraging, the chatter. According to the survey, 65 per cent of respondents in senior management positions or higher admitted to participating in office gossip. Meanwhile, men reported gossiping more per week (48 minutes) than women (33 minutes).

“Management is just as guilty and human as everybody else,” she says. “They want to know if it affects their job and reputation, but they want to know the dirt too.” 

NIP IT IN THE BUD

The challenge lies in how to intervene and stop the talk, particularly if it’s toxic. Some say human resources should take on the issue, particularly if employee morale and office culture erode. 

“It is certainly something that HR should address and intervene in if it’s becoming a problem in the workplace where people are feeling uncomfortable and it’s starting to interfere with their workday,” says Littman.   

Although HR may want to intervene, adds Scharf, controlling “the talk” is challenging from a policy, management and colleague-to-colleague perspective, unless it becomes a harassment issue. Whoever is making the move to confront the perpetrator(s) should do so delicately, she recommends, avoiding accusations and making it a conversation about its impact and why it needs to stop.

“Have an open dialogue, where you are not looking for them to admit anything,” she says. “It’s really about shutting the conversation down.”

TAKING OWNERSHIP

Soft skills are valuable attributes for many roles. Take heed of these 3 ways to develop your soft skills and consider brushing up on your office etiquette as well.