June 2011

Did you hear?

By Casey Hall

There is little doubt that malicious office gossip can cause disharmony. But what should you do about it?

People are interested in people. They always have been – and almost certainly always will be.

A well-known ancient Egyptian hieroglyph from 1550 B.C. portrays how gossip spreads through a population of people and suggests ways to curtail it. Yet, here we are in 2011 – in many cases spending more hours in office environments than ever before – and we are still powerless when it comes to preventing workplace gossip.

Jane Walton*, a human resources professional who works in Shanghai, said salaries were a particularly hot topic of conversation at her previous company. "When I first started working there, one of my colleagues was even trying to take clients out to lunch to find out what salary I was on," she said.

After a previous stint working in Taiwan, Walton wasn't shocked by the intrusive inquiries into her financial and personal affairs. She advises newcomers to accept these lines of questioning as an everyday part of Chinese workplaces, and to avoid getting angry or upset.

There's no question that office gossip can be dangerous, potentially hurting careers or simply making people feel bad. But while chatter about coworkers brings negative effects, there are different views on office gossip depending on the subject matter and how it's handled.

Walton explained that in her home country of Australia, water-cooler chitchat usually focuses on the professional performance of management and staff. While working in China, however, she has found that office gossip is centered much more on life outside of the office.

One of her most enlightening experiences was when she became engaged and her romantic success became the talk of the office. "People just got so involved and asked so many questions," Walton said. "It made me much more interesting to my staff."

Backbiting business

Other expatriate professionals in China haven't felt such welcoming aspects of gossip, however. Julia Taylor, an interior designer at architecture firm WHI International, is one of only two foreign staff employed in her office. She believes her inability to speak Mandarin was a factor in her hiring – as it was thought that if she couldn't understand what coworkers were saying, she wouldn't resign like her predecessor.

"They thought the fact that I didn't speak Chinese when I got here would keep me in the dark when they were talking about me," Taylor explained. "But the staff didn't really care if I knew and would use my name all day. That was worse, because I would hear my name constantly and not know what they were saying."

There is a line between everyday office gossip – which usually revolves around coworkers' looks or personal life – and the spiral of negativity that can spread through a workplace when a few vocal staff make a point of voicing complaints for all to hear.

"A few people were telling everyone else how bad they thought the company was all the time and everyone would get sucked into that," she said.

"There ended up being a big divide and motivation was really low because of it, but some people have since left. The remaining staff seem to be happy again and have moved back to gossiping about looks and marriage."

Angela Amor Guinto, who worked for 18 months as the in-house editor of a knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) company, said office gossip was a surprisingly negative part of her work life when she first arrived in Shanghai. She felt more tension among employees compared with her previous workplaces in the Philippines.

Yet, Guinto is quick to note that not only is it nearly impossible for managers to stamp out gossip, but it could also have negative consequences.

"Depending on the topic, gossip can be a form of social lubricant," Guinto points out. "Just to be clear, I'm not promoting gossiping. [But] there's good gossip, and there's bad gossip."

The idea of "good gossip" may initially seem counter-intuitive since gossiping has earned such a bad reputation. But in recent years, researchers have found that a little chatter in the workplace isn't always a bad thing. On the contrary, office gossip is also seen as a way to forge connections.

Talking about others is not only universal, but also a way to "keep up on the activities of people who are socially important to us," said Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College in the US. 

Social lubricant

At the same time, backbiting that hurts employees or a company's reputation must be dealt with. In China, where office culture is still developing, Walton said managers have to exercise a tighter reign over the problem.

"I have found that managing staff in China is very much like running a classroom," she said. "You often have to step in to resolve issues in the workplace because workers tend to act a lot younger than they do elsewhere. In Australia, I would let it go more."

McAndrew agreed that the best management method for dealing with office gossip is to identify those who are engaging in nasty and destructive behavior and then discipline them – rather than imposing a universal ban.

"[Office gossip] is usually a sign that people like working together and that they get along," he said. "So unless there are some visible problems, leave it alone."

* Name has been changed.