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It’s never been a good idea to bad-mouth colleagues – especially if it puts your career advancement at a disadvantage. A study by a group of researchers, including Maria Kakarika from Durham University, and NEOMA’s Shiva Taghavi and Helena González-Gómez, has shown that the recipients of negative workplace gossip may even penalise the rumourmongers socially and professionally. And the reaction is even more pronounced in women. 

Idle rumour, bad-mouthing, tittle-tattle, hearsay… Why do we have so many ways to talk about gossip? It’s because discussing other people’s private lives plays a huge role in the way we interact with each other. And the workplace is no exception: gossip is thought to account for 14% of the conversations we have in the office. What’s more, gossip is indulged in by almost everyone, with 90% of the workforce admitting to sharing tittle-tattle. All of which means that gossiping is an integral part of the way we communicate at work. As well as encouraging colleagues to cooperate in a group, it also creates social ties. Who is the best person to team up with? And who should you make sure to keep at arm’s length? These questions are of vital importance in the case of new hires, for instance, who are obliged to find a solution with or without the advice of others.

As well as being neutral or positive, these informal discussions may be negative – which then becomes problematic. While this kind of talk may clearly be damaging for the target of the gossip, it may also harm the instigator. The NEOMA researchers and their colleague set about investigating the behaviour of the recipients of gossip so they could gauge the extent of the backlash. How does the recipient judge the gossip sender? Does he or she sanction the sender socially or professionally? And do men and women behave in the same way?

Gossip: immoral behaviour with heavy sanctions

The study looked at negative gossip, which has more of an effect than its positive counterpart. The researchers surveyed employees working in US companies, assigning them to a gossip situation or asking them to recollect a similar incident from their past.

In line with earlier research, the scientists observed a moral condemnation of gossip. In other words, senders are blamed for gossiping, especially when their motivation is seen as ill-intentioned or self-serving. The reputation of the gossipers is then tarnished, and the recipients become suspicious of them. As a result, the latter punish the behaviour of gossipers by excluding them socially inside the company or standing in the way of their career. Furthermore, recipients may deprecate the sender’s performance at work or offer up information that makes it harder for him or her to receive a bonus or win a promotion.

According to the researchers, women take a stricter ethical stand than men when it comes to condemning anyone peddling gossip. In fact, the study lays bare gender differences that are still poorly understood in terms of the moral reasoning of gossip recipients. These findings open up new lines of inquiry for tackling gossip-associated behaviours in the work environment.

Workplace gossip: a problem for human resources

Research has observed that around three-quarters of gossip in the workplace is neutral and is about trivial issues, such as where a co-worker is going on his or her next holiday. More negative scandalmongering, on the other hand, becomes problematic when it touches on private issues. The target of the gossip may hand in his or her resignation as a result, and – more globally – it may damage the company’s productivity. This is why HR departments do their utmost to check the spread of gossip – or at least keep it to a minimum.

Tackling gossip means managing the different individuals involved in concert. The researchers recommend that organisations take a proactive approach, raising employee awareness about the moral implications of gossip. They underline the disproportionate impact gossip may have on the careers of senders and their social integration in a company. In addition, they advise organisations to factor in the gender of employees and to compare different points of view. For example, a company can provide opportunities for men and women to discuss their contrasting interpretations of gossip behaviour in the workplace.

However, gossip and its repercussions depend enormously on the quality of the relationship between the sender and receiver, which was not captured in the study. The researchers also showed that when one person gossips, another often reciprocates with gossip of his or her own in a conversation where each individual may sometimes be the sender, sometimes the recipient. It follows that we still have much to learn about the secrets behind the complex dynamics of workplace gossip and its consequences.

Find out more

Don’t Shoot the Messenger? A Morality- and Gender-Based Model of Reactions to Negative Workplace Gossip – Maria Kakarika, Shiva Taghavi, Helena V. González-GómezJournal of Business Ethics (2023) – https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-023-05355-7