Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Workplace Gossip - to indulge or avoid?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday we had a staff retreat at work and afterwards all went out to happy hour, which turned into happy hours after all the supervisors left. It was really great to bond with my coworkers (I just started this month) and they are lots of fun, but inevitably they all started gossiping and filling me in on all the dirty dark secrets of the office. I’m glad that they feel like I’m one of the gang and are willing to get me in the loop, however, I know participating in this kind of talk isn’t necessarily the smartest thing professionally. Being chummy with your co-workers can definitely come in handy, but how chummy is too chummy?

Office gossip is hard to resist. You’re right that socializing with coworkers can help build rapport, but it can also go downhill fast if leisure time turns into a complaint-fest. There are myriad reasons to avoid talking shop off the clock, apart from your correct reaction that, however seductive it may be, such behavior is always professionally suspect. More devastating for the purposes of good living, however, is the fact that it is almost always unbearably tedious. Who wants to listen to so-and-so dish about Ms. X’s awful taste in skirts or Mr. Y’s unbecoming hair plugs? Wasn’t sixth grade bad enough the first time around? Yawn.

There’s also a more self-interested reason: your employer is presumably not paying you to talk work off the clock, so leave your work at work for God’s sake. If what you’re discussing is really so vital, take time to discuss it during normal business hours--you know, when you’re being paid.

The most gracious way to head off such behavior is first, don’t engage. If your colleagues want to spill their guts, that’s their right (cue “God Bless the USA”) but don't egg them on or reciprocate in the conversation. A neutral "Oh really?" works well for this. If the talk doesn’t peter out on its own, try to change the subject at an opportune time with a lighthearted "well, you know every office has their different personalities" and try to steer the conversation to something else like movies, music, your weekend plans--you know, things you do when you’re NOT working. Finally, if it continues unabated, graciously excuse yourself, citing whatever neutral pretext you wish—catching your train, walking your dog, calling your mother. And think twice about accepting next time you’re invited out for drinks with colleagues.

1 comment:

Robert B. Friedman said...

Gossip is a tricky thing! While we all would agree with the banality of it all, as you point out in your response Mr. Steichen, gossip seems to have an important social and collaborative role that cannot be neglected. Gossip can foster a sense of trust amongst gossipers and can ease the inclusion of a new member into an existing clique. Not to say that this is theoretically, ethically, or morally ideal but in practice, it works. Check out this NY Times article on the matter ...

Have You Heard? Gossip Turns Out to Serve a Purpose - NY Times 8/16/05