There’s a fine line between harmless small talk around the water cooler and negative, hurtful gossip in the workplace. Though no doubt tempting and easy to fall into, office gossip is unprofessional - and it won’t just be the subject of the rumour mill whose reputation is left in tatters.

In a recent study, a shocking 96% of subjects surveyed admitted to participating in office gossip. If it’s so ubiquitous, why do we do it? The same study suggests it’s an information gathering tool, ‘helping us to understand our social environments.’ In other words, at best, it can help us to compete in a competitive environment.

But there’s an important distinction here to keep in mind: when harmless, idle chit-chat becomes inflammatory, hurtful, or embarrassing to the subject of conversation, it’s no longer beneficial for anyone. In this case, it’s workplace bullying and self-sabotage -- and is a very real legal risk.

Office gossip hurts feelings (and mental health)

Since the 90s, many researchers in the fields of mental health and organisational management have written about the effects of workplace bullying and mental health. Psychological burn-out, depression, anxiety, aggression, even psychosomatic complaints - where psychological strain manifests in physical symptoms like migraines - have all been well documented symptoms of workplace bullying.

Perception is everything - or so the saying goes - and priming ourselves to only detect the negative in our daily lives can have long-term consequences on our own mental health that can persist - regardless of whether we’re the victim or the perpetrator.

It undermines credibility

Though initially a very human way to build relationships, negative office gossip can also backfire. Gossip reflects just as poorly on the subject of the conversation, as it does on the person doing the gossiping. The problem is in the illusion of exclusive confidence; more often than not, engaging in office gossip with one person does not preclude us from being the subject in their other conversations.

In other words: If we hear gossip from one person, what is stopping them from gossiping about us to someone else?

It creates a toxic workplace

And a toxic workplace with poor morale is just bad for business - regardless of your industry. Rumours, backstabbing, and bullying make it difficult for employees to do their job, more often than not a result of a breakdown in communication or trust between teams, and can ultimately create a positive feedback loop that only reinforces the negative aspects of the working culture.

It is a costly habit: low morale workplaces report more sick days, higher rates of staff turnover, lower rates of productivity, and the quick adoption of counterproductive practices that can have a big impact on the company’s bottom line.

As a manager, it is a warning sign that things need to change. Office staff that consistently participate in negative communication practices like gossip often do so as a result of unclear, opaque communication from the top down, and often feel quite cynical towards the company they work for. It is also often sign that employees do not feel safe or secure enough to come to management with their concerns.

What to do about it

Though tempting, employees should never engage in toxic small talk. While difficult to condemn without coming off as self-righteous or holier-than-thou, there are ways we can avoid falling into the trap of office gossip without coming off as a goody two-shoes:

  1. Avoid triggering situations.
  2. Be careful who you vent to.
  3. Learn to subtly change the subject when office gossip comes up.