Stop Workplace Gossip from Stirring Up Conflict
and Distracting Your Team
I first heard this frustrating bit of workplace gossip from my wonderful, human-centered executive assistant back in my Verizon days.
“I know this isn’t funny. But you have to admit it kind of is (she said with a pause, smile, and big grin). You should probably know the rumor that’s going around about you.”
“Oh, do tell…”
I wasn’t quite prepared for the absurdity of the workplace gossip that followed.
“You are a ‘lipstick lesbian’ having an affair. She waited for me to look up the term and continued…
“And you’re planning a secret getaway to Jamaica with “Laura” (not her real name). “Laura” was one of the few female direct reports on my new team.
Now to be fair, “Laura” and I both wear lipstick. So there’s that. And, we did spend a good bit of time together, because of her pivotal role on the team.
But we were not in love (with each other). And, neither of us was headed to Jamaica any time soon. Although, gosh, in retrospect a minute on the beach might have been a nice relief from dealing with the new pressures of a team that hadn’t yet warmed up to how I could help.
But, if I had gone to Jamaica during that time, it would have been with a tween and a toddler in tow. And truth be told, I probably would have forgotten to pack the lipstick.
Of course, the last thing I needed as I was working to establish credibility in my new role overseeing 110 stores, with limited sales experience was a bunch of distracted store managers trying to figure out if their new boss was getting in on with a direct report. (P.S. This story ends better ending than you might imagine. See the successful case study of how this sales team came together and knocked results out of the park in Chapter 6 of Courageous Cultures).
This wasn’t the only time I’ve been the target of workplace gossip– I think it happens to all ambitious people from time to time.
How to Address Workplace Gossip
So today, I share a few of the powerful phrases I used to squash that workplace gossip back then, and several more I’ve learned by watching others tame it well.
Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what to say in any given situation. But, I’m hopeful that these conversation starters (and in some cases conversation stoppers), will help empower you to stop these destructive conversations.
Before you say anything, it’s helpful to take a breath and consider your response. Sometimes the fastest way to make the rumors go away, is to ignore them.
As with other conflicts at work, how you react to workplace gossip can impact your leadership brand, even if the gossip is later proven to be unfair or untrue.
Try to stay light and centered on the outside, even if you have to vent to a trusted friend behind closed doors.
As with most conflicts, the best way to de-escalate it is to stay poised and confident in your response. The more rattled you appear, the more people are likely to wonder if the rumor is true.
Powerful Phrases to Use Humor to Deflect
Humor is an easy way to show your confidence and humility while making a point that this gossip is silly and needs to stop.
- I heard there’s a rumor circulating that _________. If that were a movie, I’d be sure to buy a ticket. I hope whoever started this bit of workplace gossip, is working on a screenplay.
- So, apparently, I’ve been ________ I’ve got to say that rumor is a whole lot more interesting than how I actually spend my evenings.
- The next time someone sees me _________would you please let me know? I’d like to come to watch and see how that’s done.
- That’s quite a wild story. What do you think our hero/heroine will do next?
Powerful Phrases to Ask for Help
These can be particularly helpful to use with people you suspect are perpetrators of the rumor.
- I’ve heard there’s a rumor going around about __________. What do you think I can do to help stop this unfair workplace gossip from spreading?
- You know, I’ve been really working hard to ______. And what makes me really sad is _______. Can you help me nip this in the bud?
- As you know my reputation as a _________is really important to me. I’m curious why do you think people think this could possibly be true?
- I’m not sure where this is coming from. Who do you suggest I talk with to help prevent misinformation?
Powerful Phrases to Stop a Rumor About a Coworker
If you want to work on a human-centered team, one of the best things you can do is to intervene in toxic conversations and stop the spread of workplace gossip.
- Does this conversation feel fair to you?
- Would you mind if I called _______ (insert person whom the rumor is about) and asked for their perspective on this?
- So we don’t know if this is true. But, if someone were saying this about you, would you want me to tell you?
- Wow. I wouldn’t want people to talk about me like this behind my back.
What to Say When the Rumor is True (But not ready for discussion)
This can happen quite a bit, particularly if you have confidential information like a downsizing or organizational change. How to handle workplace gossip that’s grounded in the truth.
- There’s a lot we don’t know about this. I trust we’ll learn more soon.
- Rumors and gossip only make these kinds of situations worse. Let’s wait until we know more.
- I know this is a stressful time, and I’ll share more as soon as I can.
- I’ve found in these circumstances the stories we make up in our minds are usually worse than what’s actually going to happen. Let’s wait and get the facts.
The truth is, we get more of what we tolerate and less of what we ignore. If you’re working to build a high-performing, human-centered team culture, it’s worth the effort to stop the rumors and workplace gossip.
Note: If you’re looking for more powerful phrases to be more effective at work, you might also find these articles helpful.
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