Politics at the office

Sandra Rosier discusses how to deal with office gossip
Sandra Rosier discusses how to deal with office gossip

 Dear Sandra,
The rumours and nasty gossip in my office are officially out of control. I feel like I’m in high school again. Now I’m the target of a rumour that I’m secretly seeing a married partner. If I deny it, I look bad. I decided to ignore everyone and now they all hate me. Should I have done something different? — Scarlett Lawgirl

Scarlett, unfortunately you know all too well that gossip can be damaging and isolating. Your plan to avoid the gossipers is a good one. But I would caution you not to take your avoidance strategy to an extreme. Not only do you risk alienating potential allies, but you may be avoiding the problem altogether. If the situation gets worse, you should consider bringing this to the attention of your mentor or HR to expose what impact it has had on you and make the gossipers accountable. Most firms will not tolerate behaviour that creates an uncomfortable or harassing climate for their employees.

I remember the unfortunate story of a lateral hire who joined a firm as a litigation associate. A rumour had spread around the office that he got the job because he was the son of a major client. Turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Same last name, no relation. He got fed up and left to join a competitor, presumably to make a clean start where his competence and ability would not be impugned by the shadow of nepotism. Just goes to show that some gossip can create a poisonous culture and degenerate into bullying. Worse, bad gossip can ultimately be emotionally and professionally damaging for its victim.

A certain amount of gossip at the office is natural and healthy. We all enjoy a juicy bit of gossip about what happened at the bar last night and how much a partner just paid for his high-end summer house. Casual gossip can help to lighten the mood at work, break the ice and build relationships. It can also keep us informed of a potential firm merger or warn us that a colleague is having a serious health problem and might need support.

The trick is being able to identify when idle chit-chat is an everyday part of office life and when it’s degenerated into malicious talk and bullying. If remarks could damage reputations or hurt feelings, you’re in the danger zone. Then there’s the downright silly, such as the frequently recycled piece of law firm gossip of the good ol’ “She financed her law degree by stripping.” Our law firms, it seems, are populated by a small army of former exotic dancers.

Whether mean or just trite, these rumours often have a victim. And you, Scarlett, are that victim right now, but you’re handling it well. Your refusal to dispel the rumour by defending yourself is the right response. Be authentic and focus on doing your job. When you must, interact with your colleagues, including the partner you’re rumoured to be involved with, in a friendly and business-focused way.

By staying calm, you will eventually win the respect (albeit grudgingly) of your gossipy peers. They will soon find you boring and move on to their next victim, or — hopefully — give up the game and leave your firm a pleasant place in which to converse and work.

Safe gossiping principles
We all gossip; there’s no point in denying it. Here are some suggestions for keeping it clean.

  • Before you spill, consider the subject of the news. Could it hurt this person? If you’re spreading the word an associate is a fabulous ballroom dancer, you’re probably safe.
  • Alcohol loosens the tongue. My rule is no more than two glasses of wine at professional functions. Any more than that, and I turn into Perez Hilton.
  • Choose your ear carefully. Better to dish about co-workers to family or friends away from the workplace.
  • Examine your own motivations. If you’ve got a workplace frenemy or you’re currently not happy in your job, avoid venting your frustration through starting rumours — tempting as it may be.
  • If others are sharing a tidbit you know is iffy, deflect it by changing the subject, or even disarm the gossiper by saying something nice about the subject of the nasty news.

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto. Need advice? Email sandra@lawandstyle.beta-site.ca

Illustration by Bob Hambly