How to deal with office gossip

Nov 01, 2016
Don’t be known as the office gossip. Instead, cultivate a reputation as a ‘straight arrow’ with these seven simple tips.

People love to talk; it’s one of those universal truths that you just have to accept. Professionals will always have clear boundaries, however, and in many cases express their frustrations and views outside the office with family and personal friends only. But even with the best of intentions, you can sometimes find yourself in the midst of a questionable conversation without even knowing how you got there! Whether you find yourself in such a conversation, or know that the office gossip wants to engage you in some office chit-chat, these tips will help you extricate yourself from the conversation or – if you’d rather deal with the situation head on – shut the office gossip down.

1. Get moving

When the topic of conversation shifts from a project’s deadline to the annoying habits of the project manager, it’s no longer in the professional realm. In this scenario, the easiest solution is to make your excuses and leave. Something simple like: “Sorry, but I need to get back to my desk. I’ve a call in five minutes” removes you immediately and, if done on a recurring basis, gives the gossiper a clear but covert message that this isn’t a conversation you’re willing to have.

2. Pivot!

Ross from Friends was a massive fan of the pivot, and it can be a great asset in the office too. When you’re drawn into an uncomfortable conversation, take the lead and steer it in a more professional direction. For example, if a colleague is moaning about his manager’s perceived obsession with one-to-one meetings, bring it back to a work-related task by saying something like: “Actually, that reminds me. I’ve been meaning to talk to Alfie about the production schedule. Have you seen him today?” This gives you the opportunity to change the topic of conversation in a gentle, subtle way.

3. Stay positive

If walking away or changing the subject seems too genteel, challenge the gossiper’s accusations. Saying something along the lines of: “Oh I’m sure that was just a one-off. I’ve worked with Jane on several projects and never had a bad encounter with her” allows you to challenge the gossiper’s generalised assumption and also, raises the possibility that you are close to Jane in a professional capacity. In both cases, you’re refusing to be drawn into a negative conversation about a colleague, which is the desired outcome.

4. Look for the facts

A more challenging approach involves dissecting the gossiper’s logic and rationale. Simple, probing questions such as “What led you to that conclusion?” can force the gossiper into the uncomfortable act of introspection – dissecting their own thoughts and actions rather than those of their colleagues. It also diminishes the power of broad-stroke statements, which gossipers usually expect to be taken as truth by their comrades in conversation. Once a gossiper has to justify their thoughts and statements, much of the fun evaporates and – with any luck – you will no longer be seen as an open ear or easy target.

5. Avoid trigger words

Sometimes, we unthinkingly cultivate gossip by saying certain words or raising certain subjects that spark ire in the person you’re talking to. You will need to be aware of the broader office politics to avoid this unfortunate calamity, so be aware of what’s going on around you without getting involved. Know the people and issues causing ripples in your working environment and, to the greatest extent possible, avoid mentioning them. If you must discuss an emotive issue, use the tactics discussed above to steer the conversation and prevent it descending into farce.

6. Shine the spotlight

It’s often said that people love talking about themselves. It’s their specialism, in a sense. So if you’re struggling to walk away, change the topic or challenge the gossiper, simply get them talking about themselves. This usually results in a more positive tone! It’s a variation of the pivot point above so listen carefully, plan your interjection and at the right time, bring the story back to your colleague.

7. Choose carefully

Lastly, choose your work friends with care. While you might not partake in gossip, it can be easy for others to tar you with the same brush if you hang out with those who are widely known as the office gossips. It’s best to have a wide circle of professional acquaintances and maintain a professional distance, unless you know that you can trust the person 100%. You should also find positive role models, observe their behaviours and mimic them where appropriate. Associating with those who have positive reputations can protect you from becoming guilty by association.

Conclusion

As a Chartered Accountant, you are expected to hold yourself to the highest standards of ethics and integrity in all aspects of your working life. Sometimes it’s not possible to avoid those who revel in drama but even so, you have a duty – to yourself and the organisation you work for – to take pride in your professionalism and set a good example for those that follow.
And don’t think it will go unnoticed. Those who can navigate office gossip without getting drawn in demonstrate a degree of nous and tact that employers look for in future leaders.

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