Gossiping at work

Gossip gets a bad rap – from tabloids full of salacious celebrity gossip to the badly behaved teens of television programs like Gossip Girl. But while it might get dismissed or reported as an unsubstantiated rumour, gossip is a key part of politics and the way the world works.

Gossipy women are over-represented in popular images of gossip. An informal analysis of 100 Google images of gossip revealed that 62% were women only, 7% were men only, and 31% showed men and women gossiping. This reinforces the popular and enduring myth that men don’t gossip, but research shows that men and women engage in the same amount of gossiping activity.

Gossip can be traced back to the origins of language. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar even argues that language evolved to enable people to gossip. From its earliest form to today, gossip has been a way to pass on socially useful information about who you could (and couldn’t) trust, who was a free rider, and who talked bullshit.

Gossip at work

There is a wealth of material calling for gossip to being eliminated in the workplace, and books advocating spiritual reasons for resisting gossip.

Popular stereotypes of gossip overemphasise the negative judgments made in gossip, but it can be associated with compassion, empathy, and noticing suffering. Gossip is a way of expressing emotions, both positive and negative, a way of “letting off steam” and an emotional reaction to perceived social injustice.

There are also times when gossip is an expression of concern about unethical or unprofessional behaviour – for instance when there is “common knowledge” about sexual abuse, but nobody speaks up. When the topic of gossip is about poor practice in organisations, it can act as an early warning signal that should be heeded, rather than ignored or disregarded.

Not all gossip is good. There are times when gossip can do harm to the reputation of people and organisations. A negative gossip is a form of bullying, which is detrimental to people’s well-being. The decision to gossip – or not – is always an ethical decision.

A new understanding

Gossip has undergone a slow rehabilitation since the research about it started over 25 years ago. As the recent book Gossip, Organisation and Work shows, gossip is being taken seriously as a topic of research in communication and business.

Globally, the #MeToo movement has changed perceptions of gossip, as has the rise of “speak up cultures” and the creation of psychologically safe environments where truth can be told without fear of recrimination. Whistleblowing is vital for exposing misconduct or hidden threats and maintaining an open society. The focus has now shifted from gossip as a problem itself, to gossip as a way to represent the “problem behind the problem” – exposing structural issues that have been swept under the rug.

The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on the benefits of gossip. Almost overnight, lockdowns removed opportunities for the casual conversations that constitute gossip – conversations in the coffee queue, and before or after meetings. As many people return to the office, they may realise how important these little moments of gossip are to social bonds and cooperation.

Though gossiping seems to have its advantages, it is mostly an expression of unprofessionalism. Are you experiencing unethical behaviour or environmental problems at work, and are you ready to move on? And when you’re looking for a job in The Life Science industry, then QTC Recruitment has multiple opportunities for you available. Check it out here.


Also published on Theconversation.com


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