By TEDDYE SNELL
It happens in every workplace: whispers by the water cooler, a team lunch turned gossip-fest, or bits of information exchanged via e-mail or text message.
Gossip in the workplace may be as common as staplers and paper clips, and it’s a weapon that can be wielded for good, as well as evil.
A new study in the October issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography identified subtle ways people who are targets of gossip are negatively evaluated during formal work meetings, including veiling criticism with sarcasm, or talking up another colleague for comparison.
The study also revealed how negative gossip can often be derailed by changing the subject.
Tim Hallett, assistant professor at Indiana University’s Bloomington Department of Sociology, warns that gossip is always, always political.
“When you’re sitting in that business meeting, be attentive to when the talk drifts away from the official task at hand to people who aren’t present,” wrote Hallett. “Be aware that what is going on is a form of politics, and it’s a form of politics that can be a weapon to undermine people who aren’t present. But it can also be a gift. If people are talking positively, it can be a way to enhance someone’s reputation.”
Hallett’s study, co-authored by Donna Eder, a leading authority on gossip research, and Brent Harger, a sociologist at Albright College, is based on two years of workplace politics research conducted at an urban elementary school.
The school was undergoing changes in management that had created some strife when a new principal was hired.
Relations with the teachers were devolving, and when the teachers failed in complaint efforts through normal channels, they resorted to gossip.
According to Hallett, the study wasn’t initially set up to study gossip, but researchers soon found that gossip was important to school staff, and that teachers described what happened at meetings as “gossip.”
Throughout the study, Hallett observed meetings, classrooms, shadowed personnel and hung out in the teachers lounge.
He also videotaped 13 teacher-led, formal meetings. In the 40-minute meetings, Hallett recorded 25 episodes of gossip that occurred during the business portion of the meeting.
Through the video findings, researchers were able to observe the power dynamics involved as the gossip unfolded, which would be difficult to discern using simple field notes.
“This record is important because scholars discuss the importance of understanding covert organizational politics, but the research is hard to conduct empirically because of its covert nature,” wrote Hallett.
The research indicated that gossip in a formal setting was both negative and more obscure than informal gossip. Gossip in a formal setting is more likely to involve veiled criticisms, and can also be easily redirected if someone changes the subject.
“If you’re interested in learning how an organization works, you can look at an organizational chart, which can be useful,” wrote Hallett. “But often people say, ‘I still can’t tell how things get done, who the prime movers are.’ If you’re attentive, you can see who has the information status, which isn’t on the formal charts.”
An employee at Northeastern State University, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agrees with much of the study’s findings.
“At NSU, knowledge is power,” said the staffer. “The more you know, the better position you appear to be in. I don’t know about it being a ‘gossip grapevine,’ as much as it is a form of networking. As long as you’re focusing on the good aspects versus trying to drag somebody down, it can be beneficial. I agree there’s all kinds of gossip: the kind that can hurt someone, and the kind when it’s more of a news thing passed along so that everyone remains informed.”
The American Psychological Institute also conducted a study in 2007 concerning the “boomerang effect” of gossip. Often, when a person talks negatively about a co-worker, it makes the perpetrator look bad.
The researchers call this “spontaneous trait transference.” When you’re indulging in workplace gossip, your words could be interpreted as a description of your own personality and actions.
Sandra Dearborn, sexual assault services coordinator for Help-In-Crisis, works in situations where discretion is key, and finds gossip unpalatable.
“Working in an agency that must be confidential for safety reasons, I find gossip especially distasteful, inconsiderate, disrespectful, destructive and possibly life-threatening,” she said.
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen, psychologist and feature writer for Suite101.com, said even small slips of the tongue can be harmful.
“Most of us deny that we’re cruel,” wrote Pawlik-Kienlen. “And we’re probably right. After all, we don’t deliberately spread malicious gossip at work, right? But there are ‘harmless’ slips that can have the same effect as negative gossip or stressful situations: snubbing colleagues, name-dropping, refusing to give appropriate credit. Those may not seem to be acts of cruelty, but your body doesn’t know that.”
According to Pawlik-Kienlen, cortisol - a stress hormone - can flood your system when you’re simply thinking about a negative or stressful event.
“When you imagine throttling your colleague or secretary - perhaps they’re spreading gossip at work - your physical response can lead to hypertension, depression, insomnia, fatigue and gastrointestinal disorders,” she said.
“Your words cause similar reactions. Sarcasm, pointed remarks, thoughtless comments or rude words all cause feelings of disorder or chaos, which negatively affects your health.”