Gossiping at work is a career killer but (don’t tell anyone)... I’m not stopping

As a new study warns of the potential dangers of whispers around the water cooler, Ryan Coogan argues in defence of an entirely pleasurable (and mostly harmless) past-time

Friday 12 January 2024 11:06 GMT
In an environment where most interactions boil down to, safe, banal pleasantries shared over a microwaveable ready meal, gossip cuts through like a (mostly welcome) knife
In an environment where most interactions boil down to, safe, banal pleasantries shared over a microwaveable ready meal, gossip cuts through like a (mostly welcome) knife (Getty Images)

Every office has at least one gossip. Most offices have three or four gossips. Some offices are populated entirely by gossips – and, as far as I’m concerned, those are the only offices worth working in.

Why? Well, most of us spend around a third of our waking lives chained to a nine to five. If we’re lucky, it both gives us a reasonable wage and aligns with our interests. But not all are so lucky. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked in certain roles in the past where aside from being paid enough to eat and to pay rent, the obvious bonus was being surrounded by people – and talking about those people.

Look at it this way: if we are forced to spend years of our lives at a desk or in front of a computer, we may as well treat those around us like every other friend, confidant and family member by relentlessly (and lovingly) roasting them – sometimes to their faces; often behind their backs.

Gossip, by way of bonding over the water cooler and bitching about our bosses, is one of life’s true pleasures – and I don’t believe there’s a single one of us who doesn’t (at least occasionally) indulge in it.

Not everybody agrees with me, though. New research has found that people who indulge in workplace gossip are more likely to face social exclusion among their colleagues, and that their gossiping is likely to have a negative impact on their careers. That’s right: spilling the tea can do a lot more than get your break room privileges revoked.

And despite my love of a good goss, I admit that on further reflection, it makes sense. Knowing that people are talking about you behind your back isn’t the best feeling in the world, so I can see why that would breed resentment in an environment that may already be rife with tension, as some high-pressured work environments are. It also isn’t entirely professional, so I understand why it could potentially hold you back in terms of career progression.

On the other hand: it’s fun. And here’s where I pick up my sword in defence of the office gossip: the closest work friends I’ve had (and kept) have been made as a result of an idle rumour or two. Speculating about who’s dating who, or which of our colleagues can’t stand each other, is the glue that holds our otherwise fragile bond together.

I’d even go so far as to say that gossip is vital to any healthy workplace ecosystem. In an environment where many of our interactions boil down to, safe, banal pleasantries shared over a microwaveable ready meal, or awkward elevator ride, gossip cuts through like a (mostly welcome) knife. It adds a level of intrigue to workplace interactions that you just don’t get from asking politely about each other’s kids –and it helps humanise people who you might otherwise only ever interact with in a strictly professional capacity.

I used to run the café in a secondary school, where most of my customers were teachers. The café was only open after school hours, so they’d usually be tired and completely fed up with work by that point. They’d stand there for hours, venting to me about things that I absolutely should not have been privy to, just to get it off their chests.

I found out that one of the English teachers was pregnant before anybody in her department knew. One of the PGCE girls told me she was thinking about a career change – and then a week later quit without warning. I heard about so, so many interdepartmental flings and one-night stands.

Even now, when I mostly work remotely, I still find time for workplace gossip. Every now and then you just need to step away from Slack and dive into somebody’s WhatsApp DMs to get the real scoop about what’s going on. If anything, those interactions have become vital to making me feel more connected to my colleagues. It would be very easy for the people I work with to feel like little more than words on a laptop screen, but sharing those little nuggets of workplace soft scandal help to keep me in the loop, and make me feel like I’m part of the team.

Maybe gossip isn’t great for my career. But I’m going to keep doing it anyway (show me the person who says they never gossip, and I’ll show you a liar). But, shhhh: don’t tell anyone I said that...

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