“I maintain that if everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world,” wrote philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal.

 Office Gossip

Gossip, which can be defined as casual conversation or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others, can be a powerful force in our lives. Although statistics are hard to pin down, anecdotal evidence suggests that gossip can lead to ruined relationships and damaged careers.

A poll conducted by Connect Professional Women’s Network, found that 47 percent of respondents admitted that they participate gossip at work. The main subjects included celebrities, office dramas and office romances. Of those respondents, 18 percent reported that they considered no topic to be off limits for gossip.

In case you think gossip is just practiced by women, a study conducted by the Social Issues Research Center found that gossip is the center of 55 percent of men’s conversation time and 67 percent of women’s, a much smaller gap than cultural wisdom might suggest.

Why do we gossip? According to psychologists, the answer is pretty simple. Gossip helps us build social bonds. Even though we know we shouldn’t gossip, we get pleasure from talking about other people. The stories and the feelings we share with each other gives us a common ground with our friends and co-workers. It makes us feel part of the group.

Workplace gossip generally takes one of two forms: first, rumors about company changes, such as mergers, layoffs, promotions or other staffing changes and second, personal gossip about specific workers: who is having an affair or who is struggling with personal problems. Because many of us spend more of our waking hours today at work than we do at home, offices can be fertile grounds for gossip.

Much of the gossip we share is harmless. Discussing that the new woman in marketing went out on a date with the newly-divorced guy in accounting is not harmful in and of itself. But gossip can quickly turn harmful and unprofessional if personal and potentially damaging information is shared and then re-shared. In addition, in this age of instant information, gossip can have far-reaching effects when it is shared via e-mail or social media posts.

Although you cannot control or stop office gossip, you can control your reaction to it and your participation in it. By doing so, you will maintain a professional image and will be someone people trust.

Here are three ways to avoid workplace gossip:

Make positive comments. Combat an atmosphere of negativity by being the person who has something nice to say. Your upbeat attitude will have a good effect on others and may work to diffuse a tense situation.

If you do find yourself in a conversation in which others are putting a co-worker down, you can add a positive point about that person. Rather than condemning the gossips, simply acknowledge how they feel and then add a comment that paints a different picture.

Here’s an example. Let’s say break room conversation is centered on the fact that a co-worker often arrives late. Rather than add to the negative theories being tossed about on why he is late, you could mention how that late co-worker often stays at the office after-hours to catch up or how he got his project in before deadline.

Avoid situations that tend to focus on gossip. Many employees use gossip as a way to avoid work. Don’t fall into that trap. Stay focused on your schedule and don’t get sidetracked by side conversations during work hours.

Walk away. There will be times you cannot avoid or deflect gossip. At these times, you may need to simply leave the conversation. By saying that you need to get back to work, you will send a message that you don’t want to be part of the conversation without pointing any fingers. If questioned on why you are leaving, you can always say that the conversation is making you uncomfortable and leave it at that.

The positives of being known as someone who does not gossip will outweigh any negatives. You will be known as someone people can trust to not spread rumors and to act professionally at all times.

Gossip can get you fired. In a much publicized case in 2007, for instance, four town employees in Hooksett, N.H. with a combined 46 years of city service between them, were fired, in part for discussing rumors of an improper relationship between the town administrator and another employee. The administrator complained and after an investigation, the town council terminated the women’s employment, contending “Gossip, whispering, and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of town business.”

In an effort to discourage office gossip, some companies include rules against it in their employee handbooks. Since employees cannot be legally prevented from discussing work-related matters, gossip can be very tricky to pin down and thus anti-gossiping rules can be almost impossible to enforce.

Last year, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge recently held that Laurus Technical Institute’s “No Gossip Policy” and its termination of an employee under the policy violated the law.

The school’s policy, which was published in the employee handbook, defined “gossip” in part as talking about a person’s personal life when they are not present and talking about a person’s professional life without a supervisor present.

How can you determine if something is gossip or not? Here are some questions to ask yourself that come from University of Florida study:

  • Does the information say something negative about a third party who is not there to defend himself or herself?
  • If you pass on this information, will it make you feel that you are somehow better than the person you are gossiping about?
  • Are you using the information to improve your own status in some way?

If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, the information is indeed gossip, and in order to maintain your own professional reputation, you would do well to avoid it.