November 4, 2009
The upside of office gossip
Much of what's written about office gossip makes it sound as though no good can come from sharing juicy tidbits about those we work with. Earlier this week, an article in the Science section of the New York Times discussed a recent study that found that workplace gossip tends to be "overwhelmingly negative." So negative, in fact, that Times writer John Tierney suggested it rivaled the damaging teenage jabs seen on TV's "Gossip Girl."
According to Tierney's article, the big difference between working adults and the petty, overprivileged teens seen on the CW's hit show is that adults tend to make more indirect jabs. Either we trot out the sarcasm or we "praise the predecessor," talking about how wonderful the office environment was back in the good old days when a previous manager reigned supreme.
Like the New York Times piece, a Seattle Times story from last year discussed how the most malicious, overblown office gossip may not only sabotage those being dished about but the entire team or department.
There's no denying that over-the-top gossip can crush reputations and undermine a worker's ability to perform his or her job effectively. But sometimes workplace gossip can be helpful, especially for new employees or rank-and-file workers not privy to behind-the-scenes company details. Some instances in which office gossip can help:
It shows you in a good light. "If people are talking positively it can be a way to enhance someone's reputation," said Indiana University sociologist Tim Hallett, who coauthored the study mentioned earlier. Coworkers going around tooting your horn behind your back? That's what Hallet calls "a gift." We should all be so lucky to have officemates like this.
It clues you in to office undercurrents. Organizational charts are one way to ascertain how work gets done at a company. But often, Hallett said, office gossip can paint a much clearer picture of who the hidden movers and shakers are. For example, a bit of watercooler banter might reveal that the key to snagging a coveted company laptop isn't to butter up your boss but the admin down the hall.
It tips you off about critical changes coming down the pike. The sooner you learn about an employer's upcoming budget cuts, the sooner you can assess whether you need to start interviewing elsewhere. Sure, gossip doesn't always translate into cold, hard facts, and too much speculation can make those worried about losing their position a bit crazy. But there's a reason the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) exists: Getting a heads up about impending layoffs gives you a chance to jumpstart your job hunt and tighten your belt accordingly.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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