Sunday, May 08, 2016

Stopping office gossip before it spreads

As he was sitting at his desk several days ago, a reader, let's call him Larry, started receiving emails from current and former colleagues asking if he knew what happened to another colleague. Some of the emails provided no specifics. Others suggested the colleague was leaving the organization. Still others wondered whether the colleague's pending departure was a sign of turmoil within the ranks.

Larry knows the colleague. He also knows each of the email senders. But he hadn't heard anything about the colleague, nor about the news that was wafting in the air around the company corridors.

Larry writes me wondering what, if anything, is the appropriate response to these emails he's receiving, since he knows nothing about the colleague or his fortunes.

"If I respond, it might seem like I'm encouraging discussion about this colleague when I don't have any information," writes Larry. "If I don't respond, does it send some sort of message that I know something, but I'm unwilling to give it up?"

Because no official notice of anything concerning his colleague has been issued by his company, Larry doesn't know if something actually happened or if a rumor got started somehow and was beginning to spin out of control.

Larry has never been a fan of gossip. But he's at a bit of a loss about the right thing to do in response to the emails he's been receiving.

There are a few reasonable responses Larry might have to the emails he's been receiving.

He could simply ignore them, choosing not to engage in a discussion about which he knows nothing. He's right though that his silence might inadvertently send an unintended message, particularly since Larry is known for being quick and responsive when it comes to email.

Larry might also choose to respond with a simple, "I don't know." Or, "I haven't heard anything." And he could leave it at that. The challenge with this choice is that his response might result in follow-up emails, where the senders provide details about what they've heard, leaving Larry with the choice of whether or how to respond to those emails.

While not a fan of gossip, it's not in Larry's nature to instruct his emailing colleagues to stop spreading incomplete information or, in other words, to quit gossiping.

While it might be awkward, the right thing for Larry to do is to contact the colleague about whom the questions are being asked. If he's able to reach the colleague, he can let them know that he's been receiving emails asking if he knew anything about the colleague, and that there are suggestions in the air that the colleague might be leaving the company.

The risk is that the colleague might be embarrassed at the news. But by letting the colleague know there is discussion going on about them, it gives the colleague the opportunity to decide whether there's a way for to control the discussion so that misinformation isn't spread. If the colleague doesn't know that there's a buzz about them, then they don't have the opportunity to try to do anything about controlling that buzz.

If Larry ever finds himself on the receiving end of such a call, I'd hope that he'd be as appreciative as the colleague should be by hearing from Larry. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

It's not just offices. It happens in teachers' lounges, too. One day as one of the teachers walked out of the teachers' lounge, some of the teachers started talking about her. It made me wonder what people are saying when I walk out of the room.

My "right thing" is not to participate. One of the nicest thing anyone ever said to me was in a teachers' lounge. She said, "You know, I noticed you never talk about other people." I said, " That's true, I don't. Thank you for noticing!"

Scott Manas
Miami, FL

Rick Kenney said...

Jeffrey, I didn't see your eventual response coming, but I can see its unconventional wisdom. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Having spent the last 30 years working in an office the very best way to stop gossip is to completely ignore it! Do not respond to it and do not pass it on--even to the target! The more people talk about it the bigger the problem.

Anonymous said...

The employees do not have enough work. The boss needs to bury them so as to not allow free time for meaningless chatter.
Pretty simple.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.