The Perils of Gossip in the Workplace

It seems pretty harmless at first. A small rant about a co-worker by the water cooler. A sarcastic remark behind someone’s back. Most of us have been guilty of it at some point. I’m certainly no saint. It doesn’t take much for it to get out of hand, though. I have in the past had first hand experience of this that at the time was incredibly hurtful.

This happened a while ago. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve been prone to making mistakes, which is why I have a healthy respect for any QA team who has picked them up before it got dangerous. I’ll quite happily hold my hand up to that, and accept that as a mere human, I’ll continue to make mistakes whether I’d like it to or not. Whilst, of course, trying to get better.

So, it started off quite simple. I was making mistakes, and it was being discussed in derogatory fashion behind my back by a very small group of peers. While I would have preferred to have had it raised to my face, not everyone has the backbone to give that kind of criticism. Anyways, as is the case with most gossip – I found out what was being said. Word has a way of getting around, be it through over-hearing a conversation, or someone ‘letting you in’ on what is being said.

So, how to react to this? Well, the complaints were fair, in the context. I opted to say nothing, and to work harder on taking more care with my work. Unfortunately, perfection does not come overnight. This is still an area that I am constantly attempting to improve on. I ended up at a point where I could freely state that I still had a lot of work to do in this area, but I could also point out that I had actually improved – and prove it with my results.

Sadly, the talk continued. With some added embellishment. In addition, everything I was doing was being nitpicked to death just to find a problem. Which astonished me, as surely there was enough there to talk about already, without exaggerating it? Plus, nitpick anything closely enough, and you will find some kind of fault. It was like these people were looking for something to bitch about me for, given that I was slowly giving them less ammunition to work with. It was unfair, in my mind. I chose to deal with it by having a polite chat with the people involved (and even those not involved), hoping that would help. I even asked for help and advice on how to improve.

It turns out that I was being somewhat naive in my approach to the issue. Over the course of a couple of years, this kind of thing continued. The help and advice I’d asked for was not forthcoming from the people involved. All throughout, I was aware of what was being said, and getting more irritated. Not so irritated that I felt it worth making a scene though – in my performance reviews, it was always noted that I was improving, with an acknowledgement of there being room to continue to improve. I never scored badly on any of my performance reviews, so I wrongly assumed that this would be held up in the face of any derogatory comment about me if it ever got to that point.

The situation was irritating, but not hurtful – yet. I’d already acknowledged to myself by this point that these people weren’t interested in helping me (or any of the people they were discussing, as I certainly wasn’t the only person on the receiving end of this treatment) to fix what they perceived as a problem. They just wanted to bitch about someone. I wasn’t too concerned, as this kind of talk had been going on for around three years, and I hadn’t been so much as put on a performance review because of it.

Shortly after being given an asked for pay-rise (I couldn’t have been as terrible at my job as I was being made to feel, with this being the case), the political landscape changed, and things got much nastier. I was also having my own issues with depression, which didn’t help. My usual rock-coated skin disappeared at around the time the gossip turned to outright untruths about myself. The stuff being said – and believed by others – had me in tears on the way to and from the office. In addition to other things going on, it was a perfect storm to drive me to the brink.

Here’s the thing – by the time it had gotten to this stage, it was too late to put in a complaint about the people talking about me like this. The atmosphere was flat out toxic for a whole host of reasons at this point, and the stuff being said had already floated up to the upper levels of the management by the time I became aware of just how nasty things had gotten. It was common knowledge that I was depressed, so anything I said to try and report the issue with an aim of having it dealt with was treated with an attitude that I was taking things the wrong way because of my depression. I confronted some of the people involved with varying degrees of success. It didn’t solve the problem by any means, but it did make me feel more in control of what was going on. Strangely enough, that helped. Ultimately, I accepted I was in a fight I had no hope of winning – and fled to a much healthier environment.

So there you have it. I’m past the whole thing enough now that I am finally able to write this post about (hopefully) coming across as too bitter about what happened. Something that started off as a fair criticism turned incredibly nasty. It would be remiss of me to go through something that, at the time, was flat out horrible, without taking – and sharing – the lessons from it.

All throughout this, I wrongly assumed that my results would speak for themselves. In trying to think the best of the people who were involved in the situation, I also failed to confront the issue as aggressively as I should have done. Sadly, left unchecked, dishonest gossip will adversely affect the perception others have of you. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away – it will just get to the point where it’s not even worth salvaging it.

Above all, the lessons learnt here come back to things I have said before – you can’t change people, you can only change how you react to people. Most of all, you are in charge of your own situation. I attempted to fight what was happening at the expense of my own mental health. I didn’t start getting better until I got out.

As for not being bitter – well, I wouldn’t be the person I want to be if I was still letting this get to me. I don’t think badly of the people involved – it’s just not worth the mental energy. If I let myself be consumed by bad feeling about this, that would affect my ability to examine the situation logically, meaning that I would lose sight of any lessons to be learned. In addition, this post would have been a rant instead of an attempt to share some (hopefully useful) lessons.

So, to sum up on how I’ve learnt to deal with office gossip:

  • Gossip never fixes anything. Don’t get dragged into gossiping about co-workers. If you have a real complaint, take it through the proper channels. Bear in mind that the people talking like this will probably have no issue talking about you in similar fashion. Stay clear of them, lest you be tarred with the same brush. Say nothing that you wouldn’t say to the face of the person being discussed.
  • If the gossip is about you, talk to the people involved – see if they actually have a point, and act on it. Bear in mind that some people just don’t have the backbone to be upfront about things. Don’t be a pushover, though. Let this be their only chance. See below.
  • If that fails, let the people higher up the food chain know what is going on. You’ve attempted to address the gossiping with the people involved already. It’s apparent at this point that the issue has less to do with your work, and more to do with their personal dislike of you. That kind of thing has no place in a workplace.
  • If that still fails, get out and don’t look back – because odds are you are in a toxic work environment, and nothing is going to get better any time soon. The only person who can ultimately look after you is you.
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