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3 Times It’s OK to Listen to Office Gossip

Topics: Work Culture

You’re usually told to avoid participating in office gossip. Loose lips can sink careers, and anyway, you have work to do. But sometimes, you just can’t help but hear something through the grapevine. The trick is to know when you should just Keep Calm and Carry On and when it’s OK to Now Panic and Freak Out.

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When the Company Is Taking a Dive (or Not)

Staying attuned to gossip about the company’s fortunes might save you a last-minute scramble to find a job once your severance package is laid out in black and white. That doesn’t mean panicking at the first hint of a layoff, but it does mean taking scuttlebutt seriously enough to update your resume and reconnect with old contacts.

For managers, it’s important to know that people will gossip about their company. That’s just a fact of life. As any good PR will tell you, controlling the story is 9/10ths of the job. If “downsizing” or (ungh) “right-sizing” is on the horizon, think about how people will hear about it and what they might infer.

Because, really, they’re going to hear about it. Everyone. Possibly as quickly as email keys can be pressed or phone numbers can be punched or water coolers can be stalked. And that of course, means keeping conversations going both ways. The channel of gossip can run uphill as well. When employees are given a chance to speak frankly to their bosses about what they’re hearing and how it makes them feel, you can get a true feeling for what’s going on in the trenches.

When You’re Someone’s Rock

Sometimes people need to vent, and they can’t always get the emotional connection by sharing details about work strife to a husband or wife or even a therapist. They’ve got you, Sally Cube Neighbor, and you need to do them a solid by being a good sounding board. Maybe it’s just proximity or perceived neutrality that’s bringing that coworker to your desk, but it doesn’t really matter why they’re there. Sometimes the best thing you can do is be a good listener to someone’s troubles (instead of waiting around for your turn to talk). You don’t have to pass along anything that you hear. In fact, it’s probably healthier all around if the buck stops with you. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take it all in. Being there for someone is always a good deed that goes on your permanent record.

When You Might Get an Opportunity

A 2014 study showed that office gossip can affect you personally (even if it’s not about you, Sheila). Researchers found that “results of a critical incident study and an experimental study showed that positive gossip had higher self-improvement value than negative gossip, whereas negative gossip had higher self-promotion value and raised higher self-protection concerns than positive gossip.” So if you hear negative things, you become more attuned to how to help yourself survive the negativity (say, a round of upcoming layoffs) and when you hear positive things, you are inspired to better yourself, but not out of fear of what’s coming down the road.

This is a great note to those in charge. Even little positive things about the company can help ease the often-stressful environment in a workplace. Creating room for opportunity can be your biggest asset to keeping good talent on your payroll, instead of leading them to jump ship.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever learned something from office gossip that boosted your career? We want to hear from you. Tell us about your experience in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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