Gutting Gossip: How to Kill the Poison Grapevine at Work

Michael Zigarelli

From: Christianity 9 to 5: Living Your Faith at Work, © Beacon Hill Press, 1997. Used by permission.

Work at any job for even a short period of time and you’re guaranteed to be exposed to gossip. Co-workers talk about each other – a lot. Typical evidence of this comes from the American Society for Training and Development which found, in a large national survey, that 64 percent of people say they gossip at work “sometimes” while more than one in five admits to being a “frequent participant” in workplace gossip. (Training and Development, October 1, 1994, p. 20.)

Should this be of any concern to us as Christians? Do we have a responsibility to avoid or even restrain such behavior? What, if anything, can we do when the poison grapevine begins to grow out of control?

To answer these questions, let’s begin with a basic understanding of gossip. It’s simply “discrediting talk about someone who is not present.” Why do we engage in this discrediting talk? A lot of reasons, actually. An obvious one is to seek revenge on an individual. We may feel wronged by him and, rather than directly confront or ridicule this person, we elect to malign him and to spread rumors about him behind his back.

Second, gossip bonds the people who engage in it. Talking about a common enemy or problem brings us closer together.

A third reason that people find workplace gossip especially appealing is something that makes it especially sinful: we often gossip to knock someone down a few notches so that we may then look and feel superior to this person. We try to enhance our image at the expense of someone else’s. And, in many cases, we don’t even consciously realize that this is why we are gossiping! But think about it. Isn’t this one of the major reasons why those trashy television talk shows attract so many viewers? Don’t people who are watching marvel at the deviance or absurdity of the guests and then, somehow feel better about themselves because they would never descend to that level? Don’t these shows bolster our own self-image by denigrating the lives and actions of others? Workplace gossip exists in large part for the same purpose. One rationale for criticizing someone’s wardrobe may be to highlight our own.

Gossip, then, clearly is not something in which we Christians should engage because when we do, we score big on the sinfulness index – slander and pride in one brief conversation. And perhaps a little vengeance or even envy thrown in for good measure. Furthermore, scripture speaks explicitly and unequivocally to the issue: gossiping is a sin (e.g., Rom. 1:29, 2 Cor. 12:20). One who gossips “betrays a confidence” (Prov. 11:13, 20:19), “separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28) and is always “saying things [he] ought not to” (1 Tim. 5:13).

Since we do indeed have this responsibility to avoid gossip, what are we to do in a work environment that is saturated with it? Is there any way to really stifle it in our workplace conversations?

Believe it or not, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists have conducted a substantial amount of gossip research. They’ve examined everything from what gossip is to why it exists to the role it plays in society. Most importantly for our purposes here, there’s also some very good research revealing how a gossipy conversation progresses and how a participant in that conversation can effectively cut it off.

In analyzing the structure of gossip, researchers at the University of Indiana, in perhaps the best empirical study of its kind, found that the when someone in a group conversation expresses a negative opinion about an individual who is not present (i.e., when the gossiping first begins), the first response to this opinion from a member of the group will often determine whether more gossiping will occur in that conversation. More specifically, if the first response to this negative statement supports the comment, then the gossiping tends to spiral. Other people in the conversation consider it safe to agree (and unsafe to disagree) with the opinion and it typically becomes open season on the target of the gossip. However – and here’s where you come in – if the first response to the negative comment is a challenge to it (i.e., if someone immediately disagrees with or questions the assessment before anyone else endorses it), then the conversation is much less likely to become a gossip fest. Often, the initial speaker responds by moderating or even retracting the opinion and the conversation goes in any number of directions. People in the conversation feel free to either agree or disagree with the initial evaluation, because they know they will not stand alone.

Also noteworthy, the researchers found that if the initial negative comment is immediately seconded by another person in the conversation, it is much more difficult for someone else (you, for example) to then challenge the negative evaluation in an attempt to head off the gossip. This is because once someone has agreed with the first speaker, anyone desiring to challenge the initial comment must take on at least two people and maybe, take on the whole group. By contrast, when one takes issue with a negative comment before it has been seconded, that person is, at that point, challenging only one individual’s evaluation. This is significantly less risky, especially in a work environment.

These research conclusions, it seems, make intuitive sense. We’ve all been in such conversations and we’ve seen them either intensify or whither based on the first response. Moreover, this is valuable information for Christians because it demonstrates how we can put some reigns on workplace gossip. Any time that gossip rears its ugly head, we can immediately, but gently, challenge it. We should be prepared to respond with a counter-opinion or raise some doubt before the comment is ever endorsed. And in those cases where we actually agree with the negative assessment, rather than joining in or even remaining silent, we can look for a creative way to quickly steer the conversation elsewhere. In other words, when you agree with the gossiper, neither endorse nor denounce the negative opinion, but instead, tactfully change the subject.

You’ll no doubt have ample opportunity to try this technique, so experiment with it. Learn how to diplomatically extinguish gossip as soon as it begins. Once you make this a habit, you will not only find yourself participating in much less gossip at work, but you will also reduce conflicts with and among your co-workers.


For more information, please see Donna Eder and Janet Lynne Enke, “The Structure of Gossip: Opportunities and Constraints on the Collective Expression among Adolescents,” American Sociological Review, (1991), 56: 494-508.

From: Christianity 9 to 5: Living Your Faith at Work, © Beacon Hill Press, 1997. Used by permission.

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of the