Many young professionals, no matter how hardworking and dedicated, find it hard to avoid the inevitable watercooler chitchat. They’re often caught off-guard when colleagues use these talks as a forum to criticize others and office drama ensues. Gossip and drama occur for many reasons: frustration with the boss or peers, the need for human connection, the desire to belittle others to feel better about oneself, boredom, or the need to talk about something.
What’s more, added Dave Molenda, business coach, author, and the founder of coaching firm Positive Polarity in Waukesha, Wis., most professionals spend more time at work than home, with people they might not choose to interact with in other settings. “When two personalities clash, whether in a relationship outside the office or inside the office, you tend to have drama and disagreements, and tend to have conflict,” he said.
But if left unchecked, office gossip and drama can lead to professional discord, reduced productivity, lower morale, and a breakdown of teamwork, collaboration, and good customer service. Office gossip can also derail a person’s career if he or she becomes known as a rumormonger or someone who talks badly about others. “It’s like a cavity or cancer—if you don’t deal with it or address it, it rarely gets better by itself,” Molenda added.
So how can you steer clear of—or manage—office drama and gossip? Here are some tips from Molenda and experienced CPAs:
Know yourself. Many professionals do not realize their role in perpetuating workplace gossip or drama and have blind spots when it comes to their own character traits. Ask yourself tough questions: Are you ever an instigator? Do you try to stop gossip or communicate with the person starting it?
Recognize gossip, then refrain or redirect. Friendly banter happens at most organizations, but sometimes banter can turn negative and critical. It’s important to identify when someone crosses the line and goes too far—“and then take a conscious stand not to participate in it,” said Kristen Rampe, CPA, founder of Kristen Rampe Consulting in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a scheduled speaker at this year’s EDGE Experience conference, Aug. 2–4, in New Orleans.
If gossip or drama is making you uncomfortable, leave the conversation or attempt to change the subject. Tell your colleagues you are busy and have work to do. Say, “Hey, I need to take care of things at my desk,” or “How about those Cubs?,” she suggested. Having the courage to remove yourself from these situations is a behavioral trait of great leaders.
Be professional and painstaking. Colleagues are unlikely to gossip about you if you work hard for the benefit of the organization, your colleagues, and yourself, noted Steven Roudebush, CPA, a staff accountant at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis. “Your responsibilities are to give 100% effort when you are at work. So work hard and communicate your workload with your manager on the job and just do your job to the best of your ability.”
Also, always be courteous and professional when talking with colleagues or clients, and listen more than you speak. “You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to be respectful,” said Pamela Ditch, CPA, tax supervisor at Anders CPA + Advisors in St. Louis.
Offer to help. If your co-worker complains about or criticizes another colleague and you feel compelled to weigh in, “try to help the person gossiping to find the right outlet,” Rampe said. “Is there a manager or partner or peer they can talk to? Find a different way to route that energy.”
Ask for advice. If you are the subject of gossip, or if office drama is affecting the organization or a colleague in a serious way, it may be time to talk to a manager or supervisor whom you trust. Ask your superior how you should approach a situation and how you can possibly resolve it. “If it’s something you can’t work through, then that’s the point where you’ve got to start getting somebody else involved,” Molenda said.
Managers, set the stage. Gossiping and drama cause stress and division within teams, so supervisors must act as examples in terms of how to handle such problems in the workplace. Establish a no-gossip policy early on within your group, and talk with any gossipmongers directly, rather than in a roundabout way, to nip the problems in the bud. State you have heard them talking about someone and that it makes you uncomfortable. “If you can nail that early in your career,” Rampe said, “you have a huge success path ahead of you.”
Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.
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