Ombud’s Corner: toxic tales

Gossip comes with a high dose of toxicity that spreads and propagates. It differs from harmless everyday conversations in that it often tends to be inflammatory or embarrassing to people, and feeds off a negative emotional charge, which is hurtful, damaging and insidious… So, ask yourselves about that last juicy story you just heard: is it something you would repeat in front of the person concerned?


Gossip is a silent killer. In the workplace, it can be very destructive and often leads to strained relationships and a complete breakdown of trust between co-workers. As the word spreads rapidly, diffused and slightly modified at each step through the familiar game of what here might be called ‘Cernese whispers’, gossip can induce negative biases about people that tend to be invisible but long-lasting, and wreak far reaching consequences on people’s careers whilst the source remains buried or unidentified.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone who leaves the room suddenly becomes the subject of conversation? And what about the times when critical comments are made to you about absent colleagues? How do you react when you hear negative judgements being made about others who are not present to defend themselves? Do you challenge these tales or simply accept them as factual elements in a normal exchange of information?

Indeed, how does one distinguish between a healthy conversation about shared experiences, news of colleagues or happenings that are of interest to all… and the type of tale-bearing that leads to damaged reputations and poisoned relationships? What are the warning signals that serve to put one on guard against entering into gossip cycles? There is no single answer to that question, but a possible clue lies in asking oneself in what sentiment or spirit the story is being shared. Is it being told with good will and a positive intention, or does it seem to be driven by negativity and a wish to put the subject down? Other clues lie in isolation behaviour, where people are deliberately left out of the information flow; a lack of specifics or first-hand information on further probing, an inability to produce examples by which the story can be verified; or the formation of cliques where colleagues start to take sides and refuse to work with one another.

If you recognise such signals in your professional environment, you can be instrumental in putting an end to the storytelling. Walk away from the gossip or turn the negative story around by saying something positive about the person instead. Share information sparingly and focus on building healthy working relationships that valorise trust. If you need to confront a problematic situation, do it directly with the people concerned in a spirit of mutual respect, rather than complaining about them behind their backs.

Putting a stop to gossip becomes even more essential if you are in a supervisory role, where it is your responsibility to ensure that your teams understand that gossiping and rumour-mongering will not be tolerated. Communicate regularly and consistently with your staff to minimise the need for speculation and lead the way towards a climate of transparency and trust. And when you spot the smoke that signals gossip… don’t be tempted to fan the fire yourself!

Trivial and unsubstantiated information flows through every type of workplace and all organisations have their versions of ‘Cernese whispers’, but when you realise that these whispers may turn nasty or potentially damaging you need to nip them in the bud before they trap you into joining the game.

And when you say you never gossip… beware… for even if you only listen, you become a co-narrator, and the more you listen the more you actually support and promote the toxic tales. Gossip cycles are self-perpetuating, but… if there is nobody there to listen… they die a natural death!

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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill