As you make your way to the coffee pot in the morning, you see it: three co-workers are huddled in the corner, talking in quiet voices. They wave you over to join in the banter.

As you sip your coffee and listen in, you notice the conversation is about some romantic interlude allegedly going on between two of your colleagues.

Whether the rumor is true or not, the more details you hear, the more uncomfortable you feel. You cut in, say you got work to do, and bail the scene.

The effects of workplace gossip

Gossip is stealthy and many working professionals are unaware of when it happens, even when they're the perpetrators of gossip.

In its best sense, Dr. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, argues in his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language that gossip is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people.

In its worse and darkest sense, gossip is used by people to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of their colleagues. And yet, it's hard to walk away from a juicy story and, for those addicted to gossip (yes, it's a thing), even harder to keep it to themselves.

So when gossip permeates the hallways of an organization to the point where the workplace becomes a hostile work environment, there are dire consequences:

  • A gradual decline of trust and morale.
  • Emotional drama that disrupts work productivity; people infected by gossip will stop by to "get the latest," thus wasting precious company time.
  • Anxiety and tension are high as rumors circulate and people walk on eggshells without knowing what is and isn't fact.
  • Divisiveness as people take sides.
  • Unexpected turnover and loss of good talent who left due to the toxic work environment.

6 ways to get rid of gossip

As I began this article, the logical thing to do is not engage in the gossip. If co-workers start to talk trash about another person, politely excuse yourself. This will send a message, in a non-confrontational manner, that you don't tolerate the behavior in a professional setting.

Here are six other ways to curb gossip at work.

1. Change the subject.

For example: "Wow, that's quite a challenge [name] is facing. Sounds like he's having a bad week. By the way, did you know that...?" When someone is fixated on tearing down a colleague, be quick to express some sympathy and then quickly move on.

2. Elevate yourself above it.

People attracted to gossip have plenty of downtime to engage in it. Remind yourself that you have more important things to do and that your time is too precious to waste on participating in talking behind someone's back with disgruntled co-workers.

3. Address the gossipers.

This will take some courage, but stand up to gossipers and address them one-on-one in a neutral and more private room or office so others can't overhear. The point is not a pummel session, but to tactfully demonstrate, with specific examples, how your colleague's behavior is affecting and disrupting work.

4. Encourage "positive gossip." 

One way to remove the toxicity of negative gossip is to create a culture where people share positive stories about work, customers, and culture. Start morning meetings and morning huddles with positive gossip and reinforce the cultural values and key behaviors you want through story-telling.

5. Keep your private life private.

Unless you have absolute certainty that you can trust your team members, the rule of thumb is plain and simple: Don't trust personal information with anyone at work that will be fodder for gossip. If you find them gossiping about other people, you can bet that they will be gossiping about you as well. 

6. Agree to a 'zero-tolerance' policy or team agreement. 

Many companies protect employees from disclosing sensitive information to others, where violation of such a policy poses the risk of disciplinary action or even termination. If this is above your line of sight, simply set a team agreement in your department where gossip will not be tolerated.