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Workplace Gossip and Watercooler Chats

Gossip can be malicious, especially when it concerns real people

Caitlin Hall


Two women gossiping at work

Gossip can be malicious, especially when it concerns real people. There’s never an excuse for being unkind, but particularly so in the workplace, where it’s perhaps even more unforgivable to have someone prying into your personal life or making your work life difficult.

Should a colleague gossip about you or the work you do, you can complain to your manager and/or HR department that you’ve been the target of their negative comments and behaviour. Most companies take claims of this sort very seriously nowadays, as it can reflect badly on the organisation’s professionalism, working culture and outward image if such negative and potentially damaging conduct is not stamped out quickly.

All that said, some aspects of gossiping in the workplace can be a positive. ‘Watercooler chats’ can help colleagues feel like they’re socialising, which can help to boost morale; people can go back to their desks feeling more energised and ready to do their work after a lively chat during their coffee breaks. Harmless conversations and shared interactions can help employees feel more connected to their colleagues and be as effective, if not more so, than any team-building exercise.

Even when talk strays into ‘gossiping’, it can lead to employees learning about what their colleagues are paid; in some organisations, there can be huge discrepancies between employees/genders for much the same work. People who have worked at the business for a long time may find they’re being paid much less than new trainees, for example. Injustices like these can be uncovered by watercooler gossip.

‘Gossip’ can help employees understand the inner workings of their organisation and allow them to share their worries with people who understand what they might be feeling.

Workplace banter can be healthy and help colleagues to bond—as long as the ‘butt of the joke’ isn’t offended and is included in the fun, as there’s nothing worse than being laughed at behind your back.

Whatever you think about workplace gossip, it’s likely its effect will be diluted now that many people work from home. But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Two women gossiping at work

Two women gossiping at work

For instance, would people be as open about the company they work for and their colleagues on Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Microsoft Teams as they would in front of the watercooler, or whilst waiting for the kettle to boil in the office’s kitchen? Do employees find working from home, whilst undoubtedly convenient, detrimental in other ways, such as when communicating with colleagues?

A recent PwC study showed that 87% of executives think that working from the office is ‘important for collaborating with team members and building relationships’. This suggests that the people at the top believe co-worker relationships would be less likely to form and strengthen if an organisation works primarily from home. Perhaps remote working affects the amount of information shared between colleagues, which could have significant bearing on how they view/perform at their job?

Arguably, if an employee has little to do with their colleagues when working from home—through choice—interaction can at least be limited to just formal and professional communication. They can at least get on with their work and not be distracted by private chat conversations or digital banter. However, a reluctance to join in with workplace chat doesn’t make anyone immune to bullying, and the effect of such harassment may be felt more acutely by remote workers because of commonly blurred lines between work and home. In a shared workplace, poor behaviour can be left at the door, whereas bullying via digital communication has the potential to infiltrate your sanctuary.

An article in the New York Times implied that workplace bullying and harassment has actually become more prevalent in the age of online working. They say that this is because ‘the channels through which remote work occurs—text, phone, video—are often unmonitored, unrecorded or occur outside employer-sponsored platforms’. They also suggest that having other colleagues as bystanders in a traditional office setting helps to discourage workplace bullying, whereas working from home ‘deprives us of witnesses’.

This article from HR Director also implies that bullying might have increased with remote working, because of ‘misinterpreted emails’ and ‘wider miscommunication’. Without anyone else around to give an objective view, it’s easy for an employee to overthink things in written communication or read something into a colleague’s words that maybe isn’t there.

Cat sat on top of laptop while working from home.

Cat sat on top of laptop while working from home.

Hybrid working, whilst a good solution in so many ways for both employee and employer, could cause factions, separating those working at home from those working in the office—a sort of ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture. ‘Technology doesn’t allow for free-flowing conversation’, HR Director states, suggesting that meetings can be stilted and one-sided when virtual. Often, during in-person meetings, louder colleagues can dominate meetings; meetings via Zoom or Teams could emphasise this behaviour further. Less tech-savvy employees may also find online meetings more difficult to access, which could create another divide. And would current GDPR rules allow bosses to access private messages, if a claim of bullying is raised? If not, how would any harassment be investigated?

In conclusion, though there are no physical watercoolers in the online world, gossip will always exist. How it’s enjoyed/delivered may have altered since remote working became more common, but the outcomes will likely be the same. Workplace bullying and harassment also look to be, unfortunately, still prevalent—and whilst this is difficult to hide in a shared workplace, it could go undetected for a long time if individuals’ direct messaging accounts are used.

A remote worker’s home is their workplace, and they should still receive the same level of protection from bullying than if the whole workforce was in the office. Your home should be off limits—your safe space—but it’s easy to see how this could be far from the case if a colleague’s unkind behaviour infiltrates your four walls.

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