5 tips for handling gossip in the workplace

Watercooler chitchat isn’t all bad, but steer clear of trouble.
By Cheryl Meyer

"Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people" is an oft-quoted adage that seems like pretty sound advice. Yet despite that notion, some professionals—CPAs included—still have a penchant for gossip.

It's simply human nature. People chatter for many reasons: They are fascinated by bad news, they need to vent about difficult clients, or they are frustrated with a supervisor, to name a few. Jason Hardy, CPA, manager of assurance and advisory services at Grossman Yanak & Ford LLP in Pittsburgh and a 2015 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, notes that gossip is "almost unavoidable within any space where you have a handful of people working."

Still, organizations and individuals need to keep gossip in check, lest it spiral out of control and cause irreparable harm. Accountants who instigate any damaging drivel—or even just partake in the watercooler whispering—can hurt their personal progress and standing, not to mention the character of the person they are discussing. Internally, gossip can also destroy staff trust and impair morale and the team. Externally, if rumors are spread and word gets out, gossiping can spoil relationships with clients.

"We are the safekeepers of information," said Bryon Garrety, CPA, founder and managing partner at Garrety & Associates CPAs in Baton Rouge, La. "We have an ethical duty not to disclose. Loose lips can sink ships, and that's very true in an accounting firm."

Not all chitchat is bad, of course. There's nothing wrong with talking positively about someone or asking questions of their colleagues, such as, "Did you hear Luke was promoted?" or "Did you know Lucy is in the hospital?" Such banter does not damage someone's character or have a destructive spin. Spiteful gossip, in contrast, "can hurt someone's reputation … and it is based on hearsay," noted Joel Garfinkle, founder of Garfinkle Executive Coaching in Oakland, Calif., and author of Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level.

So what is the best way for employees, managers, and firms to deal with the inevitable sprouting of gossip? Here are some tips:

  • Bow out gracefully. If colleagues are gossiping about someone else, either leave or redirect the conversation. Say you need to get back to work. Look at your phone and say something has come up. "If it is not directly related to a project you are working on, you need to move on," Garrety said. Or, if you feel bold, you could point out that the information has not been confirmed and warn co-workers about sharing information that could be untrue, he added.
  • Add a positive spin. If you're caught in the midst of a gossip fest, you can change the subject or say something nice about the person being discussed. "It isn't as much fun to spread negative news if it is complemented with a positive phrase about the person being attacked," Garfinkle said.
  • Establish rules. Partners and their respective firms should set forth guiding principles regarding gossip in the workplace. Garrety's firm created such a policy about such discussions: "First, it has to be the truth, and if you don't know it's the truth, don't speak it," he said. "Next, it has to be necessary. There is lots of information we can talk about ad nauseam, but if it is not necessary, do not bring it to the office. Lastly, is it kind? If it is mean-spirited, it doesn't need to be spoken." If a discussion at his firm fails on any of those points, he said, it's not welcome.
  • Address the rumormonger quickly. Managers privy to negative gossip need to nip the issue in the bud, and if possible, go to the source, even if they are the target. It's typical for supervisors to hear gossip secondhand or even further down the line. "Try to identify the issues and put a stop or defuse them early, before they grow out of control," Hardy said. "And do that one-on-one, as opposed to doing something publicly." Also, be direct with the person who started the gossip, noting that "such behavior is starting to impact their reputation," he added.
  • Make it known you will not partake in gossip. While you should bow out gracefully if you encounter prickly chatter, the easiest way to deal with gossip is to steer clear of it altogether. This is true for CPAs at all levels within a firm, including managers, who must set an example and avoid getting sucked into negative conversations about others. "It is a very important boundary as an employee that you need to establish—that you will not participate in any form of gossip at work," Garfinkle advised. "So if someone shares a juicy story with you, or an interesting observation of a person that is negative, have it stop with you. It is vital that you take personal responsibility or act with integrity."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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