“Few moments define workplace friendship quite like the first flirtation with gossip. Your colleague rolls her eyes at you when someone cracks a particularly stupid joke in a meeting, or sends a Slack DM reacting to an awkward discussion in the group chat. You’ve taken a new, delicious step in your relationship: Now, you’re people who can talk about other people together.
Often, this gossip-infused camaraderie is long-awaited and exhilarating. Research has shown that workplace friendship is key to employee satisfaction, and that complaining to colleagues can bolster friendship, satisfaction, and productivity.
“In our studies, we find that when individuals are able to gossip about one another, it can lead to two useful outcomes,” says Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. First, gossip helps you know what to make of the person being gossiped about, even if you’ve never interacted with them before. “In this way, gossip is how a person’s reputation precedes them, for better or worse,” says Feinberg.
And secondly, gossip can help convey more nuanced workplace norms. “You learn a lot about what others might expect of you when they complain about a third person behaving in certain ways,” says Feinberg.
Lighthearted gossip is one thing. But the truth is that gossip is not always accurate or fair. Routine snarking about your colleague can have nasty ripple effects, and even shape someone’s workplace reputation for months and years to come. And when talking about your coworkers tips from “good fun” to toxic, it usually looks like an under-discussed form of workplace bullying called triangulation.”
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