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Gossip: A Form of Workplace Warfare

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 18th 2009

 Do you engage in gossip? Have you ever been the target of other peoples' gossip? Is gossip just harmless socializing?

New research done by Nicole Hess, an evolutionary psychologist at Washington State University in Vancouver, says gossiping can be a form of warfare in which information is used as a weapon that could potentially damage a competitor's reputation. An effective defense, according to the study, is having friends.

Dr. Hess reports that she instructed 500 subjects to imagine that they were competing for a promotion within a corporation.  She then had them read a list of positive and negative statements, or "gossip," about their rival for the promotion. She then asked them how likely they would be to relay each piece of "gossip" to others in the office.

Hess found that participants tended to spread more of the negative comments when she raised the stakes  by increasing the salary or decreasing the number of promotions available. But, she says, they were less likely to denigrate their competitor when  told their opponent had a friend in the company. In other words, having an ally within the community deters negative gossip. 

According to Hess, the reason that having a friend in the community deters gossip is that your friend will be in the know and may be able to help you use "retaliatory gossip" to stop attacks.

Dr. Hess reports that the sexes were equally willing to use negative gossip to gain an advantage in the competition. She therefore suspects that a tendency to gossip depends more on the situation than on the gender.

However, other research suggests that women do engage in gossip more than men. If this is true it may be due to what Hess describes as women facing more competition within groups as compared to men. Therefore, women "should be more inclined to gossip competitively about group members," according to Hess.

What does not seem clear is why women should face more competition within groups as compared to men?

From my point of view, gossip has never been harmless and, in fact, can and does cause a lot of damage. I have seen many therapy patients over the years who complained bitterly about gossip and how it damaged their reputation. There are those times when gossip seems to me to be a form of scapegoating where the group unites against one person who becomes the target of aggression and hatred. In all, gossip can create a hostile and paranoid atmosphere in a place of work with extremely damaging effects on morale and productivity.

What are your experiences with gossip?

Your comments and questions are encouraged

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

A Kingdom was Lost...for want of a Tale? - Penny D. Lightbourne - Feb 10th 2012

...I'm sure that many people have there own parables of experience with gossip, that would span the lifetime, from being victimized by childhood tattletaler's  through peer pressure in high school, and so on.  The actual mimetic content of all forms of gossip is highly virulent and is a deteriment to a healthy collective mentality in the community of a social biosphere.  Gossip can be quite literally dangerous when untrue and create untold destruction of one's personal and professional life.  There is such a thing as Online Reputation Management, but as long as it's protecting the innocent.  It's a healthy thing to experience a robust case of deconstruction, whether in personal or corporate life, just like healing through the measles or such disease's, we can become stronger, mature, and develop a natural immunity to the damage created by gossip.  But, there is certainly room here to widely develop the law, especially regarding prosecution for life threatening damage to oneself through erroneous discussion; especially via the Internet, or company web-rings, or through social media, etc. It's very much time for society in general to adopt wholesome life-affirming values both within the workplace and that a personal kingdom or two does not go bereft of it's well earned fortune, or future potential.

Pack mentality - Josephine - Jul 11th 2010

Hi Dr Schwartz

I agree with one of the other commentators who say that there is a pack mentality involved in workplace gossip. In my case it was (still is) a group of men who loved to spread rumours about me via email as they were too cowardly to make their comments to my face. Unlike the previous story, my crime was not being shy but daring to be friendly to a new employee who was initially shy. To have the same person turn against me because they found a new pack of friends in his gossip circle has really got me down. I've become quiet and withdrawn as a result and guess what? Even that is news to gossip about apparently.

Interestingly eough, the men concerned are all on the lower pay scales and have delusions of grandeur about how much they contribute to productivity. I still feel very hurt and betrayed about being the subject of gossip and can't believe that my 'friend' didn't have the guts to declare the gossip unfair and instead chose to continue to fuel it. I don't think there is an easy way to nip this in the budand  unfortunately will only quieten down once a new victim is selected.

What happened to me . - ... - Apr 1st 2010

Well , one day at work ..

i was having this stomache problem and i couldnt really eat full amounts of food or i would throw up .. and i always eat im not one to starve myself . but one time i got food and i ate it even tho my stomache didnt agree with it , i pretty much forced it and i ended up throwing up .. and the gossip of the week from my manager ! was i was belimic .. can you believe that , she's seen me eat about a million times and did i puke , no .. so ya that was a problem ..


Aggression - Bridie - Sep 7th 2009

I preceive gossip as a form of aggression.  Men  seem less likely to gossip and seem more likely to go fist to cuff.  Women often use gossip as a way to "bond".   

I don't think of gossip as passive aggressive behavior because it is anything but passive.  In some situations gossip can feel like harassement to the victim of gossip as well as to the person hearing the gossip. 

Adapting to the Pack - 2002to2009 - Apr 20th 2009

Hi, Dr. Schwartz. I agree. It’s a pack animal behavior that ultimately hurts everyone. Yet the gossipers (in my experience) were so self-righteous about it that they seemed to regard it as part of their job. I think a few hated that they couldn’t list it on their resume. And of course, they were the hardest workers there, according to them. Sometimes that was almost true. Other times, they were just average. Above all, you could see they were far from seeing their behavior as inferior. And why should they? Reality T.V. endorses it.   What Hess pointed out about having friends might seem self-evident to someone with social savvy. It also explains why, when I was at my shyest, I was the target of that form of “warfare.” I remember people telling me: “You never talk; you’re always just working.” In retrospect, I realize that was a warning.  It turned out that the amount I worked didn’t protect me from politics. Ignoring that aspect of the workplace as being beneath me was a mistake.   Having a social network is vital. It takes as much time to realize all the advantages to having one as it takes to develop social confidence. There are little permutations that don’t occur to you until you’ve done it. It can help you save money, find a new job, or just a great new restaurant or salon. If you don’t have friends, the hyenas will hone in on you. To them, your friendlessness is just laziness, and if they have enough pull, you can lose your job.   It may not even be “retaliatory gossip,” from friends that saves you, but just the threat of it that deters a pack-animal, kind of like picking a rock up in front of a dog.   From my experience in the blue-collar realm, I heard just as much nasty gossip from men as I did women. (But then, I was amicable to everyone, regardless of gender or age). I did notice that gossip was more overt with people in their late teens and early twenties, more subtle from people in their thirties, downright sneaky from people in their forties and fifties, basically absent from the few I knew in their sixties, and overt again in a guy who was 78. My age might have been a factor in all that. I was, or appeared to be, in my early twenties throughout my job-hopping stint.

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