Has someone been spreading harmful stories about you?

Have you accidentally said something that has fed the rumour mill?

Have you listened to either of the above?

If you’re the target of Malicious or Careless Gossip it’s really stressful. Among other things, it can damage your career and your self-esteem.

If you been a Careless Gossip you’ve got a lot on the line. Being connected with harmful gossip can destroy trust, damage your reputation and your relationships (not to mention the harm done to the subject of your slip-up).

If you’ve listened but have let it go through to the keeper, you’ve played a part too. Think about it.

Let’s take a look at your options to limit and repair any damage from these types of destructive gossip.

Hear No Evil

shutterstock_388999300So you don’t participate in spreading these stories. Congratulations!

Do you think this means you’re off the hook? Think again.

Have you been present when this type of trash talk has been going on, yet done or said nothing? Then you’ve played a part in helping it spread. Deciding to do nothing is a behaviour.

If there isn’t an audience, a movie doesn’t get played, and it’s the same with destructive gossip. Imagine if no one listened to this stuff … we might stamp it out.

I know it’s tricky. You don’t want to play in this sand-pit, there’s broken glass in it and you might get cut. Here are a few low risk options you can try:

  • Reinforce The Positive: Make a true statement that counteracts the gossip. For example, ‘Gee I haven’t seen Sarah do that … I’ve always found her to be (insert positive statement).’
  • Test Truthfulness: Use this if you sniff something suspicious. Ask a subtly probing question, such as, ‘Oh is that true?’ or ‘That’s surprising … how do you know that?’
  • Redirect: Use this if the person appears to have a genuine work related issue, ‘What did she say when you talked to her about that?’
  • Focus on work: Use this if the talk is personal, ‘I enjoy working with her … I haven’t paid much attention to how she dresses’ or ‘Really … I don’t pay attention unless it affects my work.’
  • Check Out: As soon as the conversation starts heading downhill, excuse yourself, be low key and non-judgemental. For example, ‘Is that the time … I’ve got to go.’

If you’re not playing the game, but you think what’s going on is serious enough, consider giving the subject a heads-up. This one’s a judgement call that you’ll have to make.

So You’ve Slipped Up

In my last post on this subject I shared a story where I’d slipped up. I’d shared too much detail with the wrong person, and it came back around twisted and out of context. Unfortunately, my fabulous colleague, Wonder Woman, was put in a difficult situation as a result. Career-damaging things were being said behind her back and she didn’t know.

Here are some of the things I learned from my slip up. I hope that they help you.

Forgive Yourself

The first thing to do is to forgive yourself. Beating up on yourself is a waste of energy. Time machines don’t exist, and there’s no going back.

A slip-up is a sign you’re not perfect. Welcome to the club! What’s important is what you do now.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Be candid with yourself about your motivation. Remember, shutterstock_170871299the most harmful lies are those you tell yourself.

This may be a great opportunity to learn something important about yourself. These events can act as a mirror for what’s hiding in your subconscious.

I strongly recommend you look in the mirror and ask the question aloud. I’m a fan of this technique when I need to ask myself hard questions. If that doesn’t work for you, try listening very carefully for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that pops into your mind when you think about these questions.

Was it truly accidental? Am I absolutely sure?

If, upon reflection, the dark triad of fear, revenge or envy played a part in your actions, try to understand what was at play. Make a note to yourself to stay vigilant because it may be closer to the surface than you think.

Take Responsibility

My initial reaction to my slip-up was to fret, blame those who twisted my words and try to convince myself there was nothing I could do. My conscience gave me hell about all of those options. I had to do something, but what?

So I imagined I was in Wonder Woman’s position and asked myself this question:

If things were reversed, and the gossip was about me, what would I want Wonder Woman to do?

Putting myself in her position silenced all the noise in my head. It made me realise that I owned my behaviour and its consequences.

Your answer may differ depending upon the people and the circumstances. Here’s what I decided to do.

Fess Up

Wonder Woman was someone I admired and considered to be a friend.

Fessing up was a risky strategy; I was scared what her reaction would be. But I decided it was riskier if she found out about the rumour and my part in it from someone else first. How she reacted was up to her, but at least I would have done what I could.

I told her everything. She wasn’t happy about what had happened, but she was grateful that I let her know as soon as I realised.

Clean Up

I needed to administer an antidote for the rumour. Before I did, I told Wonder Woman what I was planning. I wanted to be sure she was aware of and comfortable with my plan.

I started with Miss Parker (the person who told me the rumour). I had told her at the time she told me the rumour that it wasn’t true. However, like all rumours, there were enough elements of truth to give it credibility. So I had a second conversation with her to reinforce the factual counter-story. I asked her to share it, particularly with those who had told her the untrue version.

Over the coming weeks I wove the counter-story into conversations as often as I could. I was strategic about to whom, how and when I did this.

I was lucky; I retained my relationship with Wonder Woman and acted quickly enough to limit any damage. This may not always be the case. All you can do is your best.

Are You The Target?

shutterstock_103941983You don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t a nice situation to be in. You may feel stressed, angry and powerless.

The fear is dealing with it might make things worse. The reality is ignoring it might be just as bad.

What to do?

Assess The Risk

My advice is to take a risk management approach.

Take a deep breath, ignore the desire to strangle someone, step back and look at the big picture. Ask yourself,

‘What’s really the consequence if I let this go by?’

To help you decide, try filtering the situation through the following matrix.

Power of The Gossiper Damage to Career / Relationships Risk of Inaction
Low Gossiper has low credibility or power. Unlikely to harm my career or relationships. It will most likely die off naturally.
Medium Gossiper has moderate power either social, political or in position. It may do moderate harm to my career and/or relationships. Some people may take it seriously.

It may keep spreading.

High Gossiper is very powerful either social, political or in position. It will severely harm my career and/or relationships. I may never shake off the consequences.


You may notice that I haven’t put any reference to the degree which the gossip may hurt your feelings. Dealing with the emotional hurt is best dealt with away from the workplace with help from a close friend or confidante. If it’s really serious, talk to a health professional.

Whatever you do at work in response to gossip must be done with a cool head and focussed on damage control. Think of this quote from author Patricia Cornwall:

Survival was my only hope, success my only revenge’.

Overall Risk Is Low

There’s nothing to be achieved from wasting any of your energy on it.

Look at those spreading the gossip with pity. They’re probably feeling powerless and this is their way of trying to increase their sense of importance.

Laugh it off – I mean literally. It’s a great way to kill rumours and it’ll make you feel better. Take strategic opportunities to share the gossip with colleagues and have a good chuckle about it.

Overall Risk Is Moderate

You have a few options here. These strategies can be used in combination – it’s up to you:

  • Let it go but keep a watching brief and act if needed. If you choose this option, I recommend using the ‘laugh it off’ strategy discussed in the Low Risk section.
  • Use the counter story technique I used in the Careless Gossip example. In my experience this works well if done thoughtfully and strategically. Any counter story must be true and aimed at damage control. Warning! If you try to get revenge, it will backfire on you.
  • Approach the alleged originator of the gossip. Be non-judgemental, polite and professional. Repeat what you’ve heard and give them the opportunity to talk to you about it. Be careful – it’ possible that they’re innocent.

Whatever you do, consider the risk of your response before you go ahead. If you think that the risk of any the above suggestions is too high in relation to the issue, don’t do it.

One of Risks Is High

If any one of the risks is high, I recommend that you act, quickly but carefully.

Firstly, use the counter story strategy with whoever you hear the gossip from. Don’t go beyond that at this stage.

DO NOT laugh it off or confront the alleged originator. This is serious and those strategies have the potential to backfire in these situations.

Then, get yourself some support outside of work. Look for an experienced mentor that can help you map out your approach. The risks are high and you may have to navigate some complex politics.

I strongly recommend that you do not confide in anyone at work, or escalate the issue, until you have gone through things with your mentor.

Have you seen or experienced damaging gossip? What strategies were used in response? Which strategies worked and which didn’t?

Please share your thoughts and any constructive comments section below.