Helene Vermaak, Director at corporate cultural experts The Human Edge, says that in these situations silence is definitely not golden. “By keeping quiet, you are displaying your agreement of the discussion and support for the individuals doing the bad-mouthing.”
The group having the discussion are creating a villainous story at someone else’s expense, without stopping to question the story’s truth or giving the person a chance to respond.
“As the story is repeated and grows unchallenged, it poisons the workplace,” warns Vermaak.
These conversations can revolve around something as simple as not giving the person the benefit of the doubt, but more often than not, there is more going on. Your colleagues could be motivated by jealousy, revenge, fear or pure dislike of that other colleague.
“Whatever the reason for the toxic gossip, you need to speak up when you hear and see inappropriate behaviour,” says Vermaak.
Vermaak suggests using the CPR – Content, Pattern and Relationship – method to deal with toxic gossip. CPR will help you focus the conversation by addressing the issues that are closest to the heart of your concerns.
READ MORE: The best ways to handle a toxic boss
By addressing the content, you focus on the facts in the statement rather that the emotions behind it. This is usually the simplest and safest way to respond, as you don’t draw any conclusions beyond what the person has just said. Your questioning and response should be motivated by fact, rather than gossip.
Suppose this comment is just one in a pattern of passive-aggressive comments this group uses to bad-mouth a colleague. You might address this pattern by saying: “I like the way we kid around with each other, but not when we start to throw people under the bus, people who aren’t here to defend themselves.” Addressing the pattern focuses on perpetuating inappropriate behaviour. It’s a tougher discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.
The long-term impact of corrosive conversation is the undermining of trust and respect. Relationships are put at risk. If you feel that people’s comments reveal a break in basic trust and respect, then you might address the relationship itself: “It sounds as if you’re questioning whether you can trust and respect her. Is that right? If that’s your concern, then I think you need to find a way to talk with her and hash it out.” You may prefer to have this conversation in private, instead of putting the person on the spot in front of others. Again, it’s a tough discussion, but it may be closer to the heart of your concern.
READ MORE: What to do when you’re being bullied at work
Vermaak concludes by saying that many times, we only focus on the content, as this is the easier discussion. However, the problem that you really care about and will yield best long-term outcomes is what needs to be addressed and resolved.