Healthy Workforce

The Case of the Shameless Gossip

Malicious talk undermines relationships and trust. As nurses, we can do better!

Kathy is at a staff meeting, sitting in the back of the room next to her coworker, Miguel. Their manager, Jackie, is going on about what everyone needs to do to improve the unit’s patient satisfaction scores. 

After the meeting, Miguel turns to Kathy and whispers, “Did you hear that Jackie and her husband don’t sleep in the same bedroom? I heard he’s cheating on her. Maybe it’s because she’s gained so much weight. Do you see how tight that skirt is?”

There’s no doubt about it: Miguel is a shameless gossip.The question is, what should Kathy do about it?

Whenever you work with the same group of people for a period of time, it’s natural that the conversation will sometimes turn to personal matters. When those conversations are positive or supportive, they can be a boon to team-building and morale. Gossip, on the other hand, is malicious.

What Is Gossip?

Gossip is a form of social attack: sharing negative information in order to hurt or malign someone’s character, personal attributes or social standing. It is often passive-aggressive, saying surreptitiously what the gossiper would never say directly to the target. Gossip typically involves one or more of the following:

  • Spreading rumors
  • Sharing false information or exaggerating the facts
  • Sharing private, sensitive or personal information
  • Making hurtful judgments
  • Being a tattle-tale about petty matters.

The defining characteristic of gossip is that the comments are in some way hurtful to their subject. Telling Jane you heard a rumor Marisol may be fired for repeatedly coming in late is gossip. Asking Hector to sign a sympathy card for a coworker whose mother recently died is not.

Loose Lips

Recently, while doing some consulting at a hospital, I was standing in line for the coffee cart behind two hospital employees who were talking about the person who does their schedule. They first complained that she gives the best schedules to the nurses she likes while everyone else gets “the leftovers.” Next, they criticized her makeup, remarking that someone should bring her “into the 21st century.”

Hiring Now

I’m sure I wasn’t the only visitor to overhear this conversation, which definitely didn’t paint the hospital or its staff in a favorable light! Imagine how you’d feel if your spouse or child were in the hospital for a serious health issue and you overheard the nurses gossiping about how much they disliked their colleagues. How confident would you feel about the care your loved one received from those nurses?

The Backstabbing Club

There are many reasons why people speak ill of others. Some of the most common are:

  • To feel superior. When you say negative things about others, you are implicitly saying that you are better than they.
  • To feel like a part of the group. If the cool clique is talking smack about others, joining in may be a way for you to become part of the group.
  • To get attention. You can’t gossip if you don’t have an audience. If you have an audience, it means that someone is paying attention to you.
  • To complain. If a particular coworker rubs you the wrong way, it’s tempting to commiserate with others who feel similarly.

Stopping Gossip in Its Tracks

When You’re the Culprit

Ask yourself, “Why am I talking about this person in this way? Am I feeling insecure and trying to make myself feel better? Am I uncomfortable with silence and using gossip as filler? Trying to fit in with the crowd?” If the answer to any of these questions is yes, catch yourself and stop!

When Others Are at Fault

When others are gossiping within your earshot, check their intent as you would your own. You don’t have to be a psychologist, but think about the meaning behind the nasty words.  For example, I have a friend who tends to gossip about others, which I KNOW is because she’s not happy with her life and tries (unconsciously) to make herself feel better by finding fault in others. Often, when we overhear gossip or when someone is actually gossiping to us, we either ignore it or join in. Both are dangerous because they allow the gossip to spread.

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Positive Scripts

Let’s return to the opening example. What should Kathy have said when Miguel started gossiping about their manager? Instead of piling on or just shrugging her shoulders, Kathy could have responded using scripts like the following:

“I’m uncomfortable hearing you badmouth Jackie when she isn’t even in the room.”

“I’ve noticed that you talk about Jackie a lot, always in a negative way. Do you have something specific against her?”

“I’m more interested in what you’re up to than in talking about her.” 

“Let’s talk about something more positive.”

“Oh my, That’s terrible. Poor thing! What can we do to help her?”

Shifting Gears

The latter script would be especially useful in this situation because Miguel was gleefully sharing some unhappy details (or at least rumors) about Jackie’s home life. This response derails the malice and switches the focus to showing empathy and providing support. However, Miguel might instead switch gears to some more tangible complaint, such as not liking some aspect of Jackie’s management style. In that case, Kathy could say something like this:

“Wow. You seem really upset. Have you had a conversation with her about this?”

“I share your concerns about her, but telling me isn’t going to help. I think you need to talk to [the director or the CNO].”

Whatever script you use when your coworkers are gossiping on the job, don’t join in the gossip and don’t ignore it. Unchecked gossip can magnify any dysfunction within the team, tearing down relationships, betraying confidences and undermining trust.  At the end of the day, a healthcare team whose members don’t trust each other can’t provide the best care for their patients. As nurses, we can and should do better!


Renee Thompson, RN, DNP, CMSRN, CSP, is a speaker, author, consultant and founder of The Healthy Workforce Institute – www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com.

Illustration by Jasmin Mora – www.jasminmora.com


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