Office Gossip – How to protect yourself from listening to workplace gossip.

Q. My workplace is rife with gossip. Anytime someone comes to talk to me, chances are they’re passing along the latest juicy story. What can I do to protect myself and improve the situation?

A. You’re certainly wise to seek a way out of the situation. Jewish law states that not only is telling gossip forbidden; lending a willing ear is equally proscribed. The Torah states “Don’t bear vain hearsay”; with a slight change in the vocalization we also learn “Don’t give others the chance to bear vain hearsay” (Exodus 23:1).

And this is a very serious and dangerous transgression. The Psalms state that a person who desires life will avoid speaking ill of others (Psalms 34:13-14)); and our sages stated, “Gossip kills three: the teller, the listener, and the subject.” A “vain” story doesn’t have to be false or even slanderous; as long as the subject would prefer not to have the story broadcast, it is considered gossip and it’s none of your business.

The problem is that in a workplace like yours, where gossip is the rule, sitting on the sidelines may endanger your position socially and even professionally. Even so, this definitely does not allow you to take part. Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, the Chafetz Chaim, in his classic work on this topic, emphasizes that even if refraining from slander will cause a person to lose his job, he has no choice but to fulfill the Torah’s mandate.

Therefore, one proper approach is simply to make it absolutely clear to all that you refuse to take part in the abhorrent custom of office gossip. If anyone comes to you with a story, refuse pointedly to listen. This approach will at least protect you, and it may even improve the situation in your workplace. Perhaps some other workers will draw inspiration and courage from your example and also limit their tale bearing.

However, very often this approach achieves very little beyond protecting you. The result may be that you are merely ostracized while the gossip continues unabated or even augmented all around you. We need to ask ourselves if there is a more constructive approach to this situation.

When we obtain a deeper insight into the basis for the prohibition on gossip, we will see that there is an alternative, though very demanding, possibility.

The Chafetz Chaim states that one of the pitfalls in slander is the Torah verse “Judge your neighbor righteously,” which commands us to judge others favorable and give them the benefit of the doubt. According to Jewish tradition, man is basically and naturally good. “For God created man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). If we were fully convinced of the basic goodness of others, we would give very little credence to the wild stories that circulate about them; and if we saw a suspicious act, we would think two or three times before deciding that this person really did something wrong.

It follows that one very effective — though very difficult — way of dealing with gossip is to be the gentle but consistent advocate of the subject of the gossip. Any time someone comes your way with a juicy story, do your best to give it a positive spin. “I’m sure Joe wouldn’t have done that”; “She was just trying to be helpful”; “He’s an experienced worker, I trust his judgment”; “I know how devoted Anne is to her husband, she would never do anything suspicious.” And so on.

The Jewish ethical writings emphasize that judging others favorably has a powerful positive influence on their character. By acting as an advocate, you not only deflect and deflate the gossip and slander, you create a positive image of your co-worker which he or she will then be motivated to live up to. This course of action is not always easy, but it can have a remarkable constructive impact.

Often office gossip begins because people allow their imaginations to run wild about other people’s shortcomings. If we would exercise our imaginations just as much to envision their good qualities our social environment would be completely transformed.

SOURCE: Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1. Chafetz Chaim Positive commandments 3; Section I, chapter 1:6.