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updated 9/2/2011 7:01:35 PM ET 2011-09-02T23:01:35

It’s been said that “you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” And unless you’re in HR, chances are you aren’t able to choose with whom you share an office space either.

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Often, what comes from throwing random strangers together into a cubicle-clad office space can lead to situations that make fingernails on a chalkboard sound like a four string quartet. From the break room food klepto to the budding office romance, co-workers offer juicy material for water cooler chatter or hearsay that sparks at your desks, in the break room, or on the elevator. Even at the bar after work.

What starts with a casual observation of how you saw “Joe and Sally exchange lingering glances” can escalate into allegations that could hurt both their personal and professional images, and yours.

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Here are a few tips that will keep your professional life from getting tangled up in the web of office gossip.

Come on … everyone is doing it
As my mother always said, “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and just because others are chattering doesn’t mean you need to engage. Next time the women around the coffee pot start in on the new assistant who can’t transfer a call and has terrible shoes… change the subject with “I’ve always found her to be very nice. Anyway, back to your weekend. What did you do?” Or, remove yourself from the conversation entirely: “Look at the time, I need to finish a project by 5.”

Professional Kryptonite
Although gossip is a natural desire, engaging in it reduces our professional power. It shows a lack of self-control and creates unwanted professional distraction — not to mention it can tarnish the brand we’ve worked so hard to build.

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Personal branding expert Dan Schawbel, reminds us, “If you participate in office gossip it can hurt your personal brand because your conversations might surface and make you look bad. Your goal is to form as many alliances as possible in the workplace instead of spreading gossip about people who might stand in between you and your goals.”

True ‘dat
As Oscar Wilde said, “It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.” Sometimes we engage in hearsay, and other times our material is entirely true. But true or false, it’s always in our best professional interest to steer clear of sharing news that simply isn’t ours to share.

Sometimes gossip feels safe because the person we’re talking with seems to be on the same page. But no matter how much they are agreeing and nodding, there isn’t any guarantee that what you’ve said won’t be repeated. Worrying that someone might share what we’ve said derails us from our productivity and wastes time.

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To stay on the safe side, we must assume that everything we’ve said will be shared with others. Keeping this in mind will eliminate the late night worry that Jane’s typical chipper morning greeting will be replaced with an angry, “I heard you said…”

The gray zone
Sometimes the gossip we engage in is intentional, and other times, it’s in a gray area. See if you recognize yourself in these “good intentions” below:

  • “I’m so concerned about . . .” So let me ask, how concerned are you really? The fact is if you’re really that concerned “about how Shelly made it home last night” then you should ask Shelly. Being concerned is kind, as long as it’s not used as reason to gossip.
  • “Do you know…” Masking our gossip by claiming “fact checking” can still lead to saying unkind things about someone else. Engaging in fact checking about things such as “the time Mary arrived at work today” opens the door to talking more about Mary than about her timecard.
  • “And I’d say this to his/her face.” OK, maybe you would, but chances are you really wouldn’t. And if you are going to say it to someone’s face, then do. Just don’t talk behind her back.

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With so many ways to get trapped into the world of gossip, it’s good to keep these tips in mind. Talking unkindly or sharing a story that isn’t ours to share leads to uncomfortable situations and hurts our office relationships — even the ones we’d never choose in a million years. Here’s to keeping our office relationships professional and picking our words wisely!

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© 2012 Forbes.com


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