THE BLOG
04/04/2013 09:10 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

The Queen Bee's Deadliest Weapon: Gossip

Alex, a paralegal at a large firm, knew that her female department mates had been talking about her. Though she was the newest hire among them, she'd recently gotten a small promotion, which had been announced at an all-staff meeting. Since then, she felt as if the other paralegals had been acting strange. To her face, they were perfectly pleasant. But they also seemed peculiarly more interested in her than ever, asking probing questions about her personal life, or what she was working on. Twice, she walked into the lunchroom while everyone else was eating--something she'd always been invited to join in on in the past--and conversation halted abruptly.

Alex chalked it up to a bit of promotion envy--only natural, she thought--and assumed they'd get over it eventually. Until a month or so later when one of the law partners called her into his office and told Alex he'd heard that she had been going around bragging about her new salary, not to mention sharing details about a top secret case she'd been assigned to help out on. It was untrue on both counts, but Alex had to work hard to convince the partner to believe her. Why would there be so much chatter, he wanted to know, if there wasn't some truth to it?

The reason why, of course, is because Alex's colleagues had used office gossip in its most pointed, and damaging, way: first to punish and ostracize her, then to compromise her standing at the firm. They knew what they were doing. That is, working hard to halt Alex's ascent over them, and in the most passive aggressive way. In describing the situation to me, I believed Alex when she said she did nothing to provoke the ire of her coworkers other than to do good work and get recognized for it. In today's modern workplace, that's often enough--especially among women.

Various studies, including one conducted in 2012 and published in the journal Sex Roles, note that women are more voracious gossipers than men, and that their intentions are often more sinister as well. More than men, women often gossip as a means to compete, with the intent to be hurtful or harm. And so perhaps it's not surprising that as more and more women in the workplace compete with each other for jobs, they're calling on gossip as a means to get ahead--or keep others down. A 2012 study, this one out of the University of Amsterdam, found that gossip makes up 90 percent of office conversation.

For many, office gossip is a form of reputational warfare, a hostile endeavor undertaken by those trying to advance their own interests. The gossip doesn't have to be performance related; even gossip about topics like how a woman dresses, or what she does in her free time, can cause those who hear the chatter to view her in a different way. Take the situation Simone, an assistant professor in the English department at a small liberal arts college, found herself in. After a few months on the job--during which time she found out that her department head, Joann, had not endorsed Simone as a hire--Simone found out that Joann was quietly, but purposefully, bad mouthing her outside the office. Joann would make a point to talk about Simone with other professors at the college, but also with professors and authors outside the school. She was careful, it seemed, to disguise her jabs as casual comments that assumed the listener already knew the information Joann was sharing--even though such information was entirely made up: That Simone had engaged in an affair with a student; that she was trading favorable book reviews to authors who promised her the same in return. Simone knew it was causing some people to think of her differently, but she didn't know how she was supposed to make it stop, or even what to call it. She tried going to the Dean of Faculty to issue a complaint but found herself at a loss. "I couldn't think of any way to describe what was happening than saying my boss was talking about me behind my back," Simone told me. "And that just seemed ridiculous." She ended up leaving without saying a word.

That's the real danger with office gossip (which needn't even be confined to within the office walls): While it can be very damaging to a career, it's often difficult to prove, and punish, which means that many gossipers get away with it, at least for a while. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography looking at elementary school teachers in the Midwest found that workplace gossip isn't just more negative and elaborate than gossip among friends, but also stealthier. The insults are subtler. Often, victims don't know any way to protect themselves other than to start reciprocating.

Eventually, Simone found herself having to address the rumors Joann had fabricated in an attempt to save her career. But the damage had already been done. "Even having people think for even a short time that I was maybe unethical or immoral, either as an academic or a person, colored how they saw me," she said. "I became a question mark." The fact that she had to bring it up herself in order to tell people it was untrue made the situation even worse; even Simone's longtime boyfriend heard some of the talk and confronted her to ask if the affair rumor was true. "There was no way to win," said Simone. A year later, she left the college. Joann, meanwhile, was recently granted tenure. Says Simone, "And who knows how many other women's lives she had to ruin in order to get there."