We've all heard the warning: Don't repeat office gossip. While that's generally sound advice, there are times when quietly passing on a bit of informal news can be good.
But when you've got a juicy story on the tip of your tongue, how can you tell whether you should pass it on or clam up?
Intent Is the Key
One measure, experts say, is your reason for doing it. If your intent is malicious -- if you're telling a story about someone else to further your own position, or to tear that person down -- then speaking up will likely do more harm than good, to your team and to your professional reputation.
But maybe you're just trying to save a colleague from a potentially embarrassing situation, for example, or to help a new coworker make a good first impression. This type of information sharing is a crucial part of most organizations, said Roy Lewicki, a professor at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. "People want to know what's happening."
This type of "good" gossip can produce the following favorable results.
* Help a new hire fit in.
New employees need more than an orientation about their benefits and an introduction to the computer system. They also need to understand the culture of their new workplace, key events in their workgroup's past and the personalities of their new colleagues.
This can include work-related idiosyncrasies, said Rich Martinez, executive vice president and chief operating officer of IS2BE, a high-tech company in San Jose, California: "'If you bring a report in to the supervisor, make sure you've done this first,' or 'If you're going to this person's meeting, make sure you're on time.'"
* Alert management to problems.
"You often hear about the grapevine being useful for finding out things that are going on that you need to address," said Carole C. Edman, a human resources consultant and coach in San Jose.
It can be helpful for managers
to be tuned in to what workers are saying so they can respond to and clarify, if possible, the latest worries about layoffs or rumors about the company being sold.
* Prevent awkward situations.
Sometimes sharing more personal information about a colleague can keep new coworkers from embarrassing themselves. If a coworker's mother is ill and the worker seems distracted, for example, it can be helpful for a colleague who knows about the illness to tell others who are complaining about the worker's performance, Martinez said.
"Then people understand, and they deal with that situation differently," Martinez said. "If you can give someone the benefit of some knowledge you might have and prevent an embarrassing or ugly situation, you should."
* Humanize the boss.
Telling new hires about the time the intimidating boss burned the hamburgers at the barbecue could be a good use of informal storytelling, said Eric Marcus, a consulting social psychologist, based in New York, who works with organizations on dealing with conflict. "It can be useful when it exposes people's humanity," he said. "I think the intent is the critical thing."