Workplace gossip often targets the boss. She’s in over her head. He’s overextended. There’s trouble at home, supposedly.
When the boss is the one spreading gossip, sharing private insight about a team member’s performance or personal life, that can lead to a far more damaging dynamic—a behavior researchers refer to as moral disengagement.
“Leaders set the tone for an organization," said Dr. Joongseo Kim, an associate professor of management. “When a leader participates in gossiping behavior, other employees pick up on that right away. They are less likely to feel shame or guilt when they gossip. They think, ‘Even the leaders are doing this. It’s acceptable in this organization.’”
Kim runs the Raimy Behavioral Lab at Behrend. He studies business ethics and workplace deviance. In the spring of 2023, working with Madison Dambach, a senior in the Black School of Business, and Yun Kim at Oklahoma State University, he began a study of gossip contagion in the workplace.
“Gossip can be fun,” he said. “It’s sharing a thing that began as a secret, and that makes it a social-bonding mechanism.”
Positive gossip—sharing the news of a colleague’s promotion, for example—can increase a team’s sense of organizational identity, according to a 2022 study by the National Institutes of Health. That type of watercooler talk can boost efficiency and employee retention.
“It’s all about intent,” Kim said. “If you gossip to motivate a person, or to elevate the reputation of a person, that’s a positive thing. If what you are saying is purposefully hurtful, however, and if you’re saying it to sideline or neutralize a colleague, that can do real damage.”
An employee with a calculative mindset— someone who approaches social relationships as a means of achieving another goal, such as financial gain—is more likely to gossip when a supervisor participates in the behavior, said Dambach, who presented the study at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference in Boston.
“People with a higher calculative mindset see gossip as an opportunity,” Dambach said. “It’s a way to undercut a competitor or cast doubt on their abilities or their commitment to the organization. Some people will use that to their advantage, especially if the supervisor is listening.”
Over time, negative gossip can have devastating consequences. “It weakens the cohesiveness of the group and leads to resentment,” Dambach said. “Ultimately, it can lead to the failure of a business.”