Six Reasons to Think Twice Before Speaking Poorly of Others at Work


Back in kindergarten, you might have been told that if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. In many cases, you honor that precept, but sometimes, it is difficult. There may come a time when you feel an irrepressible urge to share bad news, opinion, or gossip about a peer, manager, or subordinate. You hear that they’re going to be disciplined or maybe even fired. You’ve learned that they are having relationship trouble. You know that they’ve just suffered a professional setback. It’s a little piece of information that you just can’t wait to share with the people you work with.

And it’s not like you’re being malicious without a good reason. This person has done much, much worse to you. Their passive aggression might have turned a committee assignment into a mirthless slog, or they are the supervisor who has made coming to work dreadful, or the employee who makes you regret ever moving into management. Now that you’ve got a small way to get back at them, isn’t it your right to do it? After all, they don’t care at all about your feelings. Why shouldn’t you say something to cut them down and make yourself feel better? You are owed that much, right?

Respectfully, no.

Sure, it might feel better in the moment to dish the dirt. But while you might feel a tiny bit less frustrated in the immediate aftermath, talking negatively about others—whether it is a co-worker, supervisor, or subordinate—is not in your long-term interest. It is to genuine constructive engagement and conflict resolution what fast food is to a balanced diet: satisfying in the moment, maybe, but ultimately not healthy.

Why? Here are six reasons why sometimes, it’s best to take the advice of Wayne Shorter and speak no evil:

  1. It won’t make things better. Whoever you’re talking about, it’s not going to make things better. Maybe they do get fired. You predicting it doesn’t change the outcome, and it might get people wondering why you know so much about personnel decisions before they are made. Or they don’t get fired, and you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Same thing for whatever you’re saying: it is highly unlikely that whatever it is will help you resolve whatever the fundamental conflict is about.
  2. It will probably make things worse. If you make it clear that you don’t value discretion, those you speak with will feel free to share your revelations with everyone. Inevitably, it will get back to the person you are talking about. If you think things are bad now, you can imagine how much worse they will get.
  3. People will assume you’re talking about them, too. You know that one relative or friend who can’t wait to tell you all of the terrible things other people are doing or have had done with them? And you just know that the second you leave, they’ll be saying the same sorts of things about you. If you put yourself in this role, not only will others be less likely to confide in you, but they will probably start avoiding you, to the extent they can.
  4. People will respect you less. This applies to any situation, but particularly for supervisors who want to share how they really feel about a subordinate with the rest of their team.  Dragging one subordinate through the mud, even if it’s received gleefully by their peers, is a terrible idea, because the rest of your team now knows that you won’t hesitate to air their dirty laundry if it means you get a little self-gratification out of it, which will hardly make them more likely to come to you if they are struggling. Not to mention, doing this can raise legitimate concerns over your stewardship of confidential personnel processes.
  5. It sets a bad precedent. Speaking ill of others is lowers the level of discourse around you. And, once that discourse is lowered, it can be extremely difficult to raise it. Today, you’re just speaking inappropriately about one person. But before you know it, others will be doing the same about each other and maybe you. It’s a race to the bottom where everyone loses. Which, as you can imagine, will do wonders for morale.
  6. You surrender the moral high ground. You may feel that you’ve been treated unfairly by this person, and see what you’re doing as fighting back. But their poor conduct shouldn’t inspire you. When an outsider looks critically at your interactions, they will see that, wherever the bad behavior started, it certainly didn’t end with you. There is also the possibility that your gossiping or undermining of this person will be perceived as worse than the original bad deed. In any event, some people will be convinced that, no matter what the facts of the case, taking the low road says that you don’t have clean hands.

This isn’t to say that you have to bottle up or repress all of your negative feelings about others; that would be just as unhealthy as spraying them around campus. Certainly, legitimate issues with a person’s conduct should be shared with the appropriate channels; this may be the start of a resolution. But, if it’s just about blowing off steam with others in the office, it is probably better to keep silent, making a mental note of what you will say when you are in the right place to open up.

That space could be a private chat with friend, relative, or significant other far removed from your workplace. It could be one person at work who you absolutely confide in, who you have no shame of seeing you at your most petty, and will not let it go any further. Venting might make you feel better or give you a new perspective, and your friendly audience might give you a little validation. It’s not likely to get you closer to a resolution, but it can get you through the day.

Another space to open up about your workplace issues with someone is the Ombuds Office. Unless you indicate that there is an imminent risk of serious harm, everything you say will remain confidential. The Ombuds is a neutral party who won’t tell you if you are right or wrong in this dispute, but can help you think seriously about your options.

While a talk with the Ombuds might not give the same immediate gratification as opening up to those around you, it may ultimately help you gain a perspective on the underlying conflict, and even put you a step closer to a resolution. So please, feel free to reach out today.


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