You can’t expect to know every single thing that happens at work, including when someone talks behind your back. So when you find yourself in that situation, you might retort in various ways without much contemplation.
Before you do something you’d regret later on, read on to see what these 19 experts have to say to help you work your way through dealing with coworkers who talk behind your back.
Executive Coach | Certified Conversational Intelligence Coach |
Author, Where’d My Confidence Go… and How Do I Get It Back?
When you discover that your coworkers have been gossiping about you (talking about you behind your back), your first reaction might be hurt and then anger. That is normal, as no one wants to be gossiped about. However, reacting and acting from that reaction may not have a good outcome.
What to do instead?
What happened or did they perceive happen that had them upset with you in the first place. People don’t generally talk negatively unless something happened, so discovering what they are upset about is needed for you to resolve it.
Second, discover why they did not come to you in the first place. Did they think you would not be receptive to criticism or any sort of discussion? Have you not been receptive in the past? Examine your own behavior. Are you defensive, not taking responsibility for your own shortcomings or mistakes? Or do you gossip about others, which would give them the idea that you are not to be trusted?
Trust is the foundation for all relationships.
When trust is broken, the relationship will erode unless action is taken to re-establish trust. When someone is talking about you, trust is broken. You can blame and shame, but that won’t repair the relationship.
The best course of action is to look to yourself first and see why they did not feel comfortable coming to you.
Then you can own up to however you were acting that had them feel that way. Then you can request that they come to you in the future.
As an example, you may go to them and say something on the order of:
I heard that you were upset about ____. I am concerned that you did not feel like you could come to me about that.
Perhaps I have left you with some impression that it was not safe or okay to come to me or that I might not be receptive. Is there any reason why?
I want you to know I am completely open and always want people to feel like I am open, so anything you say will contribute to me.
Let them talk and really listen and do not react. Instead, see what you can do to alter your behavior in the future. Then thank them and create a new agreement with one another that includes them coming to you directly in the future instead of talking about it to someone else.
I recommend living by a rule and getting agreements with this rule:
Don’t complain to anyone who cannot resolve the complaint. That will eliminate gossip!
The key to this is dignity
Petty people negatively talk about others. Don’t be petty. Be dignified. If they want to demean themselves by talking about others, that is their business, not yours. If you play their game and talk about them, you will demean yourself and justify their animosity towards you.
Who should you care about?
The people whose opinion matters most – is not the petty people.
You can’t change them. The people whose opinion matters most is everyone else who is witnessing this. If you conduct yourself with dignity and grace in the workplace, then when those petty people try to bad mouth you, others will respond by defending you as a person of dignity and grace.
You don’t actually have to defend yourself from petty gossip. You just have to behave with dignity and professionalism. Be above reproach. You never have to defend yourself, and if you do try to defend yourself, you turn what was petty gossip into a conflict.
If you fight, your real audience, the witnesses, will decide you are in conflict and partially to blame. No one wins in a conflict.
This is one of those situations where you win by not fighting.
There is science to back up this approach. It has to do with how unwanted behaviors are extinguished. You don’t positively reinforce or negatively reinforce the behavior you don’t want. You just don’t reward it.
Pretending like the views of these petty people don’t matter, and doing your work with dignity and grace and treating everyone in the office, including the gossipers with dignity, is the best way to remove their reward.
How do you actually do this?
Don’t take the bait and don’t feed the trolls
If you are asked about something, demure, and say – well – you aren’t interested in gossip, and you are focused on getting the work done well. Do not isolate yourself or allow the gossip to cause you to isolate yourself. Be out there. Be friendly.
Most people respond to friendliness with friendliness. Win people over by being nice, dignified, and professional in your work. That’s all you have to do.
Does this work?
Yes. I have had people gossip about me and spread rumors about me my entire life. I have also always had friends and supporters. I one time had people who were gossiping try to get me fired. My allies protected me from them, so I never had to fight them. The same thing happens in neighborhood dynamics.
The good, dignified people – find each other. The petty gossips – find each other. Don’t focus on the petty people. Find good, dignified people and make friends with them.
Barry D. Moore
Founder & CEO, Great Work Life
Believe it or not, when people start to talk about you, perhaps even criticize, it can be a sign that you are progressing or doing something different.
Aristotle once said, “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
These are indeed wise words indeed, and he is referring to the fact that you are doing something different from others. So you can take criticism as proof of growth, and ignore the haters.
Discuss it with your manager
If the gossip and bad-mouthing are bordering is becoming unbearable, then one option is to discuss the situation with your manager. A great manager will always seek to actively stop the type of political backstabbing that can occur in work environments. If you work in a professional office environment, this type of behavior is always unacceptable. Suggest to your manager that they discuss the general topic of gossip and rumor in the team meeting and that they should be clear it is not acceptable.
Confront it head-on
If you are feeling brave, then you could try tackling the issue head-on by having a discussion with those involved. This is a higher risk solution as fundamentally people do not like to admit they have done anything wrong, and generally, we accept no blame for anything.
If you choose this route, then it would be wise to tackle the culprits on a one to one basis, not in groups. This way, you can adopt a friendly demeanor and have a discussion as opposed to tackling a group of people in a confrontational stand-off.
Report it to HR
If you believe that the bad-mouthing is breaking any standards of business conduct, then most companies usually have business ethics or HR department that you can approach. Standards of Business Conduct is often a formalization of a set of ethical principles such as fairness, accountability, trust, honesty, equality, and respect. So breaking these principles can lead those involved in disciplinary procedures.
Make your enemies your friends
It could be that those involved in talking behind your back, feel threatened by you, or do not know you well enough to realize what a great person you are. If you have the stomach for it, you could try to befriend them. This route is not guaranteed to work, not even a long shot, but it did work out for me early in my career.
Fresh out of university, I started working in an IT department. I was inexperienced, but I had a great resume and background. There were a few contractors in the team that were twice my age and relentless in their humor towards me. I thought they must feel threatened that I may be taking their jobs.
After a few weeks, we had a company Christmas party, and I made a point of sitting with them. After many beers and laughs, it turned out we all got on really well. Twenty-six years later, we are still in touch, and I still think back to the great time I had working with them.
Decide and take action
Only you can decide which of these options is right for you, it depends on your personality and what you feel comfortable doing, if you are facing this problem, be strong, do not show weakness and take action.
Professor of Management | Faculty Senate Representative
This is a difficult topic to approach, as sometimes it can be harassment or bullying instead of just gossip or incivility.
Talk to the person
Research shows that incivility is often the first step toward bullying, so it is necessary to deal with this before it escalates. Speaking to the person talking about you before it accelerates is the best way to handle it.
Let your manager know
Sometimes it isn’t possible. Your manager must be made aware of it as soon as possible, particularly if it is personal. If it is the manager doing it, then his or her manager must be made aware of it.
Another set of experts say that you should ignore it and simply do your work. If the gossip is simply about your work, then this might be the best way to handle it. If the gossip is about your poor work, consider talking to your manager about it.
The manager needs to have a grasp of the culture.
A positive culture would prevent any sort of gossip or incivility—it simply would not be something that is done in that culture. If you don’t have a positive culture, it might be time to look for another job!
Finance Expert & CMO, LetMeBank
Clear things up
At first glance, confronting a coworker who is badmouthing you might seem like the best approach, but there is really only one instance when this is actually a good idea. If this person is venting about a misunderstanding, it might be worth it to clear things up. But only if you’re willing to be calm about it and give a little where you might have been at fault.
A confrontation could be counterproductive
The rest of the time, confrontation could be counterproductive. It may cause an argument or more resentment because someone feels you’re aggressive or accusatory. Consider what type of person they are. Chances are if they’re talking about you behind your back, they aren’t the type to respond well with a direct conversation.
Sometimes, it’s best to ignore it
In the end, sometimes the best course of action really is to ignore it. Let people vent and accept that everyone is going to. So long as it doesn’t adversely affect your work, then it doesn’t really matter.
If it is negatively affecting work, then bring it to the attention of HR.
If there’s no movement there, you may have bigger problems to contend with.
Director of Marketing, 2ndKitchen
It depends on the level of slander
Kill them with kindness
If you know that one or two coworkers are having small talk about you behind your back, the best advice is to kill them with kindness. Keep a smile on your face and continue to crush your work goals. Others will take their gossip with a grain of salt as they know you are a great employee.
Bring it up with your manager
If it is a larger issue or something that continues to persist after you have been overly nice to those who are talking about you, bring it up in your 1-1 with your manager. You can ask for anonymity about who left the complaint as well.
At the end of the day, the workplace is a safe space for you to be a professional and get your work done.
Anything that creates a negative or harmful work environment should not be tolerated—and your HR and managers will agree.
In many cases, the best strategy is to do nothing at all. If you do your job well and act professionally, gossips behind your back will have no chance. Moreover, those people talking behind your back will lose interest as there’s nothing that can fuel further gossip.
Let the results speak
If you believe that you need to stand for yourself, let the results speak. For example, if the gossip is around the timeliness of your work, the next time you have a team meeting, you can simply present a chart showing the timeliness of your work and the results as part of your presentation without referencing to anyone’s words.
Acting professional and not taking it on a personal level is the best strategy to deal with people talking behind your back.
CEO & Co-Founder, Virtual Vocations
Write it off as a lesson learned
“What other people think about you is none of your business” is a good saying to remember when you come across people who are prone to gossip. If you have shared something personal with a coworker you thought you could trust and they blab, you can write it off as a lesson learned.
Related: How to Not Care What People Think
However, if the things they are saying will influence what your boss thinks of you or your future career prospects, or it causes a hostile work environment, it’s time to speak up. Start by approaching the person spreading the gossip and let them know it is hurtful; if they don’t respond kindly, take it to your superior or go directly to HR.
HR Manager, Maple Holistics
Address the situation
Talking about someone behind their back seems so high school, so it’s especially frustrating when you find out that it’s happening in the workplace. If it’s happening to you, you need to figure out how to handle it, stat. Just make sure that you know for a fact that this is happening so that you don’t become the one talking about others.
Your first option is to address the talker directly. The key is to do so in a firm yet nonconfrontational way. Tell them that you’re aware they are unhappy with certain aspects of your behavior or performance.
However, remind them that this is no excuse to speak negatively about you to others. Make it clear that if they have a problem with you, they should be professional and talk to you directly, without stirring up office politics.
If nervous, go directly to your supervisor or HR department
If for whatever reason, you are nervous about confronting this individual, you can go directly to your supervisor or HR department with your concerns. However, you should come armed with proof that this negative talk is happening, as well as how it’s destructive to your work performance and the rest of the team.
If the higher-ups realize that this is an issue that can start to affect the work environment and office output, they’ll be more inclined to help.
Former News Anchor | Vice President of Marketing, Faveable
When I worked in a newsroom, I often had to deal with co-workers talking behind my back. My pregnancy was a particularly hot topic, and one of my co-workers even told my boss about it before I could!
Stay calm and avoid confrontation
The most important thing to remember in those situations is to stay calm and also to avoid confrontation. If you find people are talking about you, make sure to write down what they said so you have a record of it.
Confide in a manager or HR professional
Don’t confront them directly about it, but instead confide in a manager or a human resources professional. If you confront them on the spot, you might say something you regret in the heat of the moment and could also get in trouble.
Director of Marketing, Outback Team Building & Training
In my experience, there are two ways of dealing with this:
Don’t give them the time of day
If they don’t have the decency to tell you to your face, you shouldn’t waste your time with them.
Ask them why
It is important to be non-confrontational and to approach it in a setting where others aren’t present unless you feel the need to have an HR person present. That way, the person won’t feel ambushed, embarrassed, or (as) defensive.
I’ve made the mistake of calling a colleague out for making passive-aggressive comments in a meeting where multiple colleagues were present. It then became a bigger problem because my colleague felt attacked and embarrassed.
Ultimately, the problem got solved, but the path could have had fewer obstacles had I chosen a better approach.
Certified Life Coach and Business Consultant
Make a plan
If you discover that a coworker is trying to get you fired, the number one thing to do is to start keeping a record. Track all your accomplishments as proof that you are a valuable member of the team. Also, document all the times that this employee has tried to sabotage your work – with proof of their efforts – so that you have evidence to back up your claims.
Go to your supervisor
Once you have a record of everything, go to your supervisor with your complaint. Explain using hard facts rather than emotions why your colleague’s behavior is wrong and intentional. Remind your supervisor of your worthwhile highlighting all the negative consequences of the other employee’s actions.
Make sure your supervisor creates a solid plan to put an end to this behavior. And while this process takes place, keep your distance from the colleague in question so that you keep yourself completely clean in the situation.
CEO & Founder, Mailbird
Don’t let your actions or reactions create any more of it
When it comes to dealing with workplace drama, the main thing to keep in mind is not to let your actions or reactions create any more of it. This type of culture can be toxic, and it’s definitely something to be avoided at all costs.
Try to be kind to this individual and see if you can work things out on your own.
However, have you ever heard that old saying about one bad apple spoiling the entire bunch? Well, it’s absolutely true. This type of thing can spread like wildfire. If the problem persists, you owe it to yourself and to your team leader to discuss this situation. Your team leader needs to be aware of what’s happening.
And don’t worry, it’s not ‘snitching.’ It’s preserving the culture of the workplace.
A lot of this goes back to the people at the top—the people setting the culture of your organization. I don’t care how talented someone is, I don’t have the time or energy for people with negative attitudes, and I try not to hire them in the first place.
Take the situation to their supervisor
If someone is talking about one of our team members behind their backs, I hope the person feels comfortable taking the situation to their immediate supervisor, who should then work to find a solution with the offender. That would include the other person’s supervisor, where appropriate.
Go to the HR department.
In some organizations, that approach may not be possible. If that’s your situation, you may have to go to HR. Or, if that kind of problem is a normal thing at your company, maybe it’s time to look for a different place to work.
Content Division Manager, Virtual Vocations
Dealing with coworkers who talk behind your back can be quite a professional puzzle.
Evaluate the type of talk in question
If the comments made about you are critical or gossipy in nature, it may be best not to fan the flames.
Speak with your manager or HR department
If the comments could be considered bullying or harassment, then, pursuant to company policies, you should speak with your manager or HR department.
Everyone you encounter in a professional setting isn’t going to like you.
Still, there’s a difference between workplace jealousies or disagreements and harmful talk that could jeopardize your safety or professional standing. While you evaluate the situation, continue to perform your job to the best of your abilities, practice daily affirmations to reinforce your inner confidence, and seek support from trustworthy friends either in or out of your office.
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality
There’s nothing more frustrating than siblings who are annoying, difficult, or downright disrespectful. But as difficult as this may be, the best thing to do to combat the issue is to ignore them. Bratty siblings feed off of attention, whether it be good or bad attention.
By not addressing them, you won’t add fuel to the fire, and they’ll give up on their quest to annoy you much more quickly than they would if you kept paying attention to them.
Another way to calm the issue is to figure out what your sibling’s motivations are. Oftentimes, behind the annoyingness, there’s a reason for the behavior. Perhaps they are simply bored, or maybe they’re craving your attention because they feel that they don’t hang out with you enough.
If you’re able to get to the root of the issue, you can nip this behavior in the bud. For instance, you can help them find a new activity or hobby to get involved with, or you can schedule some time to specifically hang out with them.
Head of Content Marketing, Beekeeper
Be direct but not confrontational
I find that the best approach is being direct but not confrontational. Find a reason to approach this person about something work-related, and then casually ask if there’s anything that you can do to make your working relationship better.
Related: Building Strong Work Relationships
In this way, this individual will understand that you’ve probably heard what he or she has said, and may even feel embarrassed or wish they hadn’t said it. Either way, it should make them think twice before doing so again.