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Gossip’s complicit role in sexual harassment

Is there such a thing as good gossip? In the face of these horrendous stories of sexual abuse and harassment I’ve heard the argument, “How many women would have been spared the ignominy or trauma of an “inappropriate”experience with (fill in the blank) if they had been warned about his behavior through gossip?”

But, let’s follow that argument. I’m sure there are women who were spared because of gossip, not only in these horrendous situations we are hearing about now in the media, but every day in small and large businesses across the country.

{mosads}I know I was. “Just a word to the wise, you don’t want to be the last one left at the bar with Bill after the office party tonight.” Or, “When you’re on this road trip with Steve, make sure you keep it really professional. Just saying.” So I did.


After the first colleague left the bar, I was the second. On that road-trip when Steve suggested dinner together at the end of a hard day, I thanked him politely but said I had a work project that was overdue. Saved by gossip. Yes I was. The but — and it’s a huge but — is that while I was saved because someone shared the gossip with me, how many other women didn’t get that message? The bigger question is how many other women were victimized because gossip was tolerated every bit as much as the predatory behavior?

On the best teams I’ve seen, on what I call a “loyalist team,” gossip is never tolerated. The tough conversations happen instead. Talking about coworkers and coworkers behavior behind someone’s back is a habit that allows us to avoid conflict.

But open conflict, debate, and disagreement are at the heart of the world’s best teams. In fact, in my research on hundreds of teams, shows that the highest-performing teams (when compared to low-performing teams) are 50 times more likely to openly discuss conflict when it arises, 125 times more likely to address unacceptable team behaviors promptly and 40 times less likely to have things the team can’t speak about openly.

If gossip is tolerated, people will shy away from having the tough conversations that make it possible to push through major challenges, learn, and grow. At the most innocuous level, this inability to talk openly will stifle innovation and business growth.

At the deepest and most destructive level, lives are permanently damaged and careers destroyed. Gayle King said, “I can’t stop speaking about the anguish of these women — what happened to their dignity, what happened to their bodies and what happened to maybe their careers.”

When Kyle Godfrey-Ryan stepped out of the shadows and told Yvette Vega, the executive producer of the Charlie Rose program, about the abuse she experienced, Vega quickly pushed the behavior back into the shadows, treating the report as lightweight gossip. Her response, “That’s just Charlie being Charlie.”

All too often in these situations we put the blame on the victim, telling them they need to find their voice and speak up. But what about those of us who never experienced but knew of the abuse? We too have a voice. Do we use that voice to perpetuate the gossip, talk about it behind closed doors, allowing the behavior to continue, or will we use our voice to raise the tough the issues, speaking out and speaking up?

Bottom line? Gossip is Never Good. Gossip lives in the shadows, sitting cheek by jowl, with every lewd, harassing, inappropriate behavior out there. When we gossip in what we think is a good way, we often feel we’ve discharged our responsibility.

But all we’ve done is extend the time that the shadow may live on. Cokie Roberts’s admission that “every female in the press corps knew” to avoid being in an elevator with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), and has apparently known about this for years. 

It lived for years, decades even. For every woman saved” by gossip, many other women were victimized, and a culture of sexual harassment and abuse was kept alive. Eliminating gossip and building an authentic loyalist team brings forward light where there was none, where bad behavior can’t hide, and where abuse and harassment have no place.

Linda Adams is a partner at The Trispective Group and the co-author with Audrey Epstein, Abby Curnow-Chavez and Rebecca Teasdale of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations.

Tags John Conyers Sexual harassment

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