I know gossip is sinful, and I don’t want to fall into it or encourage others to fall into it. But sometimes I have a situation with a coworker when I feel like I need a second opinion. Sometimes a colleague is treating me in a strange way, or asks me to do something that seems unreasonable, and I’m not sure that I have an accurate read on the situation.
It would be helpful to ask a third party for another perspective, but I’m never sure if that’s gossip. How do I know if it’s O.K. to get someone else’s opinion about an interpersonal situation at work?
Let’s start with a quick story, shall we? Each year I spend my summer at the Christian camp my husband directs. Being at camp but not on staff gives me a fascinating perspective on team dynamics and organizational leadership. One day this summer I peered out the dining-hall windows and saw something that made my heart sink: a sobbing counselor.
I rushed to find out the cause of the distress, praying it wasn’t a medical crisis or a camper disclosing abuse. Through hiccups, the counselor told me that rumors about her had spread through the summer staff like a wildfire. She was devastated by the lies and heartbroken that her friends and coworkers had freely passed the gossip on to others.
After listening and consoling, I connected the counselor with the staff members who could help resolve the situation in a God-honoring way, but my frustration lingered. Careless gossip had damaged relationships, eroded trust, and diverted time and resources from gospel ministry.
But the situation I witnessed at summer camp is not, I think, the result of the kind of talk you are suggesting. Your desire to live a work life above reproach is wise and commendable, and the kind of perspective you seek from a coworker can help you live at peace with everyone. But your questions are fair. Is it gossip to talk about a person or situation with a disinterested third party? Is there ever a time when this type of conversation can help?
For clarity, I’m going to call the person you’re talking with your “colleague” and the person whose motives you’re trying to discern your “coworker.”
A trusted, wise colleague can help you make sense of a situation that feels confusing. If you have had tense interactions with a coworker in the past and you believe this person is treating you strangely or making unreasonable requests of you, asking someone who witnesses the situation to give you a perspective could help you discern whether your perceptions might be misleading you.
Here are some things to keep in mind before you speak to a third party.
Start with prayer.
Pray for your coworker, that the Lord would bless her work. Pray for your colleague, that she would offer wisdom that aligns with the Bible. Pray for yourself, that the Holy Spirit would search your heart and reveal any impure motives and give you a heart that is compassionate toward your coworker and open to correction.
Decide whom you want to bring into the situation.
If you decide a second opinion will help, make sure you’re involving the proper people. Does your company have a policy on how employees should bring up issues concerning other employees? Is there someone in human resources who could help you think through the situation? Would it be best to take it to your supervisor or a disinterested third party who knows the coworker in question? If your relationship with your coworker is fraught with tension from previous conflicts, it might help to discuss the situation with someone who is familiar with the history between you.
Decide what to say.
Frame the conversation in terms of what you can do to improve the situation with your coworker, rather than asking the colleague to weigh in on how your coworker is treating you. Approaching a conversation from a posture of “What can I do to improve my relationship with my coworker?” will be more productive than “Do you think I’m being mistreated?”
Work to preserve your coworker’s good name.
As far as it depends on you, work to preserve your coworker’s good name and reputation. You do this in choosing to consult with only one colleague, in describing your coworker’s actions fairly (“we had a disagreement last month” instead of “she blew up at me for no reason”) and in resisting the temptation to move the discussion to complaining or venting. Imagine that your coworker will learn about the conversation afterward, and speak of her in a way that you would not be ashamed of what you said.
Mind the risks.
This strategy is not without its risks. Just as church members can spread gossip under the guise of sharing “prayer requests,” so colleagues can devolve into complaining about someone who makes their lives harder. While asking for perspective isn’t inherently gossip, you will need to make sure that discussing the situation with your colleague doesn’t devolve into gossiping about the coworker, and that your colleague will keep the conversation confidential.
Just as church members can spread gossip under the guise of sharing ‘prayer requests,’ so colleagues can devolve into complaining about someone who makes their lives harder.
Also, resist the urge to build a sense of closeness with your colleague at the expense of your coworker. It can be tempting to “bond” with a colleague over a mutual struggle with a third party, but this triangulation does nothing to foster a healthy work environment.
After you’ve heard your colleague’s perspective, why not go back to the coworker to try clearing the air? Ask if you’ve disappointed her in some way, or if there is an aspect of your job performance that needs to be improved.
The Bible talks often of taming the tongue (James 3), the dangers of gossip (Prov. 11:13; 26:20), and the folly of too much chatter (Prov. 10:19; 20:19). Your concern with avoiding gossip is wise, especially in work situations where perceived slights and irresponsible talk can breed discord, create an unhealthy culture, and hurt relationships. My experience with a heartbroken camp counselor illustrates how much grief can flow from careless words.
As you humbly seek another’s perspective, take care to protect the reputation and good name of your coworker. May the Lord be honored as you serve him in the workplace.