Gossip: The Key to Career Success?

Last Updated Apr 28, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

I've always told my reports to discount gossip they hear around the water cooler. But according to Daisy Wademan Dowling, I've been dispensing very poor career advice.

"You're more likely to get the dirt on layoffs from standing around the water cooler than from scanning your email for an official announcement," she writes on her Harvard Business Publishing blog post, The Truth About Office Rumors. "And unlike in high school, Hollywood or politics, the rumors in an organization are true most of the time. Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Tapping into the office information network, whether it's an overheard conversation at the Xerox machine or a brief exchange in the elevator with the VP of Sales' admin assistant, is something you need to tap into, says Dowling, "if you want to make good decisions, work more effectively, and to get ahead in your job, both in the short- and long- term."

But Dowling's advice, I believe, comes with a big fuse attached that could easily blow up in your face. Let's leave aside the question of whether you will be making "good decisions" based upon what Bob in shipping overheard Mary in forecasting say while on a butt break with Syd, the air conditioning guy.

The bigger danger is getting a rep as a gossiper. Chances are you know who in your own organization is a little loose with the facts, too often seen chatting up co-workers in the hallway, the guy or gal who always seems to know a little bit more than they should and is happy to share.

This is the same person you don't call when you need important work done, have sensitive material to handle or a promotion to make.

Daisy says the idea is not to propagate gossip but rather to employ a little honest social networking to find out about, say, that soon-to-be open job in the New York office.

I'm just saying there is a steep downside for those of us who don't play this game with skill. So my advice remains: Discount what you hear around the water cooler and act on that information at your own risk.

What do you think? What actions have you taken successfully or otherwise based on cube chatter? How do you escape being labled the dreaded office gossip?

(Whisper image by TheGiantVermin, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.