Gossip within the male dominated workplace

Gossip is a powerful, devastating way to undermine someone. It leaves doubt within the minds of many concerning your credibility and character.

Malicious gossip is often used against women in male-dominated workplaces as a retaliation tactic that intimidates them into silence. By making it difficult to know who in the workplace to trust, gossip and rumours create a situation where it becomes next to impossible to speak out. Intentional isolation serves to ostracise the chosen victim, while at the same time spreading slanderous rumours to damage the victim’s reputation and emotional well-being.

When you are one of a few women within a male dominated workplace, using gossip as a tactic to undermine you is a very effective tactic that almost always works. When women are subjected to this kind of mistreatment, they become doubly vulnerable: first as a minority outnumbered by a team of male counterparts in the workplace, and secondly as a victim of workplace harassment with virtually no one and no resources to turn to for help.

Gossip is, in reality, workplace violence. As Jeff Hearn and Wendy Parkin write in Gender, Sexuality and Violence in Organizations, workplace violence includes “sexual, racial, and other harassments…. and bullying [which includes] isolation (people refusing to listen to you, people refusing to talk to you), slander (gossip behind your back, people spreading false and groundless information), negative glances, laughing, sneering.”

I know because I speak from experience. As a woman working within the fire service and on the waterfront as a stevedore, gossip in the workplace was devastating for me. Malicious and personally destructive gossip was used as a part of a campaign of bullying and harassment in a toxic, male-dominated workplace, and it wreaked havoc on both my personal and professional life.

Dealing with malicious gossip at the fire station

Years ago, I witnessed a vehicle accident a male co-worker was responsible for. Another person decided to make up a story about me having been “drinking and partying” with the person responsible, who was later suspected of driving under the influence, just before the accident happened. It was a complete lie, but no one bothered to ask me about its validity.  The rumour, unknown to me at the time, had been circulating throughout workplace for over a year. I only heard it when, unbelievably, a high ranking manager of the municipality—my employer—finally asked me directly about it. Not only had the rumour made it up the ranks of the management structure, not one other person bothered to check the story’s truthfulness before passing it on. It was embarrassing to me and damaging to my reputation with each repetition.

It is hard to fight back against gossip, especially after it’s been going on for a long time. Once it starts, especially in a workplace, very few people have the guts or basic common decency to ask you your side of the story.  Nasty rumours are therefore left to fester, circulating around as long as there are people interested in keeping it alive. The gossiper knows that keeping the lies and exaggerations alive helps to reinforce and uphold the negative image of you. And if others hear it enough, they’ll start to believe it.  I am continually shocked at the stupidity of people (ranging from co-workers to high ranking management personnel) who automatically believe others’ tall tales and lies without any question or consideration of context or validity.

Indeed, as a friend once said, “the gossip about you is spreading like wildfire”, travelling the airways like a wave of bad breath hitting you square in the face – and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to actually find out what’s being said about you, which is rarely the case.

From the very beginning, I complained of malicious gossip while in the fire service, but my attempts to air my frustrations to management and get resolution went nowhere. As a result of the psychological symptoms of stress I was under, and the gossip that I believed was rampant at the workplace, I attempted to deal with these symptoms by seeking help through the Employee Assistance Program provider (EAP).

However, this only served to worsen my symptoms when I found out that this EAP liaison automatically believed the malicious lies that some of my co-workers had told him about me, i.e. that I had an alcohol problem. To make matters worse, the EAP liaison then proceeded to relay this false information about me to the therapist I was seeing at the time. Not only was he completely overstepping his bounds, but the very person I was seeking help from had very quickly become part of the destructive campaign against me, believing the lies without question. This complicity undermined any sense of security or support I hoped to find in the workplace, and caused me incredible pain.

As a female firefighter, my complaints to management were to reveal the misogynistic attitudes and behaviours that had become workplace norms in the fire service. However, management only added to the problem by stating that my claims regarding the viciousness of the gossip campaigns against me were more perceived than real. Management minimized and discounted the havoc and devastation it caused me, and gave me no support or resources to try and help me.

Gossip as a way to affirm ruling male order and discredit those challenging it

When confronted, the perpetrators reacted with hostility and contempt, refusing to acknowledge and admit that they contributed to the negative environment, so they retaliated against me by making the workplace even more poisonous by fabricating more stories.

For the men against whom I complained, gossip was the perfect revenge because of its insidious nature. No one dares check the facts or reveal the perpetrator, and eventually the circle becomes so large that is starts to leach into other areas of one’s life.

Many of my co-workers were so angry at me for speaking out about the misogyny I’d witnessed in the workplace that most could not care less about knowing my side of the story. They preferred to stay angry, unwilling to question their own motives, or try to think about things in a new, different way. Instead, they use the ‘boys club’ tactic of working to keep a negative image of you alive, furthering their cause and keeping the status quo of the male dominance in the workplace. I am part of a less powerful gender, and when I am in a male-dominated workplace this comes to the fore; I have to pay the price for upsetting the order they work to maintain. By labelling me negatively and spreading defamatory things about me, they tried to teach me and anyone else who might be watching a lesson.

10 years later, I am hearing for the first time from co-workers who were afraid of what was really going on during those years at the fire department. They now tell me that they were told by upper management to make sure to “stay away from me” because I was “troubled” and “a trouble maker”. This pattern is symptomatic of a toxic workplace, in which management and workers are involved in power plays, failing to support all of their employees. Even female employees were scared into following along with the campaign against me.

The fact that I wasn’t able to simply do my job as a firefighter, without innuendo and malicious gossip about my alleged illicit involvement with other members of the fire service (such as partying, drinking and having sexual relationships with co-workers) was extremely upsetting to me as a female firefighter. I was just trying to do my job, as a captain, to the best of my ability and succeed within the fire service, but my outspokenness in the workplace threatened the ruling male order, and the participating men were very intent on punishing me for it.

Employers choose to ignore rather than deal with the problem

In my workplace as a stevedore, a firefighter and to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, I have submitted many examples of how gossip and rumours have devastated my work life over the years. Yet I continually faced the response that nothing can be done to address it; it was viewed as irrelevant or completely dismissed.

Avoidance does not address the root problem – which is the fact that malicious, denigrating gossip in the workplace happens and is ignored, and that those with less power suffer from it disproportionately.

My complaint to my employer concerning untrue statements made about me being an alcoholic was not taken seriously, and management refused to look into who made the comments. This slanderous accusation was left to fester for years, only becoming more and more damaging to me personally and professionally as time went on.

When filing the complaint, I expected my employer to take responsibility as a leader and manager by helping to try and stop malicious gossip from circulating in the workplace. I also expected that they would take the initiative to try and prevent it from wreaking havoc on my work life. Instead, when I told a senior human relations (HR) consultant about the alcohol accusation that I had been subjected, she said that gossip was a normal part of the workplace and there was nothing I could do about it.

I pointed out to this HR consultant that, despite being a female captain trying to do her job, I was being subjected to ongoing punishment at the station for raising my voice about two male co-workers who were clearly in the wrong. I mentioned how they were retaliating by spreading false and malicious statements meant to attack me personally, and that were destructive to me psychologically and emotionally.

The gist of the consultant’s response was that men simply can’t tolerate being spoken to in that way by a woman, and I just needed to accept that. Her entire approach to my concerns was based on her view that I should just accept the way I was treated because the fire department had always been this way, and men are naturally and unchangeably the way they are.

Clearly, the attitudinal changes needed to help combat and eradicate misogynistic behaviours in any workplace must come from both men and women. Women do not have the same unspoken, unquestioned solidarity among themselves as males do.

The perpetual consequences of being a victim of malicious gossip

Lies, storytelling, and name-calling are all part of the malicious gossip toolbox. Malicious gossip is a very effective, convincing way of distorting other people’s perceptions. As I have now learned, being the target of any gossip campaigns has devastating effects on overall mental health and it can have far-reaching, long-lasting consequences. I know this from experience; I still am dealing with mental health repercussions from rumours that were spread about me almost a decade ago.

The accumulation of the overt and subtle network of gossip undermined my role as a woman working within a male-dominated workplaces and eventually made me feel unwelcomed and uncomfortable. I became depressed and anxious, was constantly tired and unable to fully participate in training sessions or work.

My attendance level began to decline, as I tended to avoid social and professional activities at the fire station if at all possible. When I was able to attend, I felt completely cut off from the rest of the group and unable to relate to others in what felt to me like a poisoned environment. I felt shut out, avoided by others, and unable to share my story of how I felt abused by the station hierarchy. I felt outnumbered by these men who held positions of power, who could dictate and influence the behaviour of others and prevent me from having any support, let alone credibility at the station.

One male firefighter was particularly brilliant at changing his story depending on who he was talking to. He had told me personally a series of statements that appeared as though he was okay with a way a certain incident was handled, but behind my back he relayed a very different story to our superior and the station membership, making it look as though I was lying when in fact he was.

The structure of gossip is fascinating and the people who participate in the behaviour regularly seem to be masters of their ability to lie and uphold that lie, even when confronted. It is astonishing and frightening at the same time. They seem to be able to create a bog of misinformation around the entire issue, demanding secrecy of others, while not maintaining it themselves. They tell you it’s a private matter, meanwhile they continue to speak to everyone about it, so everyone knows something about you, except you. This not only causes you tremendous anxiety, but it works to undermine everyone’s trust and opinion of you.

Speaking out against gender-based discrimination has ongoing negative implications

Speaking out against harassment or any issues relating to my rights as a woman in a male-dominated environment has been a hellish experience. Over the years, I have personally heard many stories concerning others, especially females, being exaggerated, falsified or oversimplified. Because the workplace is so often dominated by (white) males, one version of the story is told and re-told among the men from their (incomplete) perspective, which in turn influences others and keeps the gossiper’s side of the story “real” and dominant. In workplaces such as the fire station where women are outnumbered, alienating me and knowingly mis-stating my experiences gave the males total talking power while stripping me of any.

It also is a very effective way of keeping misogyny alive.

When I started to speak out publicly regarding the realities and patterns of gender discrimination and harassment that I saw, the rumours from one workplace transferred along to the next. Another agency in which I work with closely got wind of co-workers telling certain drivers of that company to stay away from me and not talk to me because I was “trouble” and “made things up”. Inevitably, this branded me as a potential problem that should be avoided and again compounded the stress which I was already feeling by the continual ostracization.

At the waterfront over three years ago, I was the first female in many years to file a formal complaint against my male co-workers. I made formal complaints against several men who harassed me in a lunch room, which led to rumours being spread about me immediately. Men around me started to be rude towards me, and they alienated me by shutting me out. While all this was happening, only a few out of hundreds asked for my side of the story. Months later, one male co-worker told me that most men at the workplace had tried to convince him and other colleagues not to talk to me. He also went on to say that they would try and get me mad by antagonizing me in some way, so I would act out and fight back; they wanted to have something damaging to take to the employer. I was hurt by how petty and mean-spirited they were and I am still getting retaliated against to this day.

To give some perspective, these were men I had been friends with for the past 12 years — until I tried to stand up for myself or speak my mind, that is.

Gossip in the workplace: what to do about it and help the victim

Malicious gossip must be immediately addressed when identified, prohibited as between workers, and fiercely discouraged by management. Spreading damaging rumours about someone is a subtle form of violence that adversely affects the target individual. The target or victim, like in my case, is most often just trying to voice their concerns, trying to help create a better workplace for all. However, as females in a male-dominated workplace, our concerns are not given the same weight or importance as they would be if given by a male colleague, especially if we’ve already been victims of malicious gossip and have no credibility in their eyes.

There are countless online resources available to employers that are specifically tailored to addressing, identifying and defining the issues and challenges of workplace gossip. Various methods and policies, such as “No Gossip Zones”, can be created so that workers can start to understand the devastating effects and act accordingly.

Rooting out gossip is everyone’s business, but it is crucial to remember that it is individuals who perpetrate gossip. Equally as important to remember is that it is the same people who can stop it. If you notice that gossip is being spread at your workplace about somebody, let the victim know what is being said about them and offer a shoulder of support. Most importantly, do not participate in the spreading of the rumour and encourage others to abstain from doing so as well.

Next time you hear a negative rumour about someone, whether in your workplace, among your family, at school or wherever else, think twice about the effects that repeating it might have. Don’t take any story for granted, and let your own experience of the person it’s about guide your opinion of them. If it’s important, ask that person if it’s true. Chances are, it’s exaggerated, out-of-context or simply made up. In that case, that person really needs a friend right now, and maybe that friend is you.

Together, we can put a stop to workplace gossip: by shutting up, asking questions, and reaching out.


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