(Illustration: Peter Arkle) (Illustration: Peter Arkle)

Is there an employee more reviled than the office gossip? Short of verbally assaulting a receptionist, spreading gossip has long been considered one of business’s least-lauded career tactics.

But hark, there’s some good news for office muckrakers: Increasingly, academics are finding that gossip might actually be good for business. A 2012 study from UC Berkeley suggests that the spread of gossip helps maintain social order and lowers stress*. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, writes that workplace gossip “allows us to feel that we’re promoting justice, it protects other people against exploitation, and it encourages would-be exploiters to act more co-operatively and generously.” It turns out whispering among your cohorts can help you gather valuable information and identify weak links in the workplace chain.

It’s all part of “prosocial gossip,” the idea that talking about others helps societies stick together and succeed. If done right at work, it can actually be beneficial, rather than being the morale succubus it’s known as.

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But before you give the fire-away command to your unsuspecting employees, keep in mind that there are actually two kinds of gossip, and only one of them is useful. “One is its original sense, which is much more like networking, passing the time of day with somebody,” says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford who studies the development of sociality and how people use networking—or gossip—to progress as a society. “The other is the more malicious, modern sense that actually only started to be used in that sense, at the most, a couple hundred years ago.” The right kind of gossip, says Dunbar, is more, “Did you hear about the new account we acquired?” and less, “Have I ever told you about the time Brenda threw up at the corporate retreat?”

The first type of gossip—the type you actually want to encourage—is about making human connections with the people you work with. It’s the original Facebook: exchanging valuable information with other people face to face so that they think of you as an acquaintance instead of a fellow corporate cog. “Your job depends on them doing their job effectively or maybe them doing you a favour at some point,” Dunbar says. “I’ve maintained for a very long time that this kind of myth about more business being done on the golf course than anywhere else isn’t a myth.” Being friendly with people entices them to be friendly with you in the future.

None of this is to say anyone is justified in behaving like a high school bully; successful gossips know their audience and use their powers for good. There’s nothing that brings people together quite like a common office enemy, while chatting about another colleague’s misfortune could save you from an embarrassing gaffe (like asking about your assistant’s wife, only to have him sob on your shoulder about the pending divorce). “We can ask questions or people can tell us things we haven’t seen, so that keeps us updated,” Dunbar says. “Just be nice to them. This is how relationships work in everyday life.”

Office gossip, like nearly every social interaction, in or out of the office, follows a pretty basic formula. Don’t say anything to someone you wouldn’t want everyone to hear; don’t spread malicious rumours you can’t verify; and use gossip to eke out weaknesses in order to improve them, not exploit them. There’s nothing wrong with a little office scuttlebutt—so long as you’re not a jerk about it.

* In one game, participants were given $10 and encouraged to share it with another participant (“Joe”). When he refused to return the favour, players were given the chance to write a note to future players about “Joe”; 96% did, and they reported feeling calmer afterward.

This article is from the October 2014 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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