Get off the gossip train

How do you deal with not-so-nice comments, told in a joking manner, about a coworker who is not so popular or well liked, or any coworker in general when they are not present?

Also, what do you do if you have been working with someone for a few years and during that time you gave them gifts/cards during the holidays (e.g. Christmas), and then when they leave the job you find out they left the gifts/cards behind. Is it appropriate to take them back and, if you maintain contact, is it appropriate to bring up the subject about the gifts you gave?

M. M., Oakland, CA

A. Gossip is insidious and destructive to the work environment. Combat it by refusing to take part. When a conversation turns to gossip, either excuse yourself: “I’m uncomfortable talking about Tom this way. I think I’ll just head back to my desk.” Or consider sticking up for Tom: “Hold on a minute. Tom doesn’t deserve to have us talking about him behind his back. Let’s get off this train, now.” Sticking up for Tom and raising your co-workers awareness about gossip is the best way to avoid it. Moreover, companies recognize that gossip is bad for the workplace. It causes stress and conflict, which can directly affect productivity and morale. Consequently, companies are starting to institute “No Gossip” policies with sanctions as severe as dismissal.
As far as the gifts and cards are concerned, they are no longer yours to “take back.” While it is unfortunate that the person left them behind, you can either ignore the situation or, better yet, be proactive and package up the cards and gifts and send them to the person with a note that strikes a positive tone. You don’t truly know if this was intentional or a mere oversight. “Dear Mary, We couldn’t help but notice that you left a few personal items behind. We thought you might want them so we’re sending them to you. Hope all is going well for you.” By sending the items back with the note, you avoid the need to bring the subject up again when you next see or talk to Mary.

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