Gossip is traditionally seen as a negative and destructive behavior, done only with the intent to hurt the person whose attitude, behavior or personality is under scrutiny (the target). Communicating one’s evaluations about individuals behind their backs is inconsiderate, rude or even against formal rules; gossip is generally disapproved in the context of personal relationships and in the workplace. However, recent studies indicate that gossip is shared to help people at risk of being exploited, and to discourage self-serving behaviors among co-workers.
First, individuals who spread negative gossip about someone at work might do it in order to protect others from being exploited by this person. As shown by Feinberg and colleagues (2006), when individuals know that someone has behaved antisocially, for example by dividing resources in an unfair manner, they engage in negative gossip about this person with potential victims of the antisocial actor. People volunteer to share the helping information to others who might be at risk, even when they are certain that the gossip can only help the victim, but not punish the perpetrator. Observing antisocial behaviors generates negative emotions; observers decrease their negative emotions by sharing the negative information about the perpetrator with potential victims. People choose to spread damaging reputational information through gossip because the target is not present when the gossip is being communicated. Therefore, individuals may prefer gossip to more direct forms of communication, since gossip is less confrontational and involves less risk for the information sender.
Second, when antisocial actors know that they will be the target of negative gossip, they engage in less selfish and more cooperative behavior. Participants in a study by Feinberg and colleagues (2006) shared more resources when they were aware that observers might gossip about them with future interaction partners. Moreover, Beersma and van Kleef (2011) showed that individuals behave less selfishly if they believe that their group members, who can observe their behavior, have a high tendency to gossip. When people fear that others might spread negative reputational information about themselves, they refrain from antisocial or self-serving behaviors; however, when the perpetrator cannot be individually identified, negative gossip no longer represents a reputational threat, and self-serving acts increase. importantly, gossipers are not judged negatively when they create the impression that they want to protect the group from being exploited by norm violators. As shown by Beersma and Van Kleef (2012), people do not disapprove of gossip if it is done with the purpose of helping others and protecting the group.