PRINTERS , COPIERS AND LOTS OF GOSSIP
PRINTERS , COPIERS AND LOTS OF GOSSIP
2006-07-17 at 10:58:00 am #16214
Printers, copiers are wellsprings of office gossip
You might think Deb Allen’s life-altering discovery at work last year would have led to a flood of gossip.
Swamped with work at an asset-management firm, she went into the office over the weekend and found a document abandoned on the glass of the copy machine. The document contained the base compensation, raises, performance ratings and bonus information for 80 of her colleagues.The gossip well in most offices rarely runs dry thanks in part to some of the biggest tattlers: the copy machine, fax and group printer. And Allen had uncovered the kind of information that might trigger a white-collar riot at many companies.She was certainly outraged that a noted screwup was making $65,000 a year more than more competent colleagues, while some new hires were earning almost $200,000 more than their counterparts with more experience. The discovery led her to question why she was working weekends for less pay. “I just couldn’t stand the inequity of it,” she says. Three months later she quit.But Allen couldn’t bring herself to share the information with colleagues. “I would have been better off not knowing any of that,” she explains. “I couldn’t give it to people who were still working there because it would make them depressed, like it made me depressed.”Gossip has its appeal, and researchers say it can serve a positive social function, bonding communities, for example. But barring some good news about an ally or negative scuttlebutt about an enemy, there seems to come a time when many people would prefer to remain out of the loop.It isn’t that we grow out of gossip. But at the office, it’s as if we’re guarding whatever respect we have left for our colleagues and our employer. Getting any data of a personal nature – any facedown document on any office machine – might be intriguing, but it could be very creepy, or even the last straw.Tabitha Brown, a purchasing administrator, didn’t mind learning through a document left on the fax machine that one of her colleagues was preparing for gastric bypass surgery. “I was nosy and read most of the letter,” she says. But there are limits to her curiosity. “If it were something scandalous, like an affair, that would bother me,” she says.It doesn’t mean you are a prude if you are turned off by the thought of accidental disclosures about your colleagues’ sexual appetites. Every so often, the computer folks at Michael Fox’s architectural firm rotate computers, giving the more powerful ones to the people who need them most.Fox recounts how he got a hand-me-down that contained an “astonishingly large” collection of adult pornography. He says he found it unnerving. “God knows what these people do in their free time!” he says. “You think you know them.”It wasn’t so much that the content offended him. “If I were 30 years younger, it would have been voyeuristically amusing,” he says. But he was dismayed that a trusted colleague would be so foolish as to hoard pornography at work. In the end, he deleted all the files and told no one – well, almost no one – about them.Jack Levin, a professor of criminology and sociology at Northeastern University who has studied gossip, suggests that a taste for it may fade in part because work is part of our identity and colleagues are part of work. “When we learn something negative about someone at the office, in a sense it reflects badly on us,” he says.There are also limits to how much distressing information we can stand in the tight confines of an office community.”We tend to think people go out of their way to find out negative things,” Levin says. “But most people don’t want to belittle or disparage their friends and neighbors.” In his studies, he has found that only a third of gossip is negative, while the rest is neutral or positive in equal parts.When Emily Pellegrini was younger, hearsay about her superiors conferred a level of status that she wouldn’t have otherwise had. “Now that I’m older, I don’t want to know what they’re doing, and I hope to God they don’t want to know what I’m doing,” says the programming software trainer.Last month she saw a misfired fax from an insurance company that approved a colleague’s policy, although it said the person was a “high risk” because of driving-while-intoxicated incidents.”That’s information that I could definitely share with anyone in the office,” she says. But she hasn’t. “I realized my life is happier not knowing all the dirty little secrets that go on with my co-workers,” she says.