Researchers say that gossip in the workplace can function as a weapon to attack people's reputation or a gift in enhancing it.
Lead researcher Tim Hallett, assistant professor in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Sociology, and team looked at the power dynamics involved in organizational charts as the gossip unfolded.
The study "identifies subtle ways that people who are targets of gossip are negatively evaluated during formal work meetings, including veiling criticism with sarcasm or talking up another colleague for comparison.
"It also discusses how efforts to embark on negative gossip can be effectively-and again, subtly-derailed, by changing the subject, targeting someone else for criticism or by pre-emptive comments that are positive."
allett said: "When you're sitting in that business meeting, be attentive to when the talk drifts away from the official task at hand to people who aren't present.
"Be aware that what is going on is a form of politics and it's a form of politics that can be a weapon to undermine people who aren't present. But it also can be a gift. If people are talking positively it can be a way to enhance someone's reputation."
The research, co-authored by IU sociologist Donna Eder, a leading authority in gossip research, and Brent Harger, now a sociologist at Albright College, further discovered that gossip in a formal setting is more likely to involve veiled criticism.
Hallett said: "If you're interested in learning how an organization works, you can look at the organizational chart, which can be useful.
"But often people say, 'I still can't tell how things get done, who the prime movers are.' If you're attentive, you can see who has the informal status, which isn't on the formal charts. It can help you understand how work actually gets done."
The study has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.