(CareerBuilder.com) -- Given the amount of time you spend with your co-workers, it's not hard to figure out why gossip is so prevalent in the workplace. Throw in the occasional happy hour cocktail or colleague with a fondness for oversharing and gossip becomes virtually unavoidable.
Though hearsay at work may be a given, it's no excuse to run your mouth about whatever -- to whomever -- you like. Whether you're the office Chatty Cathy or just the occasional eavesdropper, partaking in office gossip can be risky, and discretion must be used to avoid embarrassment, hurt feelings or even termination.
Below, our experts provide gossip guidelines to help you avoid becoming a casualty of corporate chit-chat.
1. Maintain confidences
"Your employment may involve access to confidential information and conversations," says Cynthia Kazalia, a placement specialist for New Directions Career Center in Columbus, Ohio. "The wise professional respects privileged information -- not sharing it with others -- unless it involves a breach of policy or protocol. Should policy be violated, only the appropriate organizational or governing authorities should be notified. Information should always be shared on a 'need-to-know' basis."
2. Leave the higher-ups out of it
As a general rule: Don't gossip to -- or about -- your boss or company executives, advises Susan Fletcher, a psychologist and author of "Working in the Smart Zone." "You may not like a decision your boss or company higher-ups make, but gossiping [about it] will not get you points," she says.
Put simply: Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
3. Stay positive
"Always speak with discretion and only bring up negatives when absolutely necessary," says Jules Zunich, owner of Z Group Public Relations in Boise, Idaho. "If you have to discuss a negative situation, keep it as impersonal as possible."
Kazalia adds: "Remember that old saying, 'If you can't say something nice ...' It holds true at work, too. Talk around the water cooler should be upbeat."
4. Assess your risk
If you are sharing a funny story that happened to a friend this weekend or you're discussing your displeasure with the snack selection in the vending machine, chances are your chatter is benign. Talking to someone in a different department about your crazy colleague or downloading your own version of why the company earnings were bad this quarter is another story.
"Unless you know you are in a confidential conversation, don't say anything you wouldn't want the CEO to read about on the front page of The New York Times," Zunich says.
Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, which specializes in teaching corporate etiquette, suggests using the "boardroom gauge." "Ask yourself, 'Could I say it in the boardroom?' If not, think very carefully before making or passing along remarks that could backfire," Gottsman says.
5. Set your own boundaries and respect those of others
"Erect appropriate boundaries providing co-workers and supervisors with only limited access to personal information," Kazalia says. "This prevents private matters from being shared company wide."
Similarly, she advises taking the same approach when it comes to the personal lives of co-workers: "Respect co-workers' personal boundaries. Don't delve too deeply into matters that don't involve work. You may find out more than you want to."
When gossip is positive
Although it can be destructive, there are times when gossip serves a purpose.
For one, gossip can provide pertinent information. Says Gottsman, "When someone passes along information that they overheard in an attempt to help you, like a potential promotion because someone is leaving their position," the intention is much different than gossip for the sake of gossip, and it can actually be beneficial.
Also, although unconfirmed stories need to be taken with a grain of salt, heeding certain rumors may be in your best interest, says Kazalia, who illustrates her point with a personal story about a warning she received as a young professional. "Once, a more experienced operations director told me that our CEO allegedly had a wandering eye. The information, coupled with a warning to keep all exchanges [with the CEO] professional and to limit outside contact, set the course of my career with that organization. But my supervisor shared it less as gossip and more as a protective measure."
Finally, talking about workplace issues can reduce stress. "Keeping secrets often prevents people from dealing with the problem at hand. Revealing certain issues (besides private company secrets) can help reduce stress and help people to think about stressful issues more clearly," Fletcher says.
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