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Posted by on Jun 12, 2013 in Educate, Empower, Work It! | 0 comments

Workplace Wars by Anne Riley

Workplace Wars by Anne Riley

Workplace Wars


What Do You Do When Gossip Gets In The Way of Work?


When I was a young mother of elementary school children, I volunteered several times a week at the school my children attended. I wasn’t an official employee, but I was there enough to have what was, for all practical purposes, a professional relationship with many of the faculty members.  Susan (her name has been changed) taught music part-time at the school and we struck up a friendship.  We got on well together.  She was bright and personable. We carpooled to school. I babysat her youngest child when she taught class. We had each other’s families over for dinner.  Our kids were good friends.  Every once in a while Susan babysat for my youngest daughter, Erin.  It was on one such occasion that the trouble began.

When Erin was nearly two, Susan babysat Erin for the afternoon.  The next morning she telephoned me, her voice concerned.  “Anne,” she said, “I feel I have to tell you this. I think Erin is being abused.”

“What?” I practically screamed the word.  “What are you talking about? What happened?”

“Well, yesterday when she was here, she pulled down her diaper and was very interested in her private parts.”
I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  “Oh,” I actually laughed.” “She is getting ready for potty training.  Lately she has been very interested to learn where pee comes from. There’s nothing to worry about.”

To my surprise, Susan didn’t agree. “No, Anne,” she insisted. “I’m telling you, she is being abused.”

“Wait a minute,” I said.  An uneasy feeling was growing in the pit of my stomach. “You can’t say things like that.  Especially when you don’t have a lot of facts.  You have been around Erin once in the past several months. You have no idea about her normal behavior.  And I’m telling you, this is completely normal behavior when kids start showing interest in being potty-trained.”

Then it got ugly.  No, she insisted.  Not only was Erin being abused, she was sure it was my husband who was doing the abusing. At this point, I was beyond upset. I did not react well.  I told her in no uncertain terms that she was out of line, that she had no facts, that she couldn’t bandy around such accusations in this day and age without huge repercussions.  But she was utterly firm in her conviction.  Nothing I could say changed her mind.

I worried all night about this incident.  Not only was the accusation sickening, it was frightening.  In this day and age there is a no more radioactive issue than child abuse.  How do you fight it without looking guilty?  What was going to happen? What was Susan going to do?  Who was she going to tell? How was this going to play out?  It struck me as I lay awake worrying that not only was this a horrible accusation to make on its face, but that it was insidious in its effects. When the issue is child abuse, there is as much harm in a false rumor as in a true fact. Mud sticks, even on the cleanest of surfaces. It wasn’t lost on me that the more I would try to defend and explain, the guiltier I would look.

The fallout started immediately.  The carpooling ended.  Susan’s children no longer spoke to my children.  And of course, the babysitting arrangement ended.  We were pronounced guilty without so much as a second glance.  I needed to repair the situation before it became completely unmanageable. But what exactly should I do?

Recently I have read numerous articles about how badly some women treat each other in the workplace. It is well established that this is a problem in today’s workplace, but I have heard more about the problem than the solution, which is what I want to address in this article.

To be sure, women don’t have a corner on bad work behavior; both men and women have been known to treat each other badly.  But it is the act of women tearing each other down that seems particularly hard for us to deal with.  I think deep down, we would like to feel like we are sisters rather than competitors. And when the workplace wars start between ‘sisters,’ the sting feels that much more bitter.

One of the key foundations of happiness that I discuss in my book, Elusive Little Sucker, is living the golden rule; treating others as you want to be treated. In my experience, you just can’t get to a peaceful state when you are busy doing harm to other people. As I stated in the book, “Hurting others is an act of self-destruction. It does as much harm to the inflictor as the inflicted.”

The golden rule exists in the business world as it does in the real world, but it is called by a different name. Professionalism. If you take even a brief look on the Internet, you will find many definitions for the term professionalism.  My personal favorite, by Merriam Webster: the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person. Gee, that’s helpful.

If you boil all the different definitions down, throw out all the subjective blather, and focus on the common areas of agreement, you end up with two keys identifiers of professionalism that look a lot like the golden rule with an added bonus:

Possession of knowledge and skills

Use of high ethical standards in dealing with others

I would put it in more practical terms:

Do your job and play nice

             This sounds so easy in an ideal world.  But what happens when you or your co-workers do not act professionally?  What then? How do you navigate? In today’s world, whether you like it or not, whether you are the perpetrator or the victim, you will likely have to deal with this situation sooner or later.

            Before proceeding to the advice, I want to cover some important matters.

First, I think these rules apply to either gender. Even though this article is focused on women, it applies to men equally well.

Second, it is important to distinguish between work related issues and personal issues.  If you have an issue with a co-worker’s work, or vice versa, it is always fair, and even necessary, to address it.  That is not ‘workplace warfare,’ that is just work.  It happens.  No one is ever perfect at her job and at times we will have to talk to someone about her performance or be talked to about our performance.  It should always be done with as much tact and mutual respect as possible.

Third it is also important to distinguish between truth and dishonesty. If you behave badly and someone talks about it, that is not gossip, it’s the truth.  It is on you. You are accountable for your behavior.  You may as well own up to it and do your best to change your ways.

Fourth, and the focus of this article, relates to gossip that is untrue, or gossip that is based on truth but is twisted into something that is untrue.  Make sure that you can verify what was said and who said it. You will get one chance to put things right, so make sure you have your facts straight.

Fifth, it is important to choose your battles carefully.  If the subject matter of the gossip is minor, decide if you can let it go.  Responding to gossip will impact your co-workers and your relationships, so make sure the issue is worth the upheavel that may result.

Lastly, always remember that professionalism is your protection.  If you are behaving calmly and respectfully and focusing on your work, no one can fault you for the actions you take when responding to gossip.  This will save you when things get ugly.

All right, on to the advice.

To the Perpetrator:

If you are putting a co-worker down, gossiping about her behavior or making up vile rumors, cut it out.  It’s for your own good. You are only hurting yourself.  Here are the four main reasons why you will regret your behavior

  1. If you are gossiping about a co-worker, you are not doing your work.  Your boss sees this.  Bosses want lots of productivity and no drama.  You are not giving your boss either of the things she wants most when you tear down your co-workers.
  2. You are building a bad reputation.  At best you are seen as judgmental. At worst, you are seen as a mean-spirited gossip. Wouldn’t you rather spend your time building a reputation as someone who is hard-working, calm, open-minded and tolerant?
  3. No one trusts you. Every person who listens to your gossip realizes that she too could easily be the target of your gossip, or may have been already. Your co-workers might act like they agree with you, but they could very well be afraid of you.  If things go wrong for you, these people are not likely to stand up for you.
  4. Your behavior will not increase your personal happiness.  Negative behavior doesn’t stay within boundaries.  That negativity will spread into every aspect of your work life.  Then it will follow you home and erode your personal life, your relationships, and your peace of mind.

So, do yourself a favor and stop before you make it worse for yourself.

To the Victim:

Once you get wind of the gossip, assess whether it is worth addressing.  Minor personal squabbling is part of normal human behavior.  By addressing the issue at hand you will give it additional weight, so make sure it is important enough that you are willing to cause a bigger ruckus than if left alone.

There are three different power relationships that need to be addressed. You will handle each essentially the same way, but your actions will differ slightly given your position.

Subordinate to supervisor.  If your direct subordinate is hurling the gossip bombs, this is the easiest situation to handle because you are in a position of authority.  Deal with the subordinate as soon as you get wind of the gossip and do so directly.  “I understand that you have mentioned x about me.  It’s important that if you have an issue with something I have said or done, that you come directly to me.” Depending on how important the issue is, you may want to discuss either of the following: the definition of professionalism and how your subordinate’s behavior has failed that standard; the definition of slander and that the subordinate could be held legally liable in some circumstances when passing false rumors.  End with a clear explanation of the action you will take as a response to the gossip.  It could be a verbal warning, a written warning, or some other discipline mechanism used by your company. Then follow through. I repeat, follow through.

This approach solves two problems.  First, it lets your subordinate know that unprofessional behavior will not be tolerated.  Second, it will send a message to all other employees that professional behavior is not only expected, but failing to be professional has real consequences to one’s career.

When I ran a small private banking company, I ran into this situation.  One of the advantages of a small company is wider flexibility in compensating employees based on the quality of their work.  We had one employee who had really stepped up, and I was happy to give her a raise so that her salary matched her value to the company.  Unfortunately, our accountant who did the payroll, felt that I was playing favorites.  She was a stellar accountant and had been really great to work with up to that point, but suddenly she exhibited some very unprofessional behavior.  It had a profound impact on our small office.  Rumors were flying and the situation deteriorated rapidly. I immediately talked to the accountant and explained the situation and told her that even if she didn’t agree with my actions, it was within my authority to take them.  She was not mollified by my explanation.  Her attitude continued to deteriorate and within days she left the company.  She had been an excellent accountant, and I personally liked her very much, but I could see that her decision was best for both her and the company.  She was never going to agree with me, and she couldn’t live with the situation.  Though she was difficult to replace, in the end, it was easier to get another accountant than to demand professional behavior when she had no intention of providing it.

Peer-to-peer. If the gossip bombs are being thrown by a person who is neither your subordinate nor your supervisor, the situation gets a little more difficult. The first thing to do is talk to the perpetrator’s boss. If the company or department is big enough, don’t name the perpetrator at this time. If the company or department is small and the boss knows or can easily figure out who the perpetrator is, go ahead and name names.  Tell the boss the situation and that you will handle it, but you wanted her to know what was going on.  It is important to emphasize here that such gossip is not good for anyone.  It reflects badly on the perpetrator and the victim of course, but it also reflects poorly on the boss who hired them and the company that employs them.  This is a lose, lose, lose, lose situation and should be stopped.

Having this conversation tells the boss that you respect her position and her time. It also emphasizes that not only do you know how to handle a difficult situation professionally but that you are willing to handle it.  That sort of initiative does not go unnoticed. And lastly, it makes the boss aware that this kind of activity is going on and will focus her attention toward this kind of behavior without having to immediately take action.

Once you have spoken to the boss, confront the perpetrator.  It is helpful to be discreet.  If things go badly, they may only get worse if there are others around to witness what could become an uncomfortable situation.  Tell the perpetrator in no uncertain terms what you have heard. Often you will get a vehement denial in response.  Don’t bother to quibble. Tell her that you have spoken to her boss. Emphasize that you have not mentioned any names… yet, but that you will if the two of you cannot solve this issue.  If the boss already knows the identity of the perpetrator, emphasize that it is in the best interests for both of you to solve the problem before the boss becomes further involved.

Obviously, there are many possible outcomes to a discussion like this, and not all of them work out perfectly.  But, this direct approach is often the best approach to minimize damage and discourage future harmful behavior.

If you know of anyone outside the organization who has heard the rumors, you might need to talk to them as well.  The severity of the rumor will guide you in determining if you need to take this step. You don’t have to be graphic or dramatic, but tell these other parties that you understand an issue has been raised, explain that it is false, and let them know you and your boss are available to answer their questions.

It was exactly this peer to peer relationship I found myself in with Susan.  In my case, I spoke to the principal of the school. Embarrassing and painful as it was, I described Susan’s accusation and that I was afraid she was spreading this rumor around. It was horrible to even speak the words, “My husband and I are not abusing our children.” I also emphasized that I would cooperate with any authority that might question us or the school about our behavior.  The whole conversation made me sick.  But it was the best thing I could have done.  It turns out that this was not the first such allegation Susan had made, nor was I the first person she had accused.  I almost cried in relief.  With that information in hand, it was much easier to confront Susan.  I told the principal I would handle the situation.

Fifteen minutes later, Susan and I had a talk in the quiet space of the empty lunchroom. I told her that I had spoken with the principal, that I was aware she had made similar accusations towards others, and that I was not going to allow her to spread false rumors about me and my family.  I tried to be empathetic.  “Look, Susan, I can see where you might interpret this one event this way.  But look at the whole picture.  You have known me for months.  There’s nothing to indicate a pattern of abuse anywhere.  Can’t we agree to disagree on this one incident and move on?”

But Susan didn’t soften her position one bit.  She insisted that we were abusing our children. I can see it to this day, her eyes, narrowed in anger, her voice harsh and brittle, “I know what I saw. You don’t fool me.”

I was shocked.  And frustrated that I couldn’t get through to her.  And angry too.  As calmly as I could, I told her, “All right. I get it.  You’ve made it very clear.”  I stood up and faced her. “We’re done, Susan.  That’s it.  Don’t come near me or my family ever again.  I wash my hands of you (dramatic, I know, but I really did say that). And if you ever pass any false rumors about me or my family, I will respond.” Then I walked away.

That was the end of the friendship.  We never spoke again.  Her children never spoke to my children, although I instructed my kids to be polite, and I always said hello to them in the halls. They too were victims in this situation. I don’t think they even knew what had happened. But here’s the important thing.  The rumors stopped. And things went back to a new normal, a little frostier, to be sure, but at least professional.  That was an acceptable outcome to me.

Supervisor to subordinate.  What happens when it is your boss throwing the gossip bombs? Actually, you treat this the same way as a peer to peer situation, except you need to go up the ladder and talk to your boss’ boss. Other than that it is a little more daunting, you should proceed exactly the same as if it were a peer to peer situation.

What if the boss happens to own the company?  In other words, there is no boss’ boss.  This is a tough situation.  First, you need to consider whether you really want to work at this company when the boss behaves unprofessionally.  There are many reasons why a person would want to remain in this type of situation.  The pay is good.  You are close to retirement.  Only one more year until your pension plan fully vests. There are no other jobs in a fifty-mile radius.  Once again, you have to decide whether it is worth it to you to confront the boss given your situation.  If it is, talk to your boss, as professionally and as calmly as you can.  How the boss responds will give you a good clue if you want to stay at the company.

When I left my last job, I experienced a situation like this.  I had left the company after a business disagreement with my boss, but someone sent an anonymous letter to an outside party we worked with identifying some of the details of the disagreement.  Though I had left the company, my boss told others that I had sent the letter.  I had not. I did not hesitate once I learned of the accusation.  I emailed the organization, explained the situation and asked for a copy of the letter.  They very understandably refused to send it to me. Then I forwarded my original email and the organization’s response to my ex-boss.  I denied any participation and asked that he send me a copy of the letter.  I never did get the letter.  But the false accusations stopped immediately.

Life isn’t perfect.  And working life is no different.  But there is a way to make both more enjoyable.  Professionalism, like the golden rule, is a tool to smooth the inevitable bumps along the way.  Confronting unfair or blatantly unprofessional behavior is never easy.  Never.  But there are times when it is essential to defend your integrity and character. And there are times when it is absolutely necessary to stop harmful behavior. It is difficult, no question.  It is uncomfortable.  It is unpleasant.  But you still have to do it.  Face it directly and professionally.  You will never regret that you stood up for yourself and for the truth.

{Editor’s Note: We are proud to have Anne Riley as one of our Featured Contributors. Anne’s book, Elusive Little Sucker, spoke to us and made us laugh, with its down to earth dialogue about the pursuit of happiness. We look forward to sharing more of Anne’s wisdom and insight!}