I have problems with our gossipy giraffes and the lion that listens to them. I work in a zoo. The staff is spread out over several buildings and has a wide variety of duties and skills. In the building I work in there are several departments, including administration and support staff. The work environment lends itself very well to gossip, and most of my coworkers engage in chatty conversation that, while gossip, does not appear to have a malicious intent. I do not believe it is possible to stop the chatter, since it’s a zoo around here and lots of very odd things happen.
My issue is with leadership that listens to the gossip and then treats it as gospel. What do I do when one of my bosses (not my immediate boss, but my boss’s boss) accuses me of things I did not do without using any specifics and based as best I can tell on rampant office chatter? My impulse is to ask for specifics, but because I am being accused of being intelligent, arrogant, and socially unskilled I am not sure that it would help my cause. Please be aware that I have never before been accused of any of these things by prior employers or by other employees at this institution (OK, I have been told I am intelligent, but never had that presented as an accusation).
I am not perfect of course, but my employees are happy, feel valued, and are very effective at their jobs. So I found it particularly surprising when I was told that one of my team members was looking for other opportunities to get away from me. I spoke the person in question, not touching on that specifically, but offering to provide a glowing reference if they were looking for other employment. (We don’t pay well, so it’d be easy enough to say they were job seeking without having an awkward confrontation if they were looking only to get away from me.) This individual was shocked at the very idea and is not apparently seeking other employment. In fact, they said several times that they don’t work at the zoo for the money and enjoy working in my department.
This is not the first time this individual has based a reprimand on gossip. The feel of being picked from the herd has cyclic quality to it, but I am not sure if I am simply a safe pressure release valve or if there’s a biological basis. Periodically there are whiffs of his treating me differently because I am the only person at this level of management who is an unmarried female, but it could also be because he believes I will ultimately leave the zoo. He is an asset to the zoo and on the whole a decent boss, my only issue with him is in the way he handles personnel issues.
Is it possible that the boss in between us has set me up for a “wounding the king” scenario? This middle boss is not particularly sociallly skilled, but aside from suspicion that he may have engaged in a behind the scenes campaign against all of his subordinates I have not had any particular problems with him.
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Dear Wondering Wildebeast
On your behalf:
Based on your letter, I’m going to make some basic assumptions that should help me better respond to your questions.
1. You have a strong level of self-awareness. Admitting you are not perfect and being comfortable with your intelligence (but not to the point of being arrogant) show me that you are not just creating a victim mentality.
2. You are able to analyze and diagnose before prescribing. It sounds like you handled the gossip about the reportedly dissatisfied employee rather well.
3. You like your job and want to see the situation improve.
There are some things to think about when dealing with the type of individual who thrives on gossip to bring down other people. Generally, this individual tends to be insecure about himself. This is demonstrated by the fact that intelligence is now an accused crime. Another thing is that this individual will not be accountable for the information that he is using against another person; innuendo serves as judge and jury. If he is doing it to you, chances are high that it is happening to others as well (you just happen to be the weakest of the herd at the moment).
With those things in place, let’s create a strategy for handling this situation. First of all, start getting things on paper (both his reprimands and your responses). This may seem counter-intuitive, as though you might be admitting that he’s right. However, if you word it correctly, you may be able to turn the tables on the ineffective gossip. If your boss’s boss now realizes that you are tracking the documentation trail of the accusations, it might make him think twice about sharing it. Talk to a representative from HR or from your union and get them on board for this approach. The next time he pulls you into his office to share “constructive feedback” on your performance, listen and ask questions. Once he is back at his desk, send him the following email with a CC to your HR or union representative:
Step One: Alert the Watchers
“Thank you for sharing the information about my performance. I was completely unaware of the situation, and I am grateful that you brought it to my attention. Because I am an employee who constantly strives to improve, please provide in writing all of the specifics, detail, and background of this situation to the Human Resources (or union) representative (I’ve CC-ed her on this letter for your convenience). You do not need to share this detailed background information with me. Since HR will be apprised of the situation, we can begin to track issues related to my performance in a more organized fashion and respond to them more proactively. It will also allow me to partner with HR to improve my leadership skills and find more effective areas of development.”
Step Two: Document his Errors
When you catch him in mistakes like the one with your soon-to-be-departed employee, again send an email to him and to the HR (or union) representative. Based on your most recent experience, it might read something like this:
“I think there may be a misunderstanding or miscommunication circulating around the department, and I want to thank you for bringing it to my attention. You had mentioned [Employee] was about to leave because of dissatisfaction with my leadership. Because I value the relationships with all of my employees, I had an open and honest discussion with [Employee] to discuss the issues and offer my support. [Employee] informed me that the issues you had shared with me were incorrect, and that she feels completely the opposite (and is willing to discuss this with you to help clarify). I’m very relieved that we were able to resolve this. I’ve cc-ed HR to bring this issue of employee retention to their radar. Again, thank you for continuing to raise awareness of potential cultural issues that could undermine the teamwork of our department if allowed to continue unchecked.”
Step Three: The Nail in the Coffin — The Specter of a Lawsuit
Responding in this fashion puts him on the spot, but it still allows him to save face. What you are doing is sending the message that the rumor mill now is being tracked and documented. If you start getting in trouble for the email trail, simply suggest to him that in this society — where anyone can sue anyone else over hearsay — that you are protecting him and his interests, and that he may want to be more conscientious of the rumor mill before continuing it. It may not seem like it because of the power distance between him and you, but I would be willing to bet that he is much more afraid of and intimidated by you than you are of him.
When dealing with lateral gossip issues, one of the best responses I’ve used to address potentially damaging gossip that could undermine the team is this:
“Wow… that is serious information. You might want to track that one back to the source, as sharing it could be damaging to the individual as well as to our whole organization. If someone were sharing that kind of information about me in error, I’d want it fixed quickly, wouldn’t you?”
Again, this sends a message without putting the other person on the spot or possibly turning them against you. It also sends the message that you’re not a person through whom idle gossip can be channeled.
I wish you all the best!
Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.com
Timothy Johnson, Author
Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.