Sometimes our curiosity leads us to places where we have no business being.
Jennifer V. Miller is the Founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource, an organizational development consultancy that specializes in helping leaders, teams and sales professionals “master the people equation”. For nearly 25 years, Jennifer has helped people navigate the political landscape of workplace dynamics—in corporate America as an HR generalist, training facilitator, and manager— and since 1995 as an advisor to executives seeking to maximize their workplace environments. A published author, Jennifer is a popular speaker that has made numerous appearances as a featured expert for radio talk shows, professional presentations and expert panels.
“I made a comment about a coworker that I know I shouldn’t have and now I think it’s going to bite me in the butt. I noticed that one of my coworkers leaves for lunch everyday and then comes back and eats his lunch at his desk… How should I play this?” (Read letter.)
OFFICE-POLITICS ADVISER JENNIFER V. MILLER
Dear Hot Water,
There is a Chinese Proverb that says “What is told in the ear of a man is often heard 100 miles away.”
News travels fast, especially that of a gossipy nature. What started out as rather benign curiosity on your part has quickly turned into an awkward situation with the wronged party making a public declaration of “gossip-mongering.” It’s natural to be curious about a co-worker; we’re human beings after all! Our human curiosity can lead to wonderful inventions and unique problem-solving. The challenge is, sometimes our curiosity leads us to places where we have no business being. In fact, one survey conducted by Equisys estimates that the average employee spends 65 hours a year gossiping, so clearly you were not alone in your activities. Unfortunately, your curiosity got the better of you; now it’s time to deal with the fall-out. This situation can be smoothed over, but it will take courage on your part to do so. Before we move into discussing your action plan, let’s consider this situation from the perspectives of two key players: the co-worker about whom you gossiped and your team members. This may help you avoid a similar mistake in the future.
First of all, I would guess that your co-worker believes that eating lunch at his desk is his prerogative, as long as there is no business-related reason that he shouldn’t do so. To have a co-worker discussing activities that occur on “his” time definitely amounts to gossip, because the topic being discussed isn’t work-related. On this point, I would agree with your co-worker: by publicly inquiring about your co-workers personal activities with other colleagues, you crossed a line. So, even though you perceive this person as having a bad temper, in this case, I can certainly understand why he might be upset and perhaps a bit of “anger” on his part is warranted.
Secondly, let’s consider how this series of events has affected your team. Office gossip erodes trust and reduces productivity. Your one seemingly “innocent” comment has now created more talk, and the possible need for a team meeting to discuss what everyone already knows: “don’t gossip about each other. It’s not nice.” So, there has been an impact to the team’s productivity. Also, the trust level between you and your co-worker has been harmed. Clearly office gossip is a fact of life. I’m not suggesting you work to eradicate all office gossip. That’s not realistic. However, you can do your part to ensure that your comments and actions don’t further erode trust or hinder productivity.
For future situations when you are tempted to chat about your co-workers ask yourself: “Is this a business-related issue?” and “What’s preventing me from going directly to the person in question?” These two questions will help you sort out if you need to take action or simply “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Now, let’s move on to your action plan. How to fix this sticky situation? As I mentioned earlier, it will definitely take some courage to repair this situation, but I do believe it can be done. It requires you to own up to your actions and that can be a very tough thing to do.
Here are two things I recommend:
1. Discuss this in private with your boss.
Schedule a meeting with your boss to discuss what has happened. Start the meeting by saying something like, “I heard what Bob (guy who sits at his desk during lunch) said about gossip-mongering. I think I may know why he said that”. Then lay out what happened, stressing you had no ill intent and that you’ve already learned your lesson about gossiping.
Of course, this works best if you have a productive relationship with your boss. It shows that you are willing to ‘fess up and take the hit, if needed. Your boss should agree to keep your identity a secret and offer a solution for a group meeting that is aimed at fixing the issue, rather than pointing fingers.
2. Talk with your co-worker.
You’ve already said he has a bad temper and can be “mean”. What’s your definition of these words? Is it “bad temper” as in, “he will do me bodily harm” or is it that he may say nasty things or yell a little bit? What are you willing to endure in exchange for helping him understand that your intention was not dishonorable? You did not indicate what type of working relationship you had prior to this incident. My guess is that if it was solid, you would’ve just asked him directly, correct? So, you could look at this as an opportunity to create a more positive working relationship. Yes, you’re coming at it from a deficit, but if you are genuine in wanting to improve your communication with this individual, this is one way you could do it.
You could ask to meet with him privately—or semi-privately (like a corner of the company lunch room), if you’re concerned about an outburst. Say something to the effect of, “Bob, I want to talk with you about what you said the other day about gossip-mongering. I’m concerned that I contributed to the gossip and want to get your input on the situation. What caused you to say we have a gossip problem in the department?” He’ll probably say, “Well, YOU should know…let’s start with you talking about what I do on my lunch hour?” Then you can say, “Bob, I can see that upsets you and you’re right, I had no right to be talking about what you do on your lunch hour. It’s none of my business. I just let my curiosity get the best of me. I’m sorry, and it won’t happen again. What can we do to work on this to put it behind us?”
If the “Talk to Bob” plan sounds completely outrageous and unrealistic, perhaps it is. It is possible that he may blow a gasket and things will escalate. But keep this in mind: by coming to him directly and confessing, you are taking the high road. You’re admitting your mistake and asking for forgiveness. In that way, you’ve done all you can to make good on a situation you created. If he chooses not to cooperate, then the ball’s in his court.
Clearly, these suggestions require you struggle through some challenging conversations. Fortify yourself by remembering that you are doing this not only to repair a wrong, but also to lay groundwork for a more positive working relationship. Good luck in working this out. I wish you all the best for a positive resolution!
Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.
Jennifer V. Miller
About Jennifer Miller
Jennifer V. Miller is the Founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource, an organizational development consultancy that specializes in helping leaders, teams and sales professionals “master the people equation”. For nearly 25 years, Jennifer has helped people navigate the political landscape of workplace dynamics—in corporate America as an HR generalist, training facilitator, and manager— and since 1995 as an advisor to executives seeking to maximize their workplace environments. A published author, Jennifer is a popular speaker that has made numerous appearances as a featured expert for radio talk shows, professional presentations and expert panels. She holds a degree in psychology from Western Michigan University and is a former board member of the West Michigan Chapter of the International Society for Performance Improvement. Jennifer invites you to join the conversation at her blog, The People Equation.