Bully at Work Moody Boss Karma Office Gossip No Picnic Back stabber Plug your Ears Moody Boss

Part I: Clerk “M” is spying on us

Dear Office-Politics,

I work in a government law enforcement office. My staff and I have recently relocated to a new area in our building due to the needs of our information technology department needing to expand.

I am responsible for six staff members and another manager is responsible for existing staff already in the area of five. Here is the problem I am inquiring about.

There is a civilian clerk who works at the front desk and is responsible for answering phones, directing the public, completing paperwork and other duties of an administrative assistant. This person who I will call clerk “M” has been the primary point of contention for all of us on the floor where we work.

She collects information on everybody openly and brings it to our superior. We are not doing anything wrong. It is the constant eavesdropping and spying that is unwanted. The person whom she provides information is not to our knowledge asking her to do these things but he does not turn it away. Everyone on this floor is concerned with this and nobody wants to tell her to “bug off”. Clerk “M” has built a strong relationship with our superior and he believes what she tells him. The perspective in which she views what we do is very jaded.

How do we approach this problem for the benefit of all involved?


Mr. I want privacy

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Mr. I Want Privacy,

Well, you’ve really got my curiosity up on all of the intriguing elements of your story: the government, law enforcement, and a civilian spy with the code name “M.” If I’m not mistaken I believe that the head of British Secret Service and the boss of James Bond was code named “M.” Huh, I wonder if there is some connection? This could be much, much bigger than we believe.

Now that I’ve gotten my conspiracy theory out of the way let’s move on to address your situation. As your consultant, I’ve got to begin by asking you some questions.

1. What have you done thus far, if anything, to address the issue of M’s spying?
2. What does your superior do with the information?
3. What do you know about her intentions? Is she spying or just a gossip?
4. Is the other manager as concerned as you are about M?
5. Why are people afraid to tell her to “bug off?”
6. What’s the biggest issue for you? Is it her eavesdropping and spying? Is it her tattle-telling to the boss? Is it the “free pass” that your superior gives her for this behavior that, in effect, endorses her behavior?

The course that we’ll take depends upon how you answer those questions, in particular that last one. I’ve always found that to solve a problem I’ve first got to clearly define what it is and who owns it. In other words, if you can’t name it you can’t solve it.

The elephant in the room

For purposes of our critical thinking about this let’s go with calling this issue the “elephant in the middle of the room.” You’ve got to confront that beast before it sucks all of the energy and fresh air right out of the room. What do you think that we should do? Where should we attack the problem? Should we talk to ‘M’ about her intrusive and rude behavior or should we go directly to your superior with our concerns? What do you believe is the best first step?

Pause now, take a deep breath, and take 15 seconds to really think about that. I’ll be right back after you are done.

Talk to ‘M’

Okay, I agree. I think talking to ‘M’ is the best first step. So how do we do that in a manner that diminishes the fear that any messenger will get “shot?” Well, here’s what I would do, but you adjust where necessary to fit your work setting.

First, get with the other manager and agree to go together to speak with her.

Second, use the “Colombo approach” wherein you simply report your observations of her behavior to her and then ask for her help in understanding. For example, you might say,

“M, we’ve noticed that you seem to take a great interest in other people’s conversations and work habits. In fact, people have even observed you taking down notes and then going into our superior’s office to share them. We don’t know if you realize it, but this behavior of yours is making people feel uncomfortable even to the point that some folks now view you as a “spy.” I’m sure that’s not your intention, but we are confused by this behavior of yours and concerned with the impact it’s having on morale and trust in the department. We’re at a loss as to understanding what’s going on so we’re wondering if you can help us understand what this is about?”

Third, give her a chance to respond and how she responds will determine your next move. She could plead “ignorance” and say she didn’t know her actions were having that impact and volunteer to stop. On the other hand she could say that she’s not spying and that part of her job is to keep the boss informed on what’s happening in the department. Finally, she could always just say that she doesn’t know what you’re talking about and that you’re wrong.

If the problem is resolved there, all is well and good. If not, you may need to take the next step and talk to your superior. Either way all you’ve done is report your observations to her on her behavior and the impact it’s having on the department and that is the same approach you should take with your superior.

Bottom line, you’ve got to confront this elephant, otherwise you’re making the choice to live in fear and I’m wondering why you’d choose that.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Dr. Greg

Dr. Greg Ketchum, dubbed the “Frasier of the Cubicles” by the San Francisco Chronicle, is a former clinical psychologist-turned CEO and media career coach. He presides over an executive talent firm, providing coaching and recruiting for executives and Fortune 500 companies. A unique mix of psychology and coaching expertise gives Dr. Greg a great understanding of people and what it takes for career success. Combined with his keen insight into today’s job market, and infused with his trademark quick wit, Dr. Greg challenges Office-Politics readers to reach for career success on their own terms — and to have a good time doing it.

What's your advice?

(You can also tweet it to @dearOP)