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The Scorpion and the Turtle

Turtle swimming illustration by Franke James; scorpion ©istockphoto.com/JUN YAN LOKE

Dear Office-Politics,

I have worked in this office for about 3 years and I am a social person, trying to get along with most people. I tend to lean toward the positive people to hang out with. I became friends with the HR assistant when I was first hired. I have bent her ear on bad and good days and she has also vented with me. We don’t take our conversations anywhere else. When I go to her office and close the door I expect the conversations to stay confidential.

Recently, I went to her office to vent about the stress in my department. I vented about several coworkers, one who is getting a divorce. It’s a sad situation as her husband also works here in a different office. So I went back to my office feeling better. Today her (HR) boss goes to my boss and tells my boss that I acted inappropriately by telling his assistant about the divorce before the divorcee had announced it. Now, to give you a little background the HR assistant and the HR boss are at each other’s throats all the time. She has done several things to upset him and they are not speaking half the time.

So again… My boss then comes to me to tell me what has been said. I apologize and say that I was behind closed doors in the HR dept. venting and expected my conversation to stay private. She was very nice and just wanted to warn me that the conversation may not have been confidential.

I was very mad and my first impulse was to call the HR assistant and ask her if she blabbed. But, once I got a grip, I realized that there may be some game playing going on in HR and I don’t want to play. I feel the HR boss is getting back at his assistant through me. I am also not top on his list because I tend to speak my mind which is not always in his favor. If I confronted the HR assistant I know she would have blown up and gone back to the HR boss and will do some venting of her own. I don’t think it would be a win/win situation.

My thoughts are that it is best that I not do anything. I have spoken with the divorcee and she is OK with everything. Our office runs well, we are very close and protective of each other.

My questions are these: Was I wrong in speaking with the HR assistant? Am I right in not confronting the HR assistant about confidential conversations? I would appreciate any thoughts. I can take any criticism.


Open Vent

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Open Vent,

First off, thanks for your letter to OfficePolitics.com. I love the way that you ended your letter, “I can take any criticism.” That speaks really well for your willingness to learn and improve and I really like that.

Before I put in my two cents worth on your questions I’d like to ask you a question:

What have you learned from this experience?

The single greatest action that you can take after going through any encounter like this is to simply ask yourself that question.

Well, what’s your answer? Take a moment before you read any further and jot down what you’ve learned. That way, you can compare it to what I’m going to tell you.

Well, now that you’ve had a moment to reflect I’ll address your questions.

Your first question:
Was I wrong in speaking with the HR assistant?

By that I’m assuming that you mean wrong in speaking with her about the divorce, yes? I would reframe your question slightly to more accurately reflect the reality of your situation: Was it wise to speak with the HR assistant? The short answer is not that it was wrong, but it was unwise. Fully confiding in the HR assistant suggests a kind of naivete on your part regarding the boundaries of workplace relationships.

You’ve got to keep in mind that no matter how friendly the relationship or relaxed and personal the conversations she is still the HR assistant. You’ve always got to keep that in mind. She’s got a dual relationship with you both as a friendly coworker, but more fundamentally as an HR assistant and in that role she has certain responsibilities. There is a big difference between being friendly with the folks at work versus being friends with them. I think you may have crossed that line and acted with her as if she is your friend and forgotten her other role. I may be friends with my mother, but I don’t tell her everything that I do.

The Scorpion and the Turtle
Now we don’t know what actions the HR assistant took or didn’t take so we can’t really get into blaming her. It reminds me in a way of the story of the scorpion and the turtle (it might have been a river otter!). The scorpion comes up to the side of a river and wants to get across, but can’t swim, so it sees the turtle in the water and asks if it can ride across on the turtle’s back.

The turtle says, “Why no, you’re a scorpion and you might sting me.” But the scorpion answers that, “If I sting you we’d both drown so why would I do that?

Well, this made sense to the turtle so he decided to give the scorpion a ride across the river. When they got about halfway the scorpion moved closer to the turtle’s head and all of a sudden flipped his tail up and stung the turtle right on his head. “You said you wouldn’t do that. Now we’ll both drown. Why did you sting me?” the turtle pleaded. “What can I say, I’m a scorpion” he said.

I’m not telling you that story to say that you’re the turtle and she’s the scorpion and that one is bad and one is good. Rather, I’m telling the story to point out that the turtle forgot whom he was dealing with. Scorpions sting. HR assistants deal with HR matters including divorces between spouses that work at the same company. You forgot.

In my experience this issue is more of a challenge for women at work than it is for men, which is not to say that men don’t have their own challenges in the workplace. In general, women are not only more used to opening up and “venting” about their feelings, but they’re better at it. I say in general as there are exceptions. Opening up and sharing feelings like this can create a wonderful sense of intimacy and connection between two people such as between friends or family members. However, when you open up to the degree that it sounds like you have with the HR assistant that sense of shared intimacy can create a false sense of confidentiality and trust. In fact, you probably got mad (and hurt although you didn’t mention that) because you felt that your trust was betrayed. Bottom line, let’s save that level of intimate connection for our friends and family members.

As to your second question:
Am I right in not confronting the HR assistant about confidential conversations?

Let’s drop the word right and say that you were wise not to confront her. You showed great wisdom in not acting on your first impulse. I can’t tell you how many different workplaces situations I’ve been called into as an executive coach that resulted from someone not resisting this kind of first impulse to react. Our job at work, heck in life, is to live lives wherein we respond to the world around us rather than react to it. To me, the former implies that our impulses are run through our judgment and the latter implies unthinking reacting. I don’t mean to say that we have to examine every single impulse before we react, but rather that not acting on first impulse when we’re mad or upset is a good thing.

Let’s keep our friends our friends, and our coworkers our friendly acquaintances, and never the twain shall meet. Thanks so much for sharing your story with OfficePolitics.com!


Dr. Greg

P.S. Listen to my new ‘Coach-on-Demand’ Podcasts®, on issues like ‘Does Anyone Else Notice This Elephant in the Middle of the Room?’

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.

  1. 3 Answers to “The Scorpion and the Turtle”

  2. Feedback from Letter writer:

    I love the answer. I totally agree with what he says. I have become too chummy with a couple of people at this job and have broken a rule that I put on myself a while ago. To separate work from the rest of my life. I don’t mind having friends but there has to be a line drawn. I am also so glad I did not confront the HR assistant as that dept is still having conflicts and it would have made things worse.

    I am excited to read more of the articles, they will be very helpful. Thank you so much.

    By Letter writer on Apr 24, 2008

  3. I’ve worked in executive circles for many years and at many firms. There is a universal rule: Do NOT tell HR anything you do not want your manager to know. There is NO confidentiality between HR and an employee. HR’s mission is to protect the company, not a place for an employee to “feel safe and vent.” In today’s climate employees are resources, human capital. Another truth is, do NOT vent in public. If you cannot say something pleasant about a person or company do not discuss it in the restaurant, bar or church. You are never assured privacy; Maxwell Smart’s Cone of Silence did not work for him and will not work for you even if lowered over your booth or bar stool. Vent to your spouse at the end of the day after the children are in bed. My dear writer, office politics nailed you on this one, I trust you’ll remember this lesson for the remainder of your career.

    By Ms. Admin on Apr 25, 2008

  4. Hi,

    Dr. Greg has pointed out a key point: the people we’re friends with at work all have dual roles – friends, and co-workers. The “co-worker” card is going to trump the “friends” card pretty much every time, no matter how much we may not want to believe that.

    Good luck to the letter-writer! and kudos to you for being open to feedback and ready to learn and grow.


    By Grace Judson on Apr 25, 2008

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