Tattletales Spell Trouble

If you are held hostage by corporate pot-stirrers, here’s how to break the spell.

By Paul Falcone Nov 1, 2007

HR Magazine: November 2007

Being held hostage by gossips, rumormongers and snitches sounds like the latest edition of a Harry Potter book, but, unfortunately, is not as entertaining. These caustic characters detract from the workplace and leave many well-intentioned managers feeling overwhelmed and underequipped. But, much like Harry, you too could be the hero who overcomes these human obstacles and sets the perpetrators free of their own limitations--even without earning a degree from your local school of witchcraft and wizardry. Following are the strategies necessary to conjure up a potion that will work well for you and your team as well as for the alleged malfeasants.

When Gossips Abound

Gossips typically initiate unfounded rumors; rumormongers perpetuate them, even if they lack any foundation of truth or could potentially damage others’ reputations. And snitches, well, snitches are snitches, and most of us know that playing the tattletale role is just plain wrong.

These behavioral workplace factors occur around us all the time to differing degrees, but few things in the workplace do more to damage employee morale and trust than corporate “grapevining” allowed to go unaddressed and unchecked.

Rumors about your industry, the performance of your competitors or even your own company may occur from time to time without raising any potential red flags in terms of managing your staff. But when those rumors focus on specific people in your department, you may very well have trouble on your hands.

Personal rumors usually play out like this: “Did you hear that Charlie may have broken up with his wife? He came to work in the same clothes two days in a row. I’m not surprised; I’ve suspected that for a long time.”

Or, “My new boss is nothing like my former boss in my old department. She takes more personal phone calls than business calls and always seems to have some drama on her hands between her kids and her husband.”

And, “I heard that Sylvia left so suddenly because they told her they were about to fire her. She got out just before they axed her.”

People who initiate unfounded rumors like these and who gossip about their co-workers’ or bosses’ personal problems, work styles or private challenges stir up drama for no good reason. They act like a worm in an apple, slowly coring away the good will and respect that creates camaraderie and trust.

Here’s your reality, though: By the time that rumor makes its way back to Charlie, there likely may be no one who accepts ownership for its initiation. You will simply have Charlie in your office, frustrated by how cruel people can be, especially at a time when he’s already feeling especially vulnerable and hurt.

Finding out who originated the rumor about Charlie’s life isn’t really at issue because unless someone voluntarily admits it, there’s little blaming or finger-pointing necessary. What is important, however, is how you address the situation with your staff. Here’s an example:

“Everyone, I’ve asked Charlie to join me in this meeting because a rumor has developed about Charlie’s personal life. We don’t know who originated the rumor, and if any one of you would like to speak with me in private after this meeting about his or her involvement in starting or perpetuating the rumor, I’d be happy to hear what you have to say. “For now, I want you all to know how hurtful this is. We’re a team, and anyone who could raise issues like this against one member of the team raises them against us all. I personally would be very offended and hurt if anyone started or continued a rumor about my personal life that had little or nothing to do with my performance at work. “Whether there’s any truth to this rumor is not the issue; it’s simply none of our business. This is about respect for each other as individuals and respect for our team.

“However, let me be very clear: I expect that no one will engage in this type of character assassination or public shaming exercise ever again. I also expect that everyone in our department would stop others from spreading rumors of a personal nature. In short, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. Do I have your agreement and commitment on that going forward?“Charlie, I’m very sorry, on behalf of the entire team, for anything that was said that might have hurt or offended you. We will commit to you to stopping these types of behaviors in their tracks in the future. Again, my apologies.”

According to Lynne Whiteford, vice president of consulting at Right Management in Woodland Hills, Calif., “in light of cloak-and-dagger rumors that attack someone’s personality, private life or other areas of vulnerability, the best course of action will always be to address the rumor openly with the group in front of the intended victim and apologize for the perception problem that was created by someone’s lack of discretion.

“In addition,” continues Whiteford, “guilt works better than anger or any type of formal punishment in these situations because guilt is internal and forces introspection--just the remedy necessary to sensitize others about the effects of their inappropriate, clandestine workplace behaviors.”

Reining In Rumormongers

There’s little that will ruin camaraderie and foster a sense of distrust more than a rumormonger. Like gossips, they enjoy the power of having the “scoop” and sharing it at just the right moment to demonstrate their insider knowledge or to malign their workplace enemies. Some people just can’t resist the urge to perpetuate unsubstantiated rumors, and once the proverbial pot is stirred, your response must be swift and strong:“Susan, your comments about Stan and Joan have gotten back to me.

Specifically, I was told that you said to three other members of our staff that Stan doesn’t want to move his office back to our part of the building because he doesn’t want to work anywhere near Joan. Before we discuss what I heard, would you like to share with me if this is true or not?

“First of all, I know that Stan did indeed say this to someone else on our staff. Second, I know that person in turn shouldn’t have shared that information with anyone else, but you apparently heard about it and chose to share it with additional members of the team, even though you had nothing to do with it, and it didn’t affect you in any way.

“As a result, Joan has become the brunt of some mean-spirited office banter. And, as you could imagine, she was embarrassed and humiliated for something that she had absolutely nothing to do with. And that leaves me feeling very disappointed by your lack of discretion and insensitivity.

“Let me be clear: At this point, you’ve got a perception problem on your hands. The perception that exists is that you’ve gossiped and fed the corporate grapevine, which has made our work environment that much more toxic. And I’m holding you fully responsible for your own ‘perception management’ from this point forward.

“I would think that an apology may be in order here, but I’ll have to leave that to you. For now, I really want you to think about your actions and how you may have inadvertently made someone look bad in the eyes of their peers. I want you to know that I’m counting this as a verbal warning in my record book. I want your commitment right now that we’ll never have to have a discussion like this again.”

“This response may sound punitive relative to the nature of the conduct infraction,” states Whiteford. “However, a heavy hand with clear consequences typically works best when the rumormonger is caught flagrante delicto [in the act]. Chances are your throwing the book at her may be relayed to other members of the team as well, and that will send the right message in terms of modeling future behavior.”

In fact, a verbal warning like the one demonstrated above will not soon be forgotten and may instill a healthy sense of paranoia that keeps those with naturally loose lips from engaging in such unwarranted banter in the future. Besides, it’s a lesson that needs to be taught for the individual’s own good--both from a business as well as a personal standpoint.

Tell Snitches To Zip It

Most positions in corporate America require the ability to maintain confidentiality as an essential function of the jobs. Too many times, employees cloak their inability to maintain a confidence in the guise of sharing information with you that’s critical to running your business.

Granted, sometimes that information could be important to your operation. More often than not, however, that tap on your shoulder alerting you to a subordinate’s problems or conflicts of interest is more for the disclosing employee’s benefit than for yours or the company’s.

For example, an employee might come to you and say, “I just need to let you know that Suzie is not at her desk enough. She’s way too social and doesn’t do her fair share of the work. It doesn’t really bother me personally, but it may make it hard on the other employees.”

Well, so much for co-worker camaraderie and trust. Your subordinates and co-workers may find many such “minor” issues to bring to your attention theoretically for your own good, but, much like a parent, you have to teach them that turning each other in may not be a healthy way to conduct business. Of course, you want to know certain things as a manager because you can’t be everywhere all the time, but the workplace isn’t perfect and it never will be, so you have to decide when corporate tattling is acceptable and when it’s not. As a rule, there should be three circumstances where unilateral sharing goes on: when an employee hears of complaints of harassment, discrimination or potential violence in the workplace. Otherwise, gently take your subordinate aside and explain the following:

“I understand that you believe that I need to know these things, especially since they occur when I’m not in the office or behind closed doors. And I appreciate your always trying to keep me in the loop as to what’s going on. But there’s a bigger issue that I want to sensitize you to, and it’s a moral issue that has a lot to do with principle and doing the right thing.

“Not to sound ungrateful or unappreciative, but I don’t know that sharing that kind of information about Suzie with me is the right thing for you to do. If you witnessed someone stealing or being harassed, I would want to know about that immediately. But those are serious conduct infractions that could have dire consequences to the company. When it comes to performance issues that you become aware of, I don’t think that you should necessarily feel compelled to volunteer that information.

“First of all, I’ll probably be able to find that out on my own before too long. Second, it places you in the role of‘mole’ or corporate snitch, and when that gets out--and it will sooner or later--you won’t be trusted by your peers. And that will bring more longterm damage to the department than the current performance-related problem that you felt compelled to report. Do you see why sometimes withholding that kind of information may be better for both you and the department in the long run?”

Magic Potion

Yes, these issues are sometimes a slippery slope. And yes, sometimes these actions are done with little forethought of the damage that could be done. Nevertheless, left unaddressed and potentially unpunished, they can damage team spirit and good will more than just about anything else that the workplace could conjure up.

Be direct and open, and shy away from nothing when it comes to eradicating these insidious forces in the workplace. Your team will benefit, your subordinates will respect and appreciate you, and those wrongdoers will learn the errors of their ways before those same types of mistakes wreak havoc on their careers.

In short, you would make Harry Potter proud, as you could become a wizard of the workplace just by practicing and demonstrating honesty, integrity and good old-fashioned manners.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executiveand a best-selling author of fivebooks, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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