Ask HR: What Can I Do When I Am the Target of Workplace Gossip?

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP November 5, 2021
Ask HR: What Can I Do When I Am the Target of Workplace Gossip?

​Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.


Recently, a co-worker became aware of an embarrassing personal matter of mine. They have continually shared and talked about it with other co-workers. Do I have any recourse to get them to stop discussing my personal life? —Barry

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Thanks for sharing your experience, as I can imagine this must be quite uncomfortable. Everyone has a right to be respected at work, and that includes not being gossiped about. A friend of mine once said, "Gossip is the lowest form of conversation," and I agree. Gossip has no place at work. It's toxic, disrupts productivity and can lead to dysfunctional work environments.

The first thing I suggest you do, assuming you can do so calmly and respectfully, is approach your co-worker. Ask them, in a polite and nonconfrontational manner, to discontinue this behavior. Be clear and direct. While you may be rightly upset, if you do not believe you can manage your emotions, by all means, bring HR in to help.

If this behavior does not stop after you've spoken with your co-worker, the next step would be to speak with your manager and/or HR. Some workplaces have gossip-free workplace policies, workplace conduct policies or other policies that reference respectful workplace behaviors. Your employer should emphasize these policies when addressing the situation with your co-worker on your behalf. If your co-worker continues to discuss your personal life despite intervention from your manager or HR, that behavior may cross the line into harassment. Document anything that happens and report it to your HR department. This will likely result in progressive discipline for your co-worker, which should hopefully get their attention and stop their actions.

I hope this situation improves, and I wish you the best of luck!

My manager has regularly added to my work responsibilities over the past year. I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work expected by me, and my performance is suffering. I am at the point where I often miss deadlines or don't complete work. I have asked my manager for assistance, but she has continually delayed making any promised changes. What can I do? —Calvin

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Facing dual threats of economic instability and a talent shortage in the wake of the pandemic, many organizations have been forced to do more with less to keep their doors open. This has, not surprisingly, taken a toll on employees. The only way to address this is to speak with your manager and make her aware of how you feel.

Keep the discussion constructive and centered on performance. Bear in mind that your manager may be overwhelmed, as well, but don't be afraid to speak up to keep your concerns on her radar. Part of what you are seeing might very well be a communication problem, where shifts in expectations and circumstance aren't shared well. Think about what you can do to foster communication from your end.

If you haven't done so already, ask your manager if any resources for improving time management are available. There may be software tools, strategies or training that may help you manage your workload.

You mentioned that your work performance has suffered. Has your manager reprimanded you for late or incomplete assignments? If so, it may be a clue that she has adjusted her expectations based on circumstances beyond your control. I would encourage you to speak with your manager about your performance expectations to verify if this is the case. Given the outcome, you may want to reset your expectations for work productivity to fit the current business climate.

One other important piece of advice: Don't just bring the problem, bring the solution. Being a problem-solver can turn you into a vital contributor. So, never offer complaints without actionable insight. Lean into your knowledge and expertise to propose solutions. Perhaps it's the purchase of new technology, flexibility with deadlines or additional staffing. Whatever it is, the odds of getting what you want will increase when you bring ideas and solutions to the table.

Try to understand the problems you are experiencing within the context of the broader challenges facing your organization. Remember, your problems are never just your problems. In your discussions, it is important to tie your success back to the overall success of your entire workplace. Most importantly, be patient but persistent and remain invested in improving your workplace. 



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