Private Meetings Between Employees

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about secret conversations between two members of a four member company: Is the newer employee, who may be at the root of the trouble and may be “poisoning” the other employee’s attitude?

I own a small company (4 people, including myself). Recently, I’ve encountered two of my employees having impromptu, private conversations in very out-of-the-way locations such as in the hot sun of the parking lot during business hours (not on the way to or from lunch), out in the 120-degree aircraft hangar when their workstations are in the adjacent 77-degree office, etc., when they should be inside working. When I walk-up, they quickly try and cover up whatever they may have been talking about.

I certainly don’t have a problem with them taking breaks, but my gut tells me that something’s going on. Personally, it makes me uncomfortable, but more important; I’m feeling that the subject of the frequent private meetings is somehow a threat to the livelihood of the business. I don’t want to come across as a “nosy” or intrusive boss who doesn’t respect his employees’ privacy, but I’m spending an increasingly unhealthy amount of time and energy worrying about it and wondering what’s going on. I really don’t know what I should do about it as the “boss.”

One of the employees has been with me pretty much since the start of my business and is a key part of my team. The other employee is a much newer addition to the team and has had a bit of a rocky history with us (some attitude issues, a bit of a temper problem, etc.) It is my suspicion that it is the newer employee, who may be at the root of the trouble and may be “poisoning” the other employee’s attitude, but I’m not much of a “people” person, and I could be reading the situation incorrectly. Any suggestions?

Signed, Owner

Dear Owner:

Your concern is understandable. Your language is guarded “having impromptu, private conversations in very out-of-the-way locations.” Such language could refer to an a surprise party to honor you, prayer meetings, disclosing one or the other’s problems at home, conspiring against you, illegal activity, gossip, or an affair. I suspect you think their secret conversations, even in a hot place, are an affair. And if so, that might wreck one or the others family.

The hard fact is that the workplace is a natural environment for crossing the line from coworker to being sexually involved. Whatever it is, whether private or not, it has detracted from what these two are hired to do and it is consuming your mental and emotional energy, and possible theirs. A small company, such as yours, is not immune to any of the above. Should you inquire or stay out of it until and if something emerges that could harm your company?

You are boss. The options before you are to

· Continue to worry and keep your mouth shut. Put your worry to the back of your mind and focus on business.

· Issue a memo to all staff that you don’t want any hanky panky between coworkers.

· Meet with the long-time employee to ask what is going on.

· Meet with one or both asking what is going on.

I expect these are the things have come to your mind, and you might think of others. You seem uncertain if you have a right to know and if you dare inquire in to what might be their private lives. You need to think through what policy you will impose or if you will engage them in problem solving, should it be a problem. Yet another issue entails should you determine that the newer employee is “poisoning” will you fire that individual and what precautions have you taken that important information will not go out the door with a fired employee or result in sabotage.

This is to suggest that before you act you should think through and plan for what needs to be done to protect your company. Might there be a sexual harassment charge if a romance goes sour and you as owner did nothing to stop it? From here, it is impossible to sense how you function, but I assume you want to be seen as a boss that is respected and liked. You don’t like to be viewed as a policeman. You don’t want to have to monitor every move your employees make.

You do want your four-employee company to be team committed to the success; to operations that increasingly improve quality. This matter of secret conversations has been and is detracting you and probably them from this goal. It is your business to know what is going on. Once you have thought through policy and protection for your company, either of the last two options seem reasonable to me.

The unwritten rules of communication within your head are that work time is for business and that non-work conversation, except for occasional, incidental small talk, is for outside of the work environment. Does this need to be stated and your meeting to be limited to that? Or do you, as boss, need to know what are the topics of the secret conversations? Do you have a right to know? Probably because they have taken place during the time these two are hired for job assignments. If you ask, might you be told lies or that it is none of your business? Probably, if they are in an affair, you will encounter some dancing around the secrecy. Likely, since you don’t see your self as “people” person, you should think though how you want to react.

Ideally, you will respect their desire to “save face” and be in “good standing” in your and others eyes. Ideally, they will be honest, apologize, and assure you that from now on there will be not more secret conversations and that their full attention and commitment will be to your and “their” firm. Ideally this worry will be an opportunity to deal openly with what has prompted secrecy, and you will be seen as a supportive and understanding, yet a boss firmly committed to what is best for your company and all concerned. Ideally, your employees will want to have a workplace that can’t be charged as a hostile environment and will respect your efforts to correct and/or prevent such.

Ideally, all four of you will make explicit do and don’t communication rules; rules that specify when you meet as a work group, what company business that needs special approval, how criticism should be brought, what gossip is inappropriate, and to regularly ask process questions is expected and encouraged, such as: What’s going on? What did we do this week that deserves applause? What needs correcting? Are we cutting waste; wasted supplies, time, energy, and money? Do these thoughts make sense? My best to you in pursuit of the bigger picture: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden