Tattletales Galore! Staff Meeting Shared Complaints

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about what bugs them: How do I stop coworkers making me the butt of criticism?

I work in a Wellness Center with three secretaries and four personal trainers. Recently at our “Team” meeting, people have been “sharing” their feelings about what bugs them at work with everybody. Apparently everything that bugs them has to do with me. With everything that has been said during the meeting, my boss included, has slammed me three times. Others have not had anything negative said about them. Also one of the female secretaries and the two male personal trainers has been gossiping and talking about me and running to the boss and tattling about everything I do.

I’m not a bad employee. I feel I have a very positive attitude, I don’t lie or steal, and I come to work on time with a smile. However, lately they take anything they can to slam me in front of others and the boss. How can I make it stop? Right now I’m giving them the silent treatment that I know is not a fix. But it’s all I can do in the meantime until I find an answer. I have tried talking to my boss about it, but he supports an open door policy and he doesn’t know how to differentiate between tattling and that. I am the only employee left after the management turnover three years ago and I feel like I’m being pushed to leave! I love my job, but my coworkers suck!; Help.

Signed, Love My Job

Dear Love My Job:

How fortunate you are to love your job. So many people every day go to jobs they dislike. How unfortunate it is that you think your coworkers suck. In a careful reading of your question, I can find nothing that you have done to cause your coworkers to complain or tattle about you. Not one mistake, sassy word, or failure to perform excellently. Get my point? You only complain about your co-workers complaining about you.

Now is there a way to do more than give them the silent treatment to show them you don’t appreciate them? Maybe not. Maybe the only thing for you to do is to hunt for another job. By suggesting this possibility, I don’t want you to feel more despised than you do already. Rather I’m suggesting that until you look in the mirror and evaluate the substance of your coworkers and boss’s criticism that might be the best option you have. So look in the mirror.

Honestly, jot down the complaints made about you and decide what about your behavior and ways of communicating/not communicating bug them. Can you be the kind of person with whom coworkers and your boss want to work? You say, “I’m not a bad employee. I feel I have a very positive attitude, I don’t lie or steal, and I come to work on time with a smile.” Yet also you say your boss slammed you and that that coworkers suck. There must be a reason for this. So face it; either they are simply malicious and you are perfect or they have some complaints that you need to attend to.

Let’s pretend that you want to establish a positive working relationship. You can follow a fly solo approach. By that I mean quietly determine to perform so positively that there will be no more complaints. Rather than seeing your coworkers as “sucks”, see their good side. Express interest in their ideas, cheer what you see they do that deserves applause, be what I call WEGO-minded. Or you can confront the problem in a team meeting. You could ask for time to discuss your behavior before anyone points out something else about you that she/he doesn’t like. Frankly say that you want to be valued and that you like your job and want to do everything you can to make the Wellness Center a success.

Say you have heard enough to know that you have bugged your coworkers and that you want to work on correcting that. Ask for clarification; of your behaviors that are not liked and those that are. Bring with you a list of the “failures to do and the don’t dos” that have surfaced about you and the corrective measures you propose to address each of them. Having copies for everyone will be a sign you are serious. Ask for the team and boss’s reaction to what you have prepared. Welcome additional complaints and suggestion of behaviors that you will give an honest try. Ask for their help. When you are performing any of these behaviors; ask them to give little signs of an ok sign or encouraging words such as, “That’s the way I like to see you.”

Work on these proposals, and for the next three weeks at each team meeting, ask for specific feedback. It would be best if your boss would give you guidance and find a way to make your staff meetings productive. Maybe he wants that but from what you say, his encouragement to be open, has not focused on the positive, or at least a little more in that direction might help. If you scan some other Q&As, you will find suggestions of what improves working relationships and team meetings, such as:

·Brainstorming on ways to better serve customers/clients

·Asking each member what others can do to make her/his job easier, more effective, and more fun.

·Focusing on cutting wasted time, supplies, paper work, and energy.

·Making a list of dos and don’t of how we might communicate with each other effectively.

·Conversing about what went well in the past week, what deserves applause, and what we might correct.

·Generating ways to make the physical environment more inviting.

·Making it a habit to take time out weekly to talk about are we performing as a team.

I predict things will go better for you if you can, by example, work on some of these topics rather than to be obsessed with how you are disliked and how much your coworkers suck. Does that make sense? I imagine these thoughts are not what you expected, but they are presented with the hope that they will do a little to help the sun break through the clouds. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

Additional response from Workplace Doctor Tina Rowe:

Hello! Dr. Gorden wrote to you, but we often add to each others’ messages. I particularly wanted to add to the response to your question, since I could sense your frustration and anger–and probably some hurt as well.

–It may be that your manager, like many managers and supervsors, has concerns and complaints about your performance or behavior, but would prefer for someone else to voice them, so he doesn’t have to. He may have openly or covertly encouraged the employees to bring up their concerns or to come to him with issues.

–Or, it may be that your manager feels he HAS tried to talk to you about concerns, or that others have tried, and the open meeting approach is the only way to make an impact. I have sometimes suggested, when all else has failed, that a group intervention of sorts take place in that way where there are chronic problems. This would be justified if every complaining employee had talked to you in private at some point and expressed frustration or upset over something you had done to them personally; and which they could prove; but you rejected their plea for change, or refused to even talk about it.

–It may be, as you say, that newer employees (although three years isn’t terribly new) would like to not have anyone left from the old team. However, likely if there was a close relationship or if they viewed you as the most valuable member of the team, that wouldn’t be the case. Nevertheless something like that may be operating.

–It may be that, like children sometimes do, the other employees see an opportunity to deflect any attention from themselves by putting it all on you; and once they sense they have you cornered they get a nasty delight out of keeping you that way.

–It may be that the people who are complaining most have a clique and reinforce each other in their thinking, so that a small problem sounds bigger after they talk about it. They may not be intentionally mean spirited, and might be able to justify their actions by saying it’s for the good of the clients or the group; but the result for the team is negative overall.

The bottom line though is, this isn’t a good way to handle workplace problems! Your manager should have talked to you in private about any concerns he had, or that had been expressed to him. Even if he wanted to use a meeting as a time for everyone to be open with each other, he should have moderated it carefully to avoid having anyone be bashed rather than communicated with. And, after the meeting he should have met with you to talk about it and find out your thoughts and what could be done to respond to the concerns of your co-workers.

Sadly, managers in many workplaces are there because they are skills related to the job being managed, NOT because they have skills at handling people or solving the problems that are inevitable when people work together. If you want to do something solid about this, consider these thoughts as you develop a plan of action: (Another list! I’m big on numbered lists!)

1. Get together all the written documentation you have about your work history. Get copies of your evaluations, any commendations, any disciplinary actions, any complimentary letters or complaints, etc. Develop a picture of you and your work, including how many days you’ve been absent or late, or how many extra projects you’ve worked on either at work or in the community.Develop a document in a memo/report format. It will be multi-purpose in that you can send it to your manager, someone higher than him, HR, or whoever should see it over time.

Start your document with a short paragraph saying something like this, “I have been very hurt and concerned over recent events in which it has seemed to me I have been targeted for unpleasant remarks being made in an open setting. Whether or not any of the comments are justified, I was hurt and dismayed to be the center of such ill will, and it has made it difficult for me to be as positive about work as I have always been. This negative impact on my work has led me to submit this memo.I decided to review my work history, to see if any aspect of it could have indicated to me that I was not a good employee. I don’t find that to be the case. I do not want to be the subject of gossip, negative remarks or unpleasant accusations again, and hope you will assist me in seeing that I am allowed to do my job without that kind of inappropriate communication. It is completely opposite of the kind of work environment our organization is supposed to provide.” (If your organization has some kind of statement about work environments, quote from it.) Whether you use those words or not, start with a statement that clearly states your reason for writing. Then, continue: The following material is divided into three sections: The positive aspects of my work here, documented negative issues, and recent events that led me to submit this material.

2. Then, make a list of all the things you think are pertinent for the positive section. Like, “Employed from 1997 until now with Above Standard evaluations in every rating period.” “Only ten days absent for illness in 9 years.” “Received 9 complimentary letters from clients.” “Not one complaint letter from a client in 9 years.” “Positively represents the Fitness Center in the following ways: ……..” “Regularly volunteer to tidy the waiting room area.” Wring out every good thing you have had happen or that you have done! (If you have very few things to list, that might indicate some of the problem. But list what you can.)

3. Then, list any formal negatives. “1998: Received one documented reprimand for failure to return keys to the proper location.” “2001: Counseled by manager Bob Riley about not volunteering to help put supplies away.”Make sure these are formal negative events, or informal ones by your manager. Don’t include the ones conveyed at meetings by employees.

4. Then, make a section for what has recently occurred. I would label it something that catches the eye, like, “Negative actions by employees at staff meetings.” List what was said, the tone in which is was said, and any support you received from anyone. Quote exactly, if some of the rhetoric was rude or heated. I don’t think you should refute much of those allegations unless you clearly have an explanation. I would take the approach that whether the remarks are valid from the perspective of the co-worker or not, you felt overwhelmed with the spiteful nature of the complaints and the forum that was used to make them.

5. Close with a statement asking once again for assistance. Something like, “I want to continue to be a productive worker, but I can’t do that if I feel I am being watched every moment and that everything I do will be used against me and talked about in the next staff meeting. I don’t think staff meetings should be used to gang up on anyone. I would like an assurance that such a thing won’t happen again. I would also like to ask that if there is a complaint about me that it be handled by you, my manager, in private. In the meantime, I would also like to know if there are specific things that I can do, above what I am already doing, to show that I am a valuable member of this work team. I am anxious to discuss this matter and will await a response about it.”

6. If you don’t get a satisfactory response, send the letter to HR or to someone higher than your manager. In the beginning of the memo say that you sent this to your manager but no response was made. Then wait for THAT response. If you still don’t get any response, you will have good indication that this isn’t a place you want to work anyway!Now, I will admit this may be much more than you want to take on. But, it would certainly get attention and I think it would send a clear message that you aren’t going to be beat-up on, without standing your ground.

You might prefer a less aggressive approach. In that case, perhaps you can simply ask to talk to your manager and say essentially the same things you would write. But here is the key: Ask for something. Ask that he not allow that kind of sharing at meetings again, since it appears the co-workers will say things they never said to you in private, and that is very, very unfair. Get a commitment from him about that, rather than just talking in general terms.You will want to be careful not to imply criticism of your manager’s methods. Perhaps you can say that you understand his desire to have open meetings and to let employees share thoughts, but you know he didn’t realize how hurtful some of those thoughts would be, when expressed in such a hostile way.

As for your manager’s open-door approach, where people come in an tattle, that may or may not be a serious problem. I used to have people drop in and drop a dime on other employees all the time. My standard line was, “Do you want me to do something or are you just venting? If you want me to do something I will, and I’ll let them know you talked to me. If you’re venting, that’s OK, but you’ve said this before and now I think you should focus on more positive things.” I never once had an actual complaint come out of those meetings. But I did listen, and sometimes was obligated, because of the nature of the information, to take action. Several employees complained that I shouldn’t have let anyone come in and gripe or tattle to me. But, frankly, that is the only way I could have found out about some wrongdoing that I DID have to take action on. A manager would be very foolish to tell everyone that if they don’t put it in writing, nothing will be done. Sexual harassment, ethics violations, law violations, and so forth, will almost never be put in writing; and in the case of Sexual Harassment the law is clear that no written complaint can be required at the initial complaint stage.

Here’s the way to know if the open door is causing problems: Have you been reprimanded, counseled or written up for something you didn’t do?If so, then your manager is wrong to listen without investigating. If you haven’t gotten in any trouble or been counseled, maybe your boss isn’t listening as much as you think he is. Or, maybe there isn’t as much tattling as you think. You really don’t know for sure unless you are in the room.As a final thought on all of that, if you find that your manager continues to conduct meetings in this negative way, consider doing this: Smile gently and say, blandly, “Hmmmmmmm. I didn’t realize you felt that way.” “That’s good for me to know.” “I had no idea you have been thinking that.” Don’t indicate whether you agree or not. Just be a sponge and soak it up. Then wring it out afterwards and move on.

While you’re listening, write furiously. Write down everything every one is saying, without looking strange. THAT is very unnerving! You can always say you are just taking notes so you can remember their comments. But it does tend to slow people down and stop them, when they think they are being transcribed. Do it in an appropriate way, of course.Dr. Gorden’s advice about talking to people, and being introspective yourself, is valid. I just thought you might like some ideas if you want to go on the offensive a bit more.

And, while you’re doing whatever you decide to do, be sure to keep your focus on good work; both your job description and the complete picture of good work as it relates to being a good citizen of your organization. Show, by your actions, how an exemplary employee should handle conflict like this. Here’s my advice to many people in your situation: Make everyone ashamed of how they treated you, based on how you handle this in the future. That accomplishes two things: If you have not contributed to this in any way, you will show that you are truly a decent person. If you DID contribute, you will be healing the problems of the past through your actions. Either way, you win.You’ve done the silent treatment, now do the Mother Theresa imitation and show your inner strength.

I’m not advocating phoniness, just suggesting that you let your best self show. If you want to keep this job, that is the best way to do it. If you can’t stand the thought of interacting with these people every day, and you can find other work, maybe you should leave; certainly the environment in your current work is not great. However, there is the issue that it would be a shame to let them run you out. On the other hand, if you have some supporters there, keep that in mind and don’t let the others be the deciding factor.

Best wishes with this situation. Whether you have been all you know you should be or could be, or not, I know it’s not easy to be the focal point of hostility. If you genuinely have not done anything, or if you have not failed to do anything, that would warrant it, it’s doubly frustrating and hurtful. But you can come out of this looking much better than anyone else. But first, it sounds as though you have to get the meeting madness under control! If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what develops. Tina Lewis Rowe & William Gorden