Boss Spreads Rumors About Me and a Coworker

Question:

My husband works in the same department as me. We also share the same groupleader. Our boss is the type of person who acts nice to your face then knifes you in the back. I am a very social person and certain job duties have me talking with various people on a shop floor in an open setting. I do chat with one male coworker who shares some common duties with me but that is all that there is to it. We have never talked about anything inappropriate, only small talk, and have never communicated with one another (or met with one another) outside the workplace. My groupleader and another friend of his have made embarrassing comments about this in front of other people while I was there and now he has also been planting seeds of doubt in my husband’s mind about what is going on. This has now spilled over into suspicion, fights and turmoil in my marriage. I have been considering consulting a lawyer on this one. I turned another coworker in for spreading lies to HR before and our HR department doesn’t really seem to take these things seriously. How should I proceed??? Thanks for your help!

Signed,

Tired of the Rumors


Answer:

Dear Tired of the Rumors:

If you find you cannot get a resolution to this at work, through your own efforts, you probably will want to consult an attorney—at least to get some advice about what to do next. Sly comments, even genuinely joking comments (which you don’t think this is), have a cumulative effect on how people see someone in a workplace. Your reputation and probably to a lesser degree, the reputation of your coworker, is harmed with remarks that imply the two of you have something else going on other than work, or that there is more to your conversations than small talk. Here are key issues to consider–and that an attorney will ask you (so you might as well have the answers ready): 1. What are some of the exact comments that have been made? It will make a difference if the remarks imply a relationship rather than only being about the two of you wasting time or that you disturb others. Snide comments based on work is at least not gender-based, but comments about the two of you in other ways, can fit the definition of harassment. It’s very important to be able to quote what has been said, rather than using general statements or saying what you think was meant. 2. Have you ever told the boss to stop those comments, in a serious tone and with a demeanor that made it clear you are serious? You don’t have to act angry (although that might not hurt, either). But, you can’t just joke about it but later say you meant it seriously. If you’ve done it once, do it again. Consider approaching it as though you’re asking him to stop anyone who makes a remark. It would be preferable to do it in writing, so you have documentation. But, you could say it as well, then follow up with a note or follow up with a note to HR. “Ed, I think gossipy remarks are being made about Greg and me talking when I’m on the shop floor. That could sound as though I’m doing something wrong and I’m not. I’d appreciate it if you would help me by stopping anyone who says something like that. It needs to be shut down and you’re more likely to hear it than I am. Would you do that for me?” 3. Send a letter to HR outlining what has happened, in as much detail as possible, using exact quotes. If you have been told the manager has made a remark, say who told you and when and exactly what that person told you. Then, state what you have done to help solve the problem (talked to your manager, double checked yourself to make sure you are not inadvertently contributing to it, asked others to please stop making such comments, purposely avoided the coworker, etc.) Lead up to your final statement and request. Something like, “All of this is a matter of great concern to me because not only is it creating a negative feeling between my husband and me, but it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to feel comfortable doing my job. I feel as though everything I say and do is being misinterpreted and joked or commented about. I don’t feel that I can get away from it. The remarks of my manager (name) and others have become hurtful and harassing and I want it to stop immediately. I am requesting that this matter be handled quickly so that I can come to work and do my job without fearing what remarks will be made.” You may also want to include something about the fact that you’ve worked there X number of years and had excellent evaluations. So, you know you are a contributor at work and want to be treated with respect and courtesy. I would bet that kind of letter will get the attention of HR and others. What happens next will be important for you, because it will indicate to you whether the organization will help or not. If they are willing to take action and things get better, at least they can say they have not violated any EEO requirements. If they don’t help and things stay the same and you can prove it, they place themselves in a liability position–and you may very well want to get an attorney at that point. At least you could talk to an attorney’s legal assistant to find out where you stand. None of that will help your relationship with your husband unless the two of you are able to work out the issues that have led to this situation. One thing that creates problems for couples that work together is that they talk about work too much at home. See if you can find a way to leave work at work, so it doesn’t contaminate everything else in your life. Probably a counselor would be helpful for both of you and I hope you will seek that kind of assistance. Best wishes to you with all of this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe