What Can I Do About a Rumor That Could Ruin My Life?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an untrue accusation of an affair at work.

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Question:
I work in a retail environment with eight other coworkers of different genders. A male coworker works night shift and when we close the store our jobs require us to walk the store for a hand-off. Someone recently accused us of having an affair. The store manager approached the night manager to ask him. At this time I was not aware of the rumour because HR asked the store manager to investigate (HR never asked me). A couple weeks later the night manager was approached by the store manager again and asked about it. He informed the manager that it was not true and he wanted to squash the rumour like the first time. 

The second time it happened, the night manager told me, out of respect for me because he understood my cultural beliefs and traditions. The store manager knew my cultural beliefs before all this happened. I do not date outside my culture or hang out with coworkers after work to avoid rumors. I truly believe in my traditions and culture so I have committed to that. Dating outside of the culture would have devastating consequences on my personal life. My family would disown me, my community would kick me out and I would lose my very own identity and everything I believe in. A rumour would have the same consequences. I do not understand why my coworker was approached twice and asked about it but I wasn’t. (Gender Discrimination?)

 I have approached HR and felt like I was being forced to explain my way of living and how this could destroy my personal life. I have asked that I be told only that it has been resolved it has been 3 months no answer. This definitely has made my working relationship awkward with the coworker when it comes to our jobs. And I am always looking over my shoulder to see who’s looking at our interactions in the workplace and what they are thinking. Every time I go to another city to a store with the same company, I keep waiting for someone to ask me if the rumour is true as the company is interconnected and everyone knows everyone. I cannot think of one thing I have done or acted in any way unprofessional around anyone to raise such suspicions against me. I am the same with everyone around me.

Response:

Hello and thank you for sharing your concerns. To summarize your question, you and a coworker in your retail business were accused of having an affair, but it’s not true. In addition to being upset about how the rumor affects your work, you are fearful that the rumor will get back to your family and friends and you will be condemned and ostracized for it. I think you are writing from outside the United States, so workplace methods may be different than here. But, perhaps an outside perspective will be helpful.

 If possible, consider talking to someone within your culture who you trust—a religious or community leader who is aware of the problems of workplaces and gossip. Perhaps they will have some advice for you, Or, if for some reason a rumor should start, that person could vouch for the fact that you have already talked to him or her about it. If you have a family member you trust, they might be able to reassure you or give you advice that would help.

If it is true that your personal life would be over if even a hint of this got back to your family or community, perhaps you need to get another job. I don’t think that is an ideal solution, but it is easier to get a job than to rebuild a life.

Accusations about affairs are among the most common subjects of gossip at work—and sometimes they are true. When they are not true it is even more hurtful, because you can’t help but wonder who of your eight coworkers or employees on another shift, would have gone to HR about something that isn’t true. It isn’t clear from your letter what level you are in the organization, but if you have been placed over others in any way, that might be reason enough for some people to try to get even with you.

There is also the chance that something the coworker said to someone led them to think there is an affair. Even if all he did was praise you or talk about you afterwards, that might be enough to cause someone to speculate. But, he may have said something jokingly or even purposely. We have even had people write to us about the fact that the spouse or partner of a coworker called HR with such an accusation!

You’ll probably never know how the accusation started, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are many rumors about it or that everyone is talking about it, especially if your behavior is appropriate and there is nothing to keep the rumor going.

A business needs to investigate such accusations, so they were correct to do so, but it does seem that your manager should have talked to about it. You don’t say whether or not the manager interviewed the employee with whom you are alleged to have the relationship. If they did, I don’t think not talking to you would fit the definition of gender discrimination, under the law, because an internal investigation can be handled in a variety of ways and you weren’t harmed economically because of it. But, it’s a poor practice to not have talked to you, since they can’t investigate thoroughly by only talking to one person.

There isn’t much you can do about that issue at this point, since now you do know. I also don’t think this would reach the level of sexual harassment under the law. If the accusations continue, either he or you may want to talk to an attorney about it or do some research on employment law in your country, to find out if there has been a violation of some part of it. In the United States, repeated unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct can be considered sexual harassment if the business doesn’t do something to stop it from happening. However, in those cases the court has to believe that the employer knew the accusations to be untrue and failed to take action to stop them. (Unfortunately, getting the government involved would probably spread the story and you don’t want that.)

Apparently you went to HR on your own and you feel that you had to explain your way of life and why this could be so devastating to you. I don’t know the HR policy of your company about taking complaints about internal problems, but it could be that, as in most companies, they don’t refuse to take a complaint unless they have proof that the person knows it to not be true. Or, they could have heard it from more than one person and felt it was more credible.

Your company, or at least the HR person you talked to, may care about your personal and cultural issues, but they probably also feel that unless you talk about these accusations at home, no one will find out about it. (Of course, a very mean person could contact your  family or friends about it, but that is a rare thing, even if anyone would know who to contact.) The company is not responsible for such extreme cultural responses to what many people would consider a nuisance accusation not a tragedy. However, they should keep you informed and investigate the accuser if it appears this is a workplace harassment issue.

The sentence about what happened after you talked to HR is a bit unclear to me. (“I have asked that I be told only that it has been resolved it has been 3 months no answer.”) If you told them to at least let you know when the matter is resolved, but it’s been three months and you haven’t heard anything, you need to talk to them again. More importantly, your manager and the manager about that manager should be part of all of this and should be talking to HR and finding out the status. Everyone above you in the chain of management should be concerned that an accusation hasn’t been investigated adequately in three months. Also, they should be concerned about the affect this has on you as well as on other employees.

Talk to your manager (boss) and find out the status of the investigation, if you haven’t already been told. Ask your boss to assign someone else to accompany you and the coworker on the walk-around or assign someone else to do it. The coworker may be as upset as you, especially if he is married, so he might welcome having someone else be part of the walk-arounds. None of those things may make a difference, but they will at least make you feel you are doing something to counter the rumor.  

The one thing that doesn’t seem to work in any workplace is trying to tell everyone that a rumor is not true. One or more of the people to whom you are talking started the rumor, so they don’t care and the others may not have heard it. Put your focus on your work and on continuing your habit of being pleasant to everyone equally and just as the rumor started it will end. Or, it will linger somewhat, but most people won’t believe it because they will not see anything to support it.  

I realize there is a tendency to get very anxious and wonder if others are talking about you, but it sounds as though your lifestyle is not one that would cause people to automatically think you are flirtatious or wanting to have an involvement. So, most likely anyone who has heard it knows it’s just gossip and speculation—probably like they have had to deal with themselves, at some point. It’s easy for me to say to move on from this, but that sounds like your only option.  

I wish I could tell you something to help you feel better about the impact on your life away from work. But, truly, unless you talk about it, it doesn’t seem there would be any way for someone in your private life to know about this. As I mentioned earlier though, if you are that fearful, perhaps you will need to remove all risk that such a rumor will get back to your community, by leaving this job. It would be a shame to have to do that, but you know best about the repercussions.

Best wishes to you in this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens and how the matter is resolved.  

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors