Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a boss’ disclosure of an employee’s family matter: she started calling my co-workers asking them if they knew what was going on, when they said they didn’t she told them she thought it was that my daughter was caught having oral sex at school.
I had to take a couple hours off work to deal with a family situation having to do with my daughter. I told my boss she said it was fine then called me later that day asking me what it was. I told her it’s a private family matter and I rather not discuss it. Well long and behold she started calling my co-workers asking them if they knew what was going on, when they said they didn’t she told them she thought it was that my daughter was caught having oral sex at school and why else would I be so upset and why would I have to go to the school. Is this legal? This is insane that she could just do this. It is slander. Right?
Signed, Angry Mom
Dear Angry Mom:
There are several things for you to consider about this situation. You may have considered many of them, but perhaps another perspective will help you develop a plan of action to deal with this frustrating scenario.
1. I am not minimizing your boss’s actions and I can assure you that I would be equally angry. I just want you to think about exactly what you are dealing with. Essentially it is gossip from the top down instead of the reverse, which is more common. And, as you state it, it was not gossip about you but rather about your daughter. The questions an attorney would ask you are: Has your business been hurt because of the remarks? Do you think it likely that you would have a promotion or salary withheld because of a rumor that your daughter had done something wrong at school? Has your reputation in the business world been harmed appreciably? It would seem that isn’t the case; and that is what is usually required to have standing in slander or defamation of character actions.
This matter was about sexual conduct, but unless such remarks permeate the work environment or harm you in some way you do not seem to have hostile work environment issues either. An issue to consider is the size of your community and if co-workers may have said something to their teenagers who would then repeat it. The total picture is important. If you think it would be worthwhile, you should contact an attorney who specializes in civil litigation and ask for a consultation about the matter. Those are usually free and allow you to give an overview so the attorney or their aide can decide if it appears a civil claim could be made. They will also be much more aware of the circumstances because you will be able to discuss all of it with them. Such a strong response may be far more than you want to become involved with over a one-time situation. If this has been an ongoing problem between you and your boss and you feel it is harming your work and your ability to succeed in your employment that would be a different matter.
2. Having said that, I would also quickly say it was a terrible rumor to start, especially by a boss. But wait a bit on that too. Co-workers I presume told you about this. Have you talked to the boss to find out exactly what was said? Have you asked your co-workers to write, as closely as they can, the exact statements made by your boss and their exact statements back? You may find some dramatic variations when you get those. And, at some point you might need to get those. Before you assume the slur was made against your daughter, find out if something else was said or implied. It will also be good to know if she said it as a one line thing: “I don’t know what it could be, and you always wonder if it’s some sexual thing at school or not.” OR, if it went on and on with lots of speculation and remarks and jokes and so forth. It may be your boss said exactly what has been alleged; but that must be found out.
3. How far are you willing to go with this? Part of that depends upon your former relationship with your boss. If she was pleasant to you and had done neither you nor anyone else any great harm prior to this, you may only want to talk to her about it and tell her how hurt you were. You might say you want her to re-contact those she talked to and tell them that she was merely speculating since nothing like that was the matter. She may or may not agree to that, but at least you may get a personal apology and she will probably learn a serious lesson. If your boss has a reputation for tearing people down or spreading malicious rumors and she has been talked to before about this, you have a very strong reason to take this higher in the organization. Even if she hasn’t been talked to before, if you think only action from her bosses will make a difference, you may want to report it to them.
4. If you decide to try to make her held accountable for her actions in this case, you need to put it in writing and send it to the person above her and perhaps your HR person or some other person you want involved. Approach your memo just as you would your work: In an organized and well-developed manner. Start by asking for assistance, then detail what happened, as you know it. If you have statements or emails from co-workers verifying what they were told, include those. Otherwise give their names and contact information and say that you want a full investigation about this matter and want those people to be contacted. You may want to include several thoughts in this memo: *That such rumor spreading does not fit the principles of the company and certainly does not honor the employees of the company. Further if no action is taken, it implies that any employee can say anything about another employee or that person’s family, no matter how hurtful.
*That for a supervisor or manager to spread such stories is doubly harmful because of their role in maintaining a good work environment.
*That you have felt embarrassed, sad and angry about her remarks, especially since they were about your daughter. You could add that no one would want his or her daughter spoken about in that way.
*Say that you will not let this interfere with your work because you approach things in a professional way, but until the matter is cleared up and you know that the rumor spreader has been held responsible, you will not feel good about her. You can even say you don’t know if you will ever be able to see her in the same way again. Whatever you say focuses on the negative impact this has on work as well as on you. If there is a company policy of some kind about respect for co-workers, cite that. If some of your co-workers are especially close friends they may want to write a letter on their own and say what happened and how they felt about it. You will probably be contacted right away about this and you can discuss the details. Only your organization can decide what to do about it and they may decide a strong talk with her is all that they want to do. If that is the case that is what will happen, in spite of what you might prefer. Or, they may ask you for input about the resolution to it. If she remains in her position you will need to be very strong to ensure that you keep working effectively with your boss, since she will presumably still be your boss.
5. Now, let me add one last thing. It was wrong of your boss to even imply that your daughter might have been involved in some sexual activity; or to imply anything, since it was no one else’s business why you were gone.
Even if she knew something for a fact, it would be wrong to imply or say it. If co-workers suggested it, she should have said that it is never good to speculate about such things and she should have stopped the conversation. In spite of that, it may be that five minutes after saying it your boss knew she had done wrong and would have taken it back if she could. It may be that she speculated and co-workers added to it. Or, she could have simply talked when she should have kept quiet–especially since this goes past the usual workplace remarks.
She may always use such bad judgment or this may be unusual. A good question to ask yourself, even when you are angry and hurt very, very deeply, is, “Is this like this person?” If you can honestly say, yes, this person is like this a great deal of the time; trying to stir up problems, making malicious remarks about people, telling lies and half-truths, then I think you should take this as far as you can to bring her to accountability about it. I have done that very thing myself and was glad I did because it stopped a long-term problem.
If she is usually a decent person who has tried to help others and has been supportive and helpful in general, you may want to let her know of your hurt and anger, get her apology, then let it go. I have also done that on occasion and was glad I did. If you are having any concerns about your daughter, you do not need to have conflict on all fronts at the same time.
If you are doing fine in every other area, you may not want to be part of a long-term conflict that will bring the issues to everyone’s attention and start the office buzzing even more. That is a decision you alone can make, after looking at the totality of the situation. You would certainly be justified in taking further action, but it could be reasonable to not take it further; according to the totality of the situation. I hope these thoughts help you as you work through this upsetting experience. I can imagine how you must be raging inside and outside! After that initial and justifiable reaction is done, you can decide how you want to proceed.Best wishes. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. Building WEGO relationships come with cautious consideration and honest confrontation.
Tina Lewis Rowe