Busy Body Co-worker

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about coworker gossip:

After recent surgery, I experienced some complications with my incision and had to be connected to a wound healing therapy pump. Nothing about my condition is infectious or contagious. I have been up front with my coworkers about the whole ordeal. I have now discovered that one of my coworkers has been discussing my condition with other coworkers as to whether I am “contagious”.

I am highly offended. I would have been happy to have answer her questions regarding that possibility. I have mentioned this to our supervisor, but really want to approach her. Should I do so, and if so, how should I go about it? By the way, my supervisor likely will not mention it to her.

Signed, Up Front

Dear Up Front:

It bothers you that a particular coworker discussed your post op with coworkers and didn’t first come to you with her questions and apparently whether you are contagious bothered your coworker. So, it is fitting that you initiate clarification; after all you say you were and are not hush-hush but up front about it. How might you go about it? You either publicly or privately raise the topic, hopefully firmly but without anger, such as, “Donna, rumor has it that you have asked around whether I am contagious. Is that true?” And depending on her answer, you might then add something like this, “I wish you had come to me. I could have relieved your concern. I’m not. Is that enough said? From now on, would you please come to me if you have a question or want to talk about me?”

Of course your wording doesn’t have to adhere to this hypothetical example, but what you do, should you elect to speak directly to her, is to follow what you are request that she does for you. In short, by reporting the coworker, you label a Busy Body, to your supervisor, is to do what you don’t want her to do; to speak about someone behind her/his back rather than to come to that individual. Also what you do by confronting her now is to use this as an opportunity to talk about talk in your work group. You then are talking out what kind of communication rule you think respects another’s  private business.

Now if you can get an agreement from her, and possibly from others within hearing your confrontation of her, is to establish a principled rule that makes gossip out of bounds, or at least less acceptable, in your work group.Does this make sense? Occasional small talk and chitchat about one another is par for the course on the golf course and at work. In your case, you are annoyed that you were the subject of gossip even though you weren’t secretive about your surgery. Probably you have other irritations about the behavior of this person you called a nasty name. Now, you will have to decide if by a candid confrontation you can help shape an understanding about what heretofore has been an inarticulate rule of how you talk about each other. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. By “takes” I mean it takes courage to be upfront about interpersonal rule making. Work group rule-making is not a quick-fix, one-time matter.

Relational rules are most often unspoken and gradually clarified over time. My best to you as you determine to surface what has annoyed you. Remember that you and your coworkers were hired to do a job and cheering on another on about that should be all of your focus. Non-work talk should not distract from that as it helps pass the time and reminds us that we are not machines.

Second Opinion: I’m very sorry about the medical situation in which you’re involved. I have read that wound healing pumps have been very helpful to many, so I hope you have similarly good results with it. It must be very frustrating to be enduring discomfort as well as worrying about your situation, then having someone tell you that a coworker was asking about it and speculating about whether or not you were contagious! However, before you approach the person who talked about it, consider what you want to get out of this situation and whether confronting her (another way to say “approach her”) will accomplish it.You probably want to get well, feel well, continue being an excellent employee and come to work and go home with as little stress as possible. Consider your options about this situation and what will help you achieve your goal.

1. I would bet the person who talked about you is not someone you considered a friend before, and the people or person who reported it doesn’t like that coworker either. If you were friends the coworker would know about your situation or at least wouldn’t have been asking about it.

If the employee(s)reporting to you was a friend of the first one she or they wouldn’t have said anything to you, to spare the friend from sounding badly. I may be wrong about it, but I would be very surprised to hear that there was a warm and friendly relationship between everyone involved, before this happened. Given that scenario, there is a chance that what was reported to you was colored slightly in the repeating. How you feel about it would also be slightly altered.

The personality of the person talking about it may make you biased about it as well. If the person was the sweet lady down the hall who is always nice, you might make a bit of an excuse for her. If the person asking is often irritating and snoopy, you can hear her asking the question in that snippy tone and it becomes even more offensive. Triple offensive probably, because it is such an absurd concern! It takes little research to realize that such pumps are not used for contagious diseases.

Nevertheless, I always remember the old adage: “It takes two people to break your heart: An enemy to say something bad about you behind your back and a friend to make sure you know about it.” I don’t doubt that the person or persons telling you thought you would want to know. But, I think it would have been better for your friends to have handled this by stopping the conversation immediately, setting the employee straight and, if necessary, going to the supervisor. If you had not heard about this you would have been no worse off for it–some might say better off!

2. If you believe what was reported was exactly true and if it sounds to you as though what the coworker said was truly mean-spirited or meant to spread fear about your situation, ask the people who reported it to put it in writing and submit it as a concern to the supervisor you talked to. That will escalate it to the point that it will have to be investigated and your supervisor will handle it, not you. If your friends don’t want to do that, it might give you an indication of the strict accuracy of all of it.

3. If the coworker said something very serious, she needs to be corrected about it and your supervisor should do something about it. Even in a mild situation your supervisor could stop by the desk of the employee and at least lightly remind her to not talk about the medical problems of others. That lack of action on the part of the supervisor bothers me more than anything.On the other hand, the supervisor may have her doubts about what was said. Or, she may feel the remarks are not as serious as you think they are. Or, she may know comments have been made by others and doesn’t want to single out one person.

4. You say you explained everything to your coworkers, so by now they have had a chance to read about it, observe you, then go to coffee and either express sympathy or not. But probably something has been said or a question has been asked by almost everyone. It’s almost inevitable! I don’t say that to make you feel badly, just to point out the likelihood that it has happened. Most people have never heard of wound healing pump therapy so it would interest them. And people DO love to talk about others!

5. What might happen if you confront the coworker or even just mildly give her the facts? She may deny she asked about it, in which case you will need to bring your fellow employee over to confront the coworker too. If the coworker says her remarks were misinterpreted, ditto. If she says she was sincerely asking but didn’t want to put you on the spot and thought your friend might know, there isn’t much to say to that because it could be true. If she apologizes, she’ll come out looking good to others as someone who will admit her mistakes. But, in that case, you won’t know if she is sincere or just getting out of trouble.

So, really, what good will it do to confront her at all? The best you could do would be to say, “Lisa, I understand you had question about my medical situation. If you had asked me I would have told you. No, I’m not contagious.” She’ll stutter and stammer and you’ll either walk off in a huff or say more. Either way it makes everyone feel uncomfortable.By the time you’re finished, everyone in the office (and other offices very soon)will know about it and be talking and taking sides. They might take your side, but I would bet your supervisor will think you shouldn’t have done it. There’s a chance some people won’t take your side and that will stir up even more problems. You’ll end up not sleeping the night before you confront the coworker; you’ll have angry words at work or at least angry feelings; you won’t sleep well the night after; you’ll have awkward and cold silences at work for a long time. You’ll talk about it to friends and repeat the encounter. You’ll also still have your medical situation, only by then you’ll have stress and anger reducing your immune system and increasing your blood pressure–fighting the very thing you are doing to help make you better.Instead, try this or something like it: Send an email to all of your coworkers thanking them for their support.

Briefly, and in a friendly, warm and caring fashion, remind them again that there is nothing about your situation that is contagious or infectious. You might say, “I’m aware that sometimes visitors or other employees may hear of my situation and ask about it. As you can imagine, it makes me very uncomfortable to think someone is talking about me in that way, so I hope it won’t happen. If it does, tell them to ask their questions to me directly, so I can answer if it seems appropriate or tell them I don’t wish to discuss it further. Thank you for your friendship and understanding.” (Or something similar in your own words.)A message like that will make you sound as though you are taking the high road and anyone who talks about you is not. It will also clarify the issue, one more time. Further, it will let your supervisor know you are not going to increase the conflict–and that will be appreciated.I’m not implying that one should ignore anything and everything that is said about them. Some things can ruin careers and reputations. But this isn’t of that nature. One day soon you will be well and this will be a thing of the past. Your focus on good work and a good work environment will have benefited you and you will come out of it looking like a star. THAT is true healing!Best wishes to you in every way!

Gorden & Lewis Rowe