Get Them Off the Gossip Train

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about dealing with gossip and office problems as an assistant:

My workplace is very small (12 people). I just began working there in January. Even though I am a very positive and upbeat person, sometimes the gossip that goes on is tough to maneuver around.

I really like people, and I like everyone to be happy. While I know that I cannot always make everyone happy, I do want to try to do so as often as possible. I am the assistant office manager, and sometimes, others come to me and tell me about issues they are experiencing in hopes that I may offer them some empathy, or that I will join in on their side. While I’m happy to offer empathy if it is deserved (i.e. someone is not feeling well), often, it’s talk about others and office problems.

I like to make things right, but I’m not the manager. My manager is not the most professional one I’ve worked with. When someone goes to her with an issue, she typically tries to avoid rather than confront, and is often heard blaming alternating members of staff in front of the others. In this way, she covertly attempts to resolve the issue, letting the person know what she thinks through the grape vine, instead of keeping issues confidential.

I do not know what to do when colleagues come to me to try to keep the gossip going, or even to try to get me to help. I never repeat it, but I wish I could say something to help my colleagues understand I do not even want involved in a negative way (gossip, or taking sides). I also feel bad that the manager does not help them in the right way.

I have been told confidentially by the manager and her boss that I am the pick to take her position in the next year or two (she is expecting a promotion). I feel that I should handle this situation in a way that will bode well for my future promotion. What can I do? What should I do? Is there any graceful way out of these conversations while still keeping my boss and colleagues seeing me in a positive and strong light?

Signed, Uneasy About Taking Sides


Dear Uneasy About Taking Sides:

You feel betwixt those who come to you with frustrations about coworkers, assignments and your office manager who doesn’t handle them well as you think she should. That is uncomfortable. I sense you’d like a way to be empathic, to discourage harmful gossip and to encourage constructively addressing the concerns of those within the office. You’d like to maneuver around the gossip and frustrations that arise from the way problems are handled. Underlying these concerns is your desire to do your job well enough that you might take your manager’s position if and when she is promoted.

You don’t describe how you respond the matters that are brought to you to fix—other than that you express empathy. You sense that that is not enough. Therefore, assuming that you want to be a problem-solver or at least a problem facilitator, let’s first think through your situation. Then we can consider your options.

  • You appear uncertain about your role as assistant office manager. You’ve been with this small office since January. That is scarcely long enough to learn the ropes. Rarely in a small office are job descriptions spelled out well and completely. Rather they are learned by trial and error. Might there be a way to facilitate this learning?
  • What are the issues that have been brought to you so far? Is it clear what is expected? When are assignments made? Are instructions detailed enough? Is work fairly distributed? Are some badmouthing others? What complaints seem justified?
  • Is there policy about how concerns are to be brought? Is there a sense of mission? Is the system cause for interpersonal frustration?

Locating what are the problems, their nature, cause and extent should enable you to see what are your options for solving them. Obviously you acknowledge that you can’t beg, borrow or solve them alone. They are interpersonal and organizational. Earning your credibility takes time. The concerns of which you have become aware likely were there before you were hired. If your office is largely female, your office has a “herstory” instead of a history. What are your options?

  1. Do What You Can Do Alone. Think through and determine what to say when concerns are brought to you. Decide what you can say that will not place you in between coworkers and at odds with your manager. At least for the weeks ahead be as considerate and empathetic as is reasonable. This might mean you frankly say that you will not take sides and that you want to hear suggestions of how to solve problems rather than bad-mouthing. Perhaps say to those who come with concerns,  you will approach the office manager with them to voice serious complaints and proposals. Resolve that you will not criticize how a situation has been or not been handled by your Office Manager.
  2. Consult With Office Manager about these several concerns you have—how to deal with gossip, concerns brought about assignments and the way the office is managed, and in particular your role in addressing them. Take down her specific “how-tos” you should respond. In the course of such a session with your manager, you and/or she might discuss how to get the whole staff committed to making their workplace a great place in which to work. Such talk might evolve into option 3.
  3. Enlist the Office Manager in Office-Wide Problem-Solving. Propose to the Office Manager that she engage office-wide problem-solving. That they collaboratively describe what they see as going well and what needs improvement. This would not be a one-time fix but an ongoing weekly session in which the whole staff describes their performance in satisfying internal and external customer. Such sessions could spell out how instructions and assignments can be best given, posted and who is to be consulted and gives approval. The whole-office meetings also can spell out Dos and Don’ts of use of equipment, use of emails and Internet. They can discuss cutting wasted supplies, time, money and effort. Another important topic is talk about talk—what gossip hurts and invades privacy. And on the other hand, what talk expresses gratitude, shows concern for others, cheers and makes coming to work pleasant. Such topics sometimes become office wide such as arrangement of work spaces, décor, choice of artwork and green plants.

Such sessions with your office manager can help you learn how to manage. Asking for advice sometimes creates a mentor-kind of relationship with a boss. There’s a lot to learn in making an office efficient and effective. The one caution you should have is that you are a new hire and not an expert on how to manage—You are there to learn. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that togetherness is what you want.

Incidentally, you might have noticed that in addition to welcoming questions, we invite feel good moments—specific incidents that make you smile and feel good about something you or another has done to make the day go better. Hopefully focus of such times will accumulate for you and others in your office. Will you update us on what you do?

William Gorden

P.S. Your title of Gossip Train, prompts an idea: What if you decide to focus for the next few weeks on creating your own train of feel good moments? Each day log in a specific incident that made you feel good–some task you completed, complimenting or cheering someone in your office, and thanking your Office Manager for something??? Such feel good moments would accumulate like cars on a train and that would shift your focus from what disturbs you to creating an office that is a happy place. Such a project could be in addition to the options you choose.