I’m a Target of Coworkers

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about coworkers’ gossip:

I work in a call center where we take incoming calls. Two of my coworkers whom I work with on the weekends has accused me of several things:

  1. I go on breaks but set my phone on admin or training. Also that I logout of my phone during the shift to spend time with colleagues or go to the local supermarket.
  2. I watch videos on the computer using earphones by covering it up with my headscarf.

Their evidence is that they has seen me do these things and that I have told them I do it (I have not).My relationship with these two female co workers has never been great but has gotten worse over the past year. They have been hostile towards me by making snide remarks, spreading rumors about me and a male colleague, laughing at me and how conservatively I choose to live my life. They play with my work phone when I am away from my desk. However I have never complained about them to management as I’m not really someone who likes to cause any drama.

The entire work environment is really hostile and claustrophobic for me as we all have to sit in the same section of the office. The thought of going into work and seeing them gives me anxiety and now that they have accused me of those things (all lies) I’m extremely stressed out. What can I do? And can they fire me because of this?

Signed–Extremely Stressed

Dear Extremely Stressed:

Unfortunately, sometimes coworkers’ gossip centers on certain others. You describe two of your coworkers are spreading false rumors about you. You say that you have not complained about them or given them reason to do this to you. Moreover you describe your work environment as hostile and you feel claustrophobic because of the fact that you sit in the same section. You ask if such talk of coworker cause you to be fired?

I sense your distress is real. Taking time to describe it as you have in this question submitted to us is a positive step in your determining what are your options. We at Ask the Workplace Doctors wish we can help you see those options and think through what you can do. From this distance, we can only list what you might do to deal with your stress. You, of course, realize that will have to decide if and what is possible. Here are the options you likely are considering:

  1. Find work elsewhere.
  2. Grit your teeth and ignore the rumors.
  3. Report these coworkers to your supervisor.
  4. Confront the coworkers who spread the rumors.

These options overlap and you might think of others choices before you, but let us start with these:

Work Elsewhere. Call centers usually are crowded. You must respond promptly and be informed and pleasant in responding to callers. These factors make your work stressful. I have visited call centers with hundreds of employees with desks side by side in rooms underground. No windows. Claustrophobic, yes. You might not have other job skills and may not have other choices of work. Yet you must decide if you should look elsewhere–somewhere where pressures are less or at least different. You have listed enough reasons for distress that I suggest you consider this option first or at least that you do so in your long-range plans. No all jobs are so demanding and stressful as call centers. Call center work is hard enough without coworkers spreading rumors. Each of us want work that make us feel respected and that we like. You may need to think about how you can develop skills that will enable you to find less stressful work.

Ignore the rumors or report these coworkers. Apparently you feel you can’t ignore the rumors. So far, that is what you have chosen to do. If the work in only on weekends, you can survive if the rest of the week is away from that. If your manager is not presented with proof that you sluff off from doing your job, coworker badmouthing should not get you fired. If you choose to ignore, you can tell yourself that some people have a need to put others down in order to put themselves up. And in doing that, they are mistaken. Ignoring gossip might be the best in your situation.

What should you report? If you have proof or suspect someone has played with your computer, that is something you should report. The reason workplaces have supervisors is to make work effective and pleasant. Therefore, you should inform your supervisor that you want a job where you can do good work in a civil work environment. You should inform your supervisor of the false rumors so she/he knows you are not failing to do a responsible job nor are you flirting with a male coworker.

Supervisors can’t magically stop gossip, but they can insist that they will not listen to false rumors and that they will look unfavorably at those who belittle coworkers. You will have to decide if you want to ignore or report on the two coworkers. If you report them, it will be most effective if you can document to whom  and when they spread false rumors. Most generally you should not hesitate to talk with your supervisor about wanting to do good work and wanting a civil environment. Â

Confront coworkers. Probably the last thing you want to do is speak with those two coworkers you say are spreading false rumors. Therefore I am leaving that to later in my advice. But you have many other coworkers to whom you can communicate. You say “the entire work environment is really hostile and claustrophobic.” Might this be a topic about which you can speak with a few coworkers? Surely some other coworkers want as you do an environment that is not hostile and one in which they can feel comfortable rather than claustrophobic. Possibly might you chat with a few coworkers about your feeling that you want to work in a pleasant environment–one that is fun and one that in which you feel you are doing something good? Might you become a committee of one to talk about beautifying your environment? I have been in workplaces in which artwork is displayed and green plants were present. I have seen others where the walls were padded to absorb sound and some others are brightly painted.

Also have you considered the importance of talking about the mission of your workplace? What have you learned that might make it more money or cut wasted time? Surely you, who respond to calls, learn what is good and what are problems with your organization.  Cutting wasted supplies, wasted time, wasted money and finding more effective ways to do things add up to ways your workplace might be more successful. Also, and more importantly, might you be a committee of one to work on the problem of how can we make this place a little more fun? Southwest Airline became known for its flight attendants cheerful humor in giving instructions.

Obviously, your company has provided scripts of what to and what not to say. But it has not forbid you from creating poems or bits of humor about what you do. At least for your own pleasure, you might jot down some things that have amused you or make you feel good about what you do.  What if you would have a notebook in which you logged at least one bit of humor, one odd call, or one good feeling per day? What if you did that for one week and then shared that with your friends or family or one or two coworkers? What if? What if?  I predict such one-a-day note will make your day more bearable and might even be a way you can make the weather less dark for coworkers. Your answers to calls then also will be more bright.

Lastly, and after you have thought through the options of work elsewhere and whether to ignore or report, I challenge you to firmly confront the two coworkers you describe as spreading false rumors. What should you say? It’s wise to begin with questions: “Have you been talking to others about me? What bothers you about me?” These two questions should result in denial or admission. And a conversation should result in which you can firmly say, “Please come to me if you think I am not doing my job well, before you talk to others. I have not complained about you, but if get wind that you are spreading rumors, I will ask you to go with me to our supervisor and discuss what I’ve learned you said. Do you understand?” Then listen to what they say. You can follow up, if necessary with, ” I’ve not made snide remarks, spread rumors about you and a male colleague, I have not laughed at you or the way you live your lives. I won’t gossip about you and I don’t like for you to gossip about me!” Such straight talk should put your cards on the table. The two coworkers might not like it, but they will hesitate from then on before they openly gossip about you. Does any of what I have shared with you make sense? Will you discuss, perhaps even allow a friend to read what the Workplace Doctor has sent in order to decide what options are best for your particular work situation? These thoughts are not meant for a quick fix to problems that have evolved over this past year, but are meant to assist you to think through what would make your life better over the next few years.

Wherever you work or whatever options you choose, remember working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. You can’t solve your problems solo although there are something you can do to make your day after day working life better. Remember you are a member of an organization and you have a voice that deserves to be heard. I will copy my associate workplace doctor Tina Lewis Rowe, who might add her advice. I hope you will scan other of our Q&As. They will help you see there are others, who like you, want a good place in which to work.

William Gorden