My Boss and Coworker Gossip

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about gossip within the HR Department
by boss and Coworker.

I am in HR and I’m faced with gossip in the office; however my issue is that my boss and a co-worker are the ones doing the gossiping. I know as HR I should not let this continue and I fear that the employee that they are gossiping about will quit and has mentioned that this is a form of harassment. I want to confront the boss and coworker, but I fear for my own job. What would be the best steps to take to handle this situation?

Signed Want To Confront

Dear Want To Confront:
You fear losing your job if you confront your boss and coworker regarding their gossiping about an employee—an employee who has said such gossip is a form of harassment. You are right that such gossip can damage your Department of Human Resources. You also know that telling the boss she/he is doing wrong risks your job. So you want to know what choice you have other than to bite your tongue. I will present several options and suggest language you can consider. First do some preliminary unobtrusive solo information gathering. Think of yourself as an investigator before becoming a problem-solver.

1.     Before weighing your options, let’s review what you mean by “I’m faced with gossip in the office.” Document what you recall that you think is gossip. Also note when and where you heard such talk. Were you overhearing or was the gossip within your area and you were included as a silent member of the gossip? Be as specific as you can as to when, where, who, and what was said.

2.     Next note what this employee who is the target said about the gossip. How’d she learn they were talking about her? What did she say they said—what is the language she “mentioned is a form of harassment.”

3.     Weigh what motivated the “gossip” and if such talk about the employee could be considered harassment—language the demeans/discriminates because of race or national origin, sex, religion, age, disability.

4.     The last thing before thinking through your options is to zip up your mouth and don’t gossip about this topic.  Tend to your assignments and don’t become obsessed with this topic.

These four steps will provide you a short story of what you say is gossip. They need not take more than an hour or two of note taking because you are doing this alone.

Confront Option. Your sense of what might prove damaging to HR should motivate you to request a private meeting with your boss. This had best be a brief statement of what you have heard (don’t present the log you have made). Tell her/him what you fear might hurt HR, particularly because of what this targeted employee, Jan, who asserts gossip about her is a form of harassment. For example you should use wording that you have heard, such as “Kim, I don’t know if you are aware that HR might be accused of harassment. Jan has said that someone in HR has said things that are harassment. Have you heard this? Should I just ignore what I have gotten wind of?” Such a statement will open up the conversation that potentially should bring a halt to gossip. You might also say that you have heard a department that doesn’t investigate accusations of harassment and take reasonable measures to stop it are doubly in the wrong.  This to my mind is the only way to deal with this matter. You either confront of bite your tongue.

Staff Meeting Option. Raise the topic of how we talk about employees. Ask that the staff formulate do and don’t rules about what should and shouldn’t be said. In short talk about talk. Such a topic on the agenda should surface what is gossip and what is legitimate discussion of employees—they are your customers. Your organization’s welfare is your ultimate mission.

Anonymous Option. Send a letter to HR reporting that it is rumored that some in the department are gossiping about an employee and this individual has said it is a form of harassment.

Bypass Option. You can’t go to HR because you say that your boss and a coworker are the problem. But you can take your concern to someone up the ladder who is over HR. Such an option is not as good as the first because bypassing is sure to brand you as a trouble maker and you an enemy of the boss.

Finally, I have shared your question with a member of an HR department, an individual who might be like you is within a Department of Human Resources but is not the boss. Ironically, upon reading your  question within an hour she sent the following:

“That is actually an issue that I am currently experiencing with my employer and sadly it is in our department. While those issues shouldn’t reside in the human resource department the reality is, it can and does. Because of my position in the company I am not at liberty to discuss the issue with management but have divulged my feelings with my supervisor. She has presented my concerns and management was aware prior to my coming on board. Unfortunately resolve hasn’t transpired but I have to be patient, just because I can’t see what’s going on doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.

“With that being said I recommend two things: this person can try shutting the gossip down by reminding these individuals of the important role they play in ensuring situations like this don’t transpire in the organization as a whole. If that doesn’t work, try discussing this issue with someone within the department they trust. This should be their supervisor or manager. If those individuals are the source of issue then they would need to go a step above, set up a meeting and express their concerns. Prior to scheduling the meeting they should have at least 2-3 possible solutions ready to discuss as well.

“In the meantime they need to do their best to not get sucked into the “drama” so that they will not be accused of anything. My supervisor suggested that I remain focused on my work and continue to produce just like I’ve been doing so that it is never an issue of me with regard to the petty things that are transpiring in the office.

“One thing I would add to my response is that not every hr professional is in fact professional and/or ethical in nature. Everyone in this field doesn’t value the role they play or the influence they have on this field, their organizations or their department. It is important for that individual to stay true to what is ethically right and ensure that they are doing what is best for the company without compromise of themselves or the organization. My motivation for everything that I do is this: as long as I am not compromising myself spiritually or putting the company in harms way by my actions or behavior I can sleep at night. I won’t ever do anything that will infringe on my company or myself.”

You know your situation better than those of us from afar can. Therefore you will be able to say whether any of these thoughts make sense. Don’t rush for a quick fix, but don’t allow fear to prevent a reasonable talk with your boss if you know that there has been harmful gossip. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is my signature sentence wishing the best for you and HR. Do feel free to let us know what you do and how it works out.

William Gorden

Follow Up: Good morning

After reading your email I decided to confront my boss with the information I had been given.  I wrote down everything that was said to me by the coworker that stated the boss had said about another coworker.  Of course to no surprise she, the boss, stated that the coworker had misunderstood her and that I should just drop the issue.  That she was aware of the fact that the other coworker, for whatever reason wanted her coworker out of there.  Leaving the meeting last evening I felt some better but was still concerned that nothing was going to be done about the gossiping.  I suggested maybe in house team building exercises to get everyone to work better together and the boss agreed.  However when I came in this morning the other coworker that was gossiping with the boss, out of the blue, stated that she needed to confess to me that she felt bad for the things she had told me about her coworker with me being HR and all but that she felt like she was talking to a friend not HR.  Wow. This is a growing company of 35 employees and I’m the only one in HR.  I’ve been doing HR and have a diploma, so it’s not just a position I got thrown into.  I’ve never had to deal with this much gossip in an office.  It has been brought to my attention that the coworker that is gossiping with the office personal and Boss is doing so with the drafters and engineering staff causing issues with them as well.  Bigger issue..

I’m going to try a mandatory training on office gossip and team building.  Then try some team building exercises to see if I can get them focused on working together and less on trying to tare one another apart.  Let me know your thoughts and ideas.

Thank you for your help.

Thank you for the follow up. What is important is to secure a “buy in” on how a department, in particular HR, should communicate. Ordering gossip training might help, but raising awareness for it and therefore motivating a request for it hopefully can be generated. I’ve conducted team building that was ordered by management and was resisted by some who should have been involved in its planning. Many of our Q&As suggest collaborative sessions to spell out do and don’t rules to make communication more effective and less hurtful. And like in team sports, one skull session doesn’t correct problems. Any such rules should make it OK to review, modify and amend talk rules. Please stay in touch.