Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about badmouthing by a coworker:
I approached our board president (my direct supervisor) with a concern regarding a peer. The concern was that this person was making derogatory statements about her direct reports to others in those same positions, and was asking her direct reports to validate her statements to their superiors. She would say terrible things about one person in particular, even to the extent of saying she would not hire a candidate because this candidate reminded her of the particular staff person. I was brief and simply stated my belief that this was a detriment to the organization and felt it would open us up to legal issues should she fire this particular person.
I then overheard the board president tell the vice-president that I was power-hungry and full of drama and that he would never look at me for advancement opportunities. I then heard him make several false statements, even the claim that I had difficulty working with this colleague. I do not know how to proceed and was caught totally off-guard. My claim was succinct and simply asked for advisement. The comments I overheard him say are completely inaccurate and I am not sure how to proceed.
Signed, Hurt and Worried
Dear Hurt and Worried:
This will be a lengthy reply because I can imagine how you feel and also can see this would be difficult to know what to do next. Let me share some thoughts and see if it might give you some ideas you can build upon. First, consider your board president, your history with him and his history with the person you expressed a concern about. That seems to be where this all broke down. You apparently thought you could share your concerns and he would accept them as you gave them. If he had a good history with you, he might not have agreed with you but he wouldn’t have said the things about you behind your back that you overheard. The things he said seem to indicate he has a strong negative opinion about your behavior in the past. So, that brings you to the issue of what that history has been.
You can’t change it now, but you may want to consider if you have often complained about coworkers or about your own treatment by others. Or, is it that your verbal style tends to be more emotional or upset sounding and that is uncomfortable for him? Could it be that your style is to evaluate situations and spot the flaws while his is to not see such things or to gloss over them?If that is the case, you may have often pointed out problems or been concerned about a person or situation and expressed it to him or others. But, he thinks any complaint is making drama and that commenting on concerns about peers is a way to grab power or create problems for them.Could it be that he has a good working relationship with the other person and is concerned that the vice-president will hear about your concerns and think he (the board president) should do something. Thus, he thinks he had better discredit you as a way to minimize your report about the other person? Could it be that he agrees with your peer about the people she dislikes and likes and has discussed it and encouraged her, so to criticize her is like criticizing his approach too?Could it be that he simply doesn’t want problems and prefers to think that anything negative is only a rumor that needs no action? Could it be that he tends to vent without thinking and his remarks about you might have been merely talking without any real animosity about you behind it. Or, he felt that way then, but won’t feel that way tomorrow, if things go better then.
My opinion is that if he felt your comments were not appropriate or were not given in the spirit of helpfulness, he should have said something to you about it, instead of listening, then saying something behind your back. He may have simply not wanted to make a bigger issue of it, but it would have been helpful had he told you that he thought you had no reason for concern and that talking about it could make you look badly to others.2. Next, consider what you reported to him. I understand your concern and can also see that it might be worthwhile to let him know about it. However, if you and he were great friends you had a better chance of it being seen as a valid concern. Since you apparently aren’t, it was likely viewed as either meddling, stirring up trouble or jumping on a rumor based on loose talk. I don’t think you intended that, I’m just saying how it was viewed by someone who may have already had a bias about such things.Here’s my thinking about that–which may be based on incorrect understanding of it: You apparently are acting on what employees have told you. The employees talking to you about it may just be complaining and not basing their statements on the complete truth. Or, they may dislike the supervisor and think you don’t like her either and will help them create a problem for her.However, if they are being truthful about what the supervisor is doing, they have the freedom to refuse to lie to support an untruth about a coworker–and they should do so. They also have the option to overtly support the coworker who is being disliked. And, the employee who is on the bad side of the supervisor has a right to complain about wrongful actions being taken.Often people who will speak up…and you apparently will..are used as a tool by others, to stir things up when they don’t want to do it. People who feel responsible when they hear about a problem end up repeatedly going to bat for others…and the others wait and let them. The result is that the person who thinks she is helping ends up sounding overly worried or protective, and as though she is trying to interject herself in the business of others.3. Finally, consider your relationship with the person about whom you expressed concerns. If she is a friend you would have said something to her. So, apparently you are at best just peers, or you have a strained relationship of which she is aware.She may have known of your concerns and said something to the Board President already.
If an employee talked to you and got encouragement, that same employee might have reported it all to the supervisor, or might have said something to someone else, who reported it to the supervisor.If the supervisor didn’t know about it before, the Board President may say something to that supervisor about your comments…or he may not. So, that may strain your relationship further.All of the above are things to consider as you think about where the backfire occurred.
That brings you to what to do now. I would suggest a multi-step approach designed to get you out of the situation you reported about and also reestablish and clarify that your focus is on your own work and being successful within the greater organization. Before you start on that though, let me reassure you that this will pass and you’ll be able to get over the hurt and upset you feel right now. Right now your mind is probably distracted by worry about it, but it may have only been a blip on the radar of your Board President’s mind. Or, it may seem you have been judged harshly to the Vice President and that worries you. But, he has his own opinions and is open to thinking well of you no matter what was said. In any case, this too shall pass and something else will take its place. You can get past it and move on.First, I suggest you send an email or speak directly to the Board President again and say or write something like this:”John, thank you for letting me express my concerns last week. It’s my intent to keep my focus on my own work, but I felt sure you would want me to at least let you know about issues that were reported to me. I’m going to remind employees that they have other options besides talking to me about their concerns, and I wanted you to be assured I won’t discuss it with them further in the future. Thank you again.”That’s not being false or excessive, and it will establish where you stand now. Whether he wants to take action or not is now up to him. There is little point in confronting him about what you overheard, since that would create many more problems. There is also no point in trying to disprove to the Vice President the things the President reported to him. If you can work past this, those things will be seen to be false or at least not as bad as described.Next, if an employee talks to you about the supervisor, empathize with them very briefly and say that if they have a concern they should express those to the supervisor or go directly to the Board President. Tell them that you have confidence that they won’t lie to make a coworker look bad, so they need to make that clear to their supervisor. You probably should say that you find it hard to believe that the supervisor would ask that of them, so perhaps there is a misunderstanding. You may want to also give them something positive to quote you as saying. For example, “All I know for sure is that we all are adults and need to stand up for ourselves if we think that is needed. I know we’re all busy, and sometime things look worse than they area.The one thing I’m really trying to do is to stay focused on my own work.”
As for the peer, be friendly and supportive of her. If she says something to you that you think is problematic, say so in a courteous way. If she asks you about this matter, admit that you were concerned and didn’t know how else to deal with it. Even if she is angry you can soften it by saying you realize you should have talked to her and it won’t happen again. I would bet she won’t say anything about it and over time you will be able to have an effective working relationship again, if you don’t have it now.
The last thought I have is one I suggest a lot…interact with as many people in a positive way as you can over the next few days, weeks and months. Let the President and Vice President, the peer and those in your section and outside of it, see you as the one person who is trying to keep moving forward and is staying positive and displaying self-control and self-motivation. I sometimes suggest this: If you hired a PR firm to market you right now, what are some of the things they might do to get your name associated with positive things, so the memory of this one thing they may have felt negatively about fades into oblivion? Do those things. Let your Board President, Vice-President and others see you as a valuable asset that they don’t want to lose and that they want to cultivate. The more you make them look good the better their relationship with you will be and the more credibility you will have.I hope some of these thoughts have been helpful to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. Best wishes!
Tina Lewis Rowe