Supervisor Talking About My Personal Life

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about supervisor discussing my personal life to another employee:

I was bringing my supervisor something that she requested. When I knocked on her door, I could hear her talking from another office. As I got close to the other office where she was, I overheard her discussing my personal life to another employee. She stated that I was always broke and I never had any money.

She stated that I was planning on getting married, but my boyfriend was living off of me. She kept saying how she didn’t understand why I was so broke. She couldn’t believe I was getting married to the guy that I was getting married to. She doesn’t see where all of my money was going. Well after I had heard enough, I knocked on the door. My supervisor opened the door and I gave her the package that I was asked to bring to her. I walked over to her office with her, and I told her that I had heard her talking about me. She didn’t respond. I asked her why, and she strugged her shoulders as if to say she didn’t know. I said OK and walked away. What should I do about this situation? Is this slander?

Signed, Hurt and Angry

Dear Hurt and Angry:

The conversation your supervisor was having likely wouldn’t be considered slander for any legal or civil purposes. Slander is defined generally as lies told purposely to harm someone’s reputation and it can be shown that damage was done as a direct result of those lies. In your situation, your boss was stating an opinion of hers–which may have been based on truths, half-truths, misconceptions or exaggerations on her part-or gossip she has heard.It was not right of her to talk about you to another employee and I’m sure she was incredibly embarrassed that you caught her!

Now the issue is what to do about it. Your response will depend in large part on what led to the conversation, what your experience has been with similar things and what kind of relationship you had with your supervisor before this.

1. What led to the conversation? You don’t know what started it, but you might be able to figure out how she could have known so much about you in the first place. How could your boss know about your personal life? If you have talked about it in the office and it is a matter of common knowledge, she was likely expressing what others may have said as well–or responding to something the other employee said. If you talked to your boss in private about your situation, asking for advice, she was violating that confidence and that makes it much worse. Consider how much you have discussed your personal situation. If you have talked about it a great deal, expressing concerns, talking about money worries and so forth, nothing was said that was a top secret anyway. But if you have only discussed those issues in a private setting, with a logical expectation of privacy, you may have a reason to make a complaint.

2. The other thing to consider is the nature of such conversations in your office and your role in them. I’m not making a judgement about that, just reminding you that if others can say they have heard you express your opinions in a similar way, and that there is a great deal of gossip in the office, it reduces the dramatic nature of this situation somewhat. Supervisors are still expected to be above that–but you have a stronger position if you can say you have never engaged in negative conversations about someone to another employee.

3. The third thing to consider is the history of your boss’s conversations. If your boss is usually supportive and helpful or at least pleasant to work with, and this event seems to not be like her, that’s one thing. If she often talks about employees to each other, and seems to do it for mean-spirited reasons, that’s something else.Those three areas will help you decide the degree of seriousness that would be given to this situation if you complain to someone at a higher level. It will also help you put a hurtful and embarrassing event in perspective.

Consider going to your boss or writing to her, and saying that you were too upset to talk to her directly at the time the situation happened, but you want to get the matter out in the open because you feel badly about what you heard. You will be tempted to want to ask “Why did you talk about me?” No one who has been caught gossiping can answer that truthfully, because there are a jillion reasons, all mixed up in our minds and resulting in remarks we sometimes don’t even mean.Instead, simply say that you were hurt and angry, that her remarks were about very personal things and that you want to have an assurance that it won’t happen again.

Then stop talking and give the rest of the conversation to her for a moment. She will likely stumble through an explanation, apology, self-justification, excuse making and all of the things people do when they’ve been caught doing wrong.Then just say, “OK. But now, can I depend that it won’t happen again?” When she says yes, be gracious enough to say something like, “Thank you. This didn’t seem like you and I knew we needed to get it in the open. Right now I’m still upset, but I’m going to put it behind me and I won’t talk about it again.”

That is so much better than crying, anger, threats and dumping other complaints at the same time. And, it puts you in the mature position because you’ve asked for an explanation, heard it, stated your expectations and forgiven her for what happened. She’ll be glad to get it cleared up and so will you.You may also want to express those thoughts to the co-worker, according to how much she was participating in the conversation.

The main thing you DON’T want is for this to become a big deal that ends up being talked about by everyone. That will defeat your purpose, because all of it is bound to come out and then there WILL be conversation about your personal life!But, you have a different situation to deal with if this is typical of your supervisor and she often causes hard feelings or embarrassment with her gossip.

If that is the case and you have an HR office, you may wish to complain to them or to your manager–your supervisor’s boss–about what happened and ask for an investigation about it. Say this isn’t the first time and express the harm that has happened over time, with her comments. How much you push it is dependent on how bad the conversation really was and whether or not she was violating a confidence you had shared. If there are others who want to join with you because they have had similar situations, give their names to the person to whom you report this.Think about the image you want to present in your communications about this situation. You show understanding about how some negative human behavior can create embarrassment for everyone.

You can learn from it, about how much you want to share your personal life at work. You can be forgiving. You can also be strong and show that, while you understand how it could have happened, it wasn’t appropriate, it shouldn’t have happened and if it happens again you will go higher in the organization to correct it.Office gossip is inevitable, but we all can play a part in reducing it. We certainly can eliminate negative, hurtful untruths, by confronting it every time we are aware of it. This might give you a chance to help correct an ongoing problem for everyone. It will certainly remind everyone of how awful it would be if the things we said were always heard by the person about whom we’re talking!Best wishes as you deal with this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what results.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.