Talking to Clients

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about personal gossip:

I have an employee who tells our clients personal information about co-workers and me, such as what type or level of education we do or do not have. And she is not always factual.

Signed, More Than Annoyed

Dear More Than Annoyed:

You have a right to be angry about a gossip, especially about a subordinate or co-worker who is careless about facts. I assume that you are this individual’s supervisor and therefore are responsible for her performance. Although you have not asked, I also assume you are uncertain about how to handle this matter.

1. Get your own facts as clearly in mind as possible. Who said what to whom and when? How do you know this employee said what? Did you hear her disclose personal information about others and you? Or did someone report that to you? If you have it second hand, you should be careful to couch whatever you say to this employee as, “I’ve heard ______ (once, twice, or whatever times) that you have told clients personal information about co-workers and me. Have you said such things?”

2. Put this in perspective. It might be natural to chat with clients about one’s co-workers and you in some cases. Possibly saying something positive about co-workers education could enhance the credibility of one’s workplace whereas saying something about their lack of education or exaggerating their education could lower the credibility once that were known. So it might be natural to share some personal information, but not other. Getting what this individual said or is reported to have said in perspective additionally entails reviewing what are the rules about such matters. What does your policy book say about that? What training has this individual had about the boundaries of what should be and should not be disclosed to clients?

3. You are now ready to confront this employee once you are as clear as possible about what this individual said or is reported to have said and after you have put this perspective. Speak to her in private. Approach the subject directly, such as, “Janis, I have called you in because I hear you are telling our clients personal information about your co-workers and me. If this is true, it must stop.” Or you might approach her more inductively, “Janis, I appreciate the good work you do; however, I am uneasy about what I hear you have disclosed about some of your co-workers and me to our clients. What do you think I might have heard you said to them?”

4. The purpose of this meeting is to make clear the boundaries of what is shared with clients. Confronting that head-on need not result in an argument about what was said or was not said or the fact or fiction of disclosure of personal information. Rather, the goal is to make clear the dos and don’ts of what is to be shared with clients. Creating rapport, for example is to be expected. Product knowledge is the central job in communicating with clients. General praise of one’s coworkers and manager might be appropriate if a client inquires, where someone got his/her training or education. You will need to determine what is appropriate along these lines. Inaccurate information negative and exaggeration about other member’s health, families, social life or education are never to be provided clients! You can be firm about that.

5. You want Janis to understand and to buy-in to what is and is not appropriate. This is best achieved by engaging Janis in a discussion of what are the dos and don’ts. Approaching this as a reprimand probably will not promote a respectful and supportive superior-subordinate relationship. Your conversation about this might conclude with a specific date to or at least a general understanding that you will meet again to talk about how client conversations are going. Both of you want those conversations to be effective and that can be an on-going focus of your conversations. Superiors are expected to clarify misunderstandings and boundaries. And engaging employees in that is one part of your job, and that is one of the larger process of helping all your work group see that working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden