Workplace Gossip Can be Engaging and Intriguing Until You Get Caught

On March 1st my colleague Liane Davy wrote a blog “What Do I Do When a Team Member Gossips?” As always, Liane challenges the issues head on and gives us insight and practical advice.  I could not help but reflect on lessons I learned from a Manager I was determined to detest at the beginning of my career.

At the time, I worked for a Fortune 500 company that has offices spanning the globe but like many large companies each office, department, and team had its own subculture.  I was only in the job a few months when the manager I worked for went off on maternity leave and the rumors and gossip started about the new manager that was to take her place.  As the newest member of the team and with a desire to succeed and fit in I followed the lead of the most senior Consultant Janet and her word became my truth.  Janet regaled us with horrible stories of the Manager that was about to lead us. The result of all this discussion and gossip was the new Manager Donna was despised before she even walked through the door.

Janet gave us sage advice on how we were to handle the new manager; it would be best if we kept our distance, shared any concerns or issues with Janet herself as she would act as our champion and ensure that the new manager would not take advantage of us or break up our team.  Janet had been with the company for 10 years and had the inside track on what was going on in the company and had strategic relationships with the Executives. I felt not only did I have a friend, but a mentor that would watch my back.

After one month it was an all out war on the new Manager Donna, she was blocked at every turn and was clearly struggling - the team was winning. Our real leader Janet would feed us with gossip from head office on a daily basis and we could be assured that they were well aware of the manager’s behavior and she could be replaced any day.

However, that all changed one evening when we were called into a meeting with the regional manager and our direct Manager Donna. Our friend and champion Janet was on vacation.  The regional manager was very clear, if our behavior did not stop towards our new manager we may want to consider finding new jobs.  I went home that night and was shocked by the knowledge that the team was the issue and not the manager. The case was laid out by the regional manager; fact by fact, point by point, examples were given and I was a full participant and contributor to gossip and the stress and hurt of our new Manager Donna. My trusted colleague Janet was playing each side; the team and management, all the while carefully positioning herself as innocent.  It had been Janet that brought the issue of our behavior to the regional managers’ attention.  As I drove home that evening I faced the realization that I had formed an opinion on another person based on some other person’s impression and worse, based on pure gossip and hearsay!

The next morning when I arrived at work Donna asked me to join her at lunch and during that meal I developed a relationship and friendship that has lasted 20 years. I ended up working for Donna for 5 years and during that time I learned valuable lessons about how to conduct myself and act when dealing with issues and gossip. Donna managed with clarity and a few guidelines I still apply today:

  • If you have a complaint about the company, individual, or a project ensure, you also have an alternative solution or approach - do not just sit around complaining.
  • If you have an issue with an individual, make sure you are willing to discuss it with that person face to face, not behind their back.

Those two points kept us all honest during the years I worked with that team because we knew if we had a complaint we would be held accountable and expected to deal with the issue head on.  The gossiping in the office stopped.  As for my former mentor Janet, she left the company one year later not only disliking the manager, but also the team.