Tattletales Spell Trouble
Author: By Paul Falcone Reprinted in part with permission from Society for Human Resource Management
Posted: January 13, 2009
Words of Wisdom
“The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Being held hostage by gossips, rumormongers and snitches sounds like something out of the latest edition of a Harry Potter book. Instead, it comes straight from the everyday American workplace. These troublemakers detract from the workplace and leave many well-intentioned managers feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped. But, much like Harry, you too could be the hero who overcomes these human obstacles and sets the perpetrators free of their own limitations--even without earning a degree from your local school of witchcraft and wizardry (wink wink)! What follows are some successful strategies for dealing with the gossips, rumormongers and snitches that skulk and snivel through the hallways of your company.

When Gossips Abound

Gossips typically initiate unfounded rumors, whereas rumormongers perpetuate them, even if they lack any foundation of truth or could potentially damage others’ reputations. And snitches, well, are snitches, and most of us know that playing the tattletale role is just plain wrong.

People who initiate unfounded rumors--and who gossip about their co-workers’ or bosses’ personal problems, work styles or private challenges--stir up drama for no good reason. What is important, however, is how you address the situation with your staff. Here’s an example:

“Everyone, I’ve asked Charlie to join me in this meeting because a rumor has developed about Charlie’s personal life. We don’t know who originated the rumor, and if anyone of you would like to speak with me in private after this meeting about his or her involvement in starting or perpetuating the rumor, I’d be happy to hear what you have to say.

“For now, I want you all to know how hurtful this is. We’re a team, and anyone who could raise issues like this against one member of the team raises them against us all. I personally would be very offended and hurt if anyone started or continued a rumor about my personal life that had little or nothing to do with my performance at work.

“Whether there’s any truth to this rumor is not the issue; it’s simply none of our business. This is about respect for each other as individuals and respect for our team.

“However, let me be very clear: I expect that no one will engage in this type of character assassination or public shaming exercise ever again. I also expect that everyone in our department would stop others from spreading rumors of a personal nature. In short, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. Do I have your agreement and commitment on that going forward?

“Charlie, I’m very sorry, on behalf of the entire team, for anything that was said that might have hurt or offended you. We will commit to you to stopping these types of behaviors in their tracks in the future. Again, my apologies.”

Reining in Rumormongers

There’s little that will ruin camaraderie and foster a sense of distrust more than a rumormonger. Like gossips, they enjoy the power of having the “scoop” and sharing it at just the right moment to demonstrate their insider knowledge or to malign their workplace enemies. Some people just can’t resist the urge to perpetuate unsubstantiated rumors, and once the proverbial pot is stirred, your response must be swift and strong:

“Susan, your comments about Stan and Joan have gotten back to me. Specifically, I was told that you said to three other members of our staff that Stan doesn’t want to move his office back to our part of the building because he doesn’t want to work anywhere near Joan.

“First of all, I know that Stan did indeed say this to someone else on our staff. Second, I know that person in turn shouldn’t have shared that information with anyone else, but you apparently heard about it and chose to share it with additional members of the team, even though you had nothing to do with it, and it didn’t affect you in any way.

“As a result, Joan has become the brunt of some mean-spirited office banter. And, as you could imagine, she was embarrassed and humiliated for something that she had absolutely nothing to do with. And that leaves me feeling very disappointed by your lack of discretion and insensitivity.

“I would think that an apology may be in order here, but I’ll have to leave that to you. For now, I really want you to think about your actions and how you may have inadvertently made someone look bad in the eyes of their peers. I want you to know that I’m counting this as a verbal warning in my record book. I want your commitment right now that we’ll never have to have a discussion like this again.”

Tell Snitches To Zip It

Most positions in corporate America require the ability to maintain confidentiality as an essential function. Too many times, employees cloak their inability to maintain a confidence by trying to convince you that the information they share is critical to running your business.

For example, an employee might come to you and say, “I just need to let you know that Suzie is not at her desk enough. She’s way too social and doesn’t do her fair share of the work. It doesn’t really bother me personally, but it may make it hard on the other employees.”

As a rule, there should be three circumstances where unilateral sharing goes on: when an employee hears of complaints of harassment, discrimination or potential violence in the workplace. Otherwise, gently take your subordinate aside and explain the following:

“I understand that you believe that I need to know these things, especially since they occur when I’m not in the office or behind closed doors. And I appreciate your always trying to keep me in the loop as to what’s going on. But there’s a bigger issue that I want to sensitize you to, and it’s a moral issue that has a lot to do with principle and doing the right thing.

“Not to sound ungrateful or unappreciative, but I don’t know that sharing that kind of information about Suzie with me is the right thing for you to do. If you witnessed someone stealing or being harassed, I would want to know about that immediately. But those are serious conduct infractions that could have dire consequences to the company. When it comes to performance issues that you become aware of, I don’t think that you should necessarily feel compelled to volunteer that information.”

Magic Potion

These issues are sometimes a slippery slope, and sometimes these actions are done with little forethought. Nevertheless, left unaddressed and potentially unpunished, they can damage team spirit and good will more than just about anything else that the workplace could conjure up.

In short, practicing and demonstrating honesty, integrity and good old-fashioned manners will place you loftily above any mudslinging and will provide an admirable example for others to follow. And, of course, Harry Potter would be proud, too.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.