Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rumors About You: At Work

In my late 20's I was single and enjoying some success in my career when I learned that I was the subject of rumors at work.

A male co-worker and I had forged a friendship and we lunched together several times a week.  A few people made comments directly to me or to him. I pretended to take these as innocent remarks rather than the accusations that were intended to be, if I bothered to respond at all.  We were both young and single and he was a great looking guy with alot going for him.  It wasn't a huge shock to learn that some of the busy-bodies were making speculations and assumptions.

The biggest culprit was a woman that had made her own unhappiness with life, herself, her job and her mate very apparent.  She was a work "frenemy", one of those people that could be absolutely spectacular if they desired, but instead usually chose to take the low road.  I'd given up on expecting much of her and taken the fallback position of trying to stay off her radar and never letting on that she bothered me.

The rumors about our lunchtime activities didn't bother me terribly because I had a very supportive manager, the respect of those in charge and my ability to get my work accomplished remained unhindered.  Frankly, no one that mattered around the office really cared about things that didn't negatively impact the business, and there was no policy regarding fraternization.

So these rumors were little more than an annoyance for me and I resolved to ignore them.  That all changed when an college student interning for me approached and said "Hanna, the lady in payroll has been talking about your salary."  Payroll lady was the "frenemy" mentioned above, the primary purveyor of the other office gossip. I asked for details and learned she'd made leading comments like "You would die if you knew how much she made" to others in my department, people that I had to work with daily.  I had no idea what anyone else there was earning, but knew that comparing salaries could cause a great deal of resentment. 

At that point I switched tactics and went straight to her boss, after informing my Director of my intention to do so.  We closed the door and I said "It's been reported to me that Jen has been making comments about my salary.  I have not heard that she divulged numbers, but still thought you should be aware.  She's also made comments suggesting I am sleeping with a member of your staff.  This is untrue but I've tolerated it because we are both single. If I ever learn she's paired me up with someone who is married, I'll be speaking with HR and will expect her to be dealt with by you."

He was startled and speechless.  I thanked him and left.  I never had a problem again, but not long after that she was relieved of her duties abruptly for what I gather was another more serious matter.

Not every situation can be handled the same way.  This worked for me because of my position and because there was a management team in place that I knew I could trust.  But there are some definite points to take away from this.  My suggestions for handling gossip generally still stand. Here are some additional suggestions for the office that may help:
  • Do not gossip at work.  If you do, you have no right to be offended when it comes around to discussion about you.
  • Choose your battles.  Don't bother defending yourself against gossip that is unbelievable or unlikely to harm your job.
  • Take gossip that will harm your position seriously
  • Address it first with your direct management as quickly and briefly as possible without whining; state unequivocally what occurred, but only the facts.  Ask how you should handle the situation.
  • In any discussion, focus on how it harms your work related goals.  Management doesn't always care if your feelings are hurt, they do care if someone is making it difficult to do your job.
  • HR is a last resort.
Each working situation is very different. This is what worked for me but there are cases where it would absolutely be the wrong approach.  You know your situation best, so use your own judgement before taking action.


  1. Same thing is happening to me right now. Cost me the 2yr friendship I made with the girl. But i can only guess who spread the rumors. Either my ex-friend / her friend or the new friend the office gossiper.
    My friend couldn't take the rumors anymore because she's in good long term relationship. I even heard her whisper "oh great they see me with him" after we passed the HR gossipers on lunch walk. She never said this is why we can't hang but i'm pretty sure it is.

  2. @mike That really stinks! She's probably not making the situation any better by letting go of the friendship. That has the potential to create more gossip of the speculative "Wonder why she and Mike aren't talking any longer?" nature. You might never know who started it, but a few times I've learned things got blown out of proportion by one or two people making foolish remarks. Often they don't even mean anything by it, but it still does the damage to our trust in other. I'm betting (and hoping!) that once the dust settles you will have your friend back.