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Office Ethics Columns

Flavor of the Week

What you can do when you're the latest topic on the rumor mill

Dear Nan,
I never thought this could happen to me, but it has. The CEO's executive assistant, for some reason, has never liked me. She has been with the company her entire career and perceives her position as one of "power" over the other admins. This has never bothered me personally. I can handle anyone's ego. However, recently she has started rumors about me having an affair with another employee. I've confronted her about it, but she denies it. I've talked to my boss (the vice president) about it, but he apparently doesn't want to rattle any cages. Meanwhile, the rumors continue. What (if anything) can I do?

A hairdresser told me once (with tears in her eyes), “I wish every employee in the workplace could be the target of malicious gossip just once so they would know how hurtful it is.” I’ve never forgotten her words. What is gossip and why is it so dangerous? I describe gossip as the indiscriminate chatter about someone else’s private affairs. It is hurtful, disrespectful, and insulting; it elevates the gossiper at the expense of the person being gossiped about; and it tears apart the basic fabric of trust and confidentiality that knits together an office staff.

In addition to all of that, gossip relies on “secrets,” and the temptation to share a secret is great. Benjamin Franklin once said: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” So why do people gossip? Mostly, it’s due to one’s natural, although misdirected, desire to be accepted by others. Few among us are immune to the temptation to tell what someone else is eager to know, especially if we want to impress or please that person.

“Sometimes people start rumors and keep conflict going because it makes them feel powerful,” comments Linda E. Spruill, executive assistant at Triangle Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Durham, North Carolina.

Most administrative professionals recognize that while being a source of “good gossip” may guarantee a certain amount of popularity (albeit only for the moment), it also guarantees a lack of respect, both personally and professionally.

“Don’t feed into the negativity,” Spruill suggest. “Take the high road by maintaining your own sense of confidence and professionalism. Hold your head up, show up on time, handle your work responsibly, and you will be the victor.”

People know who gossips and who doesn’t, and red flags go up immediately with the former. One client I was assisting in finding a new executive assistant told me he interviewed an otherwise fine candidate. But in the course of the interview, she shared all kinds of matters about her personal life—offering more information than he needed or ever wanted to know. As she prattled on about her broken marriages and in-law problems, all he could think of was: “If she talks so freely about these matters with me, someone she has just met, what will she someday share about me?”

If the sins of the flesh are the world’s oldest sins, the sins of the wagging tongue run a strong second.

Nothing is true about office gossip except for the following:
  • You never hear the full story.
  • It may be easy to gossip about someone, but it is even easier for that gossip to get back to that person.
  • If someone gossips with you, that person will someday gossip about you.

Address the Problem

It’s good to know the writer of this issue’s dilemma isn’t intimidated by her coworker’s queen bee attitude. Most people who exhibit this kind of behavior are insecure themselves and have established this attitude as a defense mechanism.

“You don’t have to like the person, but you are always better off respecting her power and position,” says Sandra Thorpe of Napa Valley, California, “Bridge-building requires tact, imagery, and (sometimes) ego-submission.” And, you never know, what you perceive as a malicious attitude actually may be someone crying out for friendship.

You can’t change a gossipmonger’s behavior—unless perhaps you are a licensed psychologist. Sadly, we live in a culture of gossip, and if gossip is an important part of a person’s nature, that person probably will not, or cannot, change. However, I believe you can change the situation to make it tolerable for your coworkers and yourself.

Protect Yourself

The writer of the dilemma must take action in this case for three reasons: 1) She has already confronted the gossiper (and she has denied being the source); 2) the rumors continue; and 3) the rumor is a serious one. Always consider it possible this assistant is not the person behind the rumor. (Unless you overhear her gossiping, you will never be sure).

“Of utmost importance, document to the best of your ability, including dates and people involved, everyone you have spoken to or who has spoken to you about this problem,” says Valerie Weaver CPS of Gulfport, Mississippi. “Summarize the conversations, including the one you had with your boss. This is for your information only and not for general circulation. Keep a copy for yourself and share one with your human resource department contact and apprise that person of your problem.

“Put on your best smile and go back to work. Before long, one of your cohorts will have a baby, win $1 million, or have an affair of their own, and you will no longer be center stage.” Your professional behavior and decorum will always trump the gossipmonger.

Here are a few steps you can take to counter-punch future office gossip:
  • Run, don’t walk, away from anyone who starts to gossip.
    Remember that even if you don’t contribute to the conversation, your very presence may indicate consent. Instead, establish a reputation as one who won’t even listen to gossip, must less spread it.
  • End rumors about others.
    If you overhear something that is untrue, step up and say so. People will respect your integrity.
  • Attack rumors about yourself.
    Be aggressive and determine who originated the remark, if possible (as outlined above). Always follow this with documentation.
  • Keep confidences.
    Become known as someone who is close-mouthed.
  • Limit the amount of personal tidbits you share about yourself and keep them on the light side.
    Too much information may be blown out of proportion and/or become tempting to someone else to elaborate on.
  • Trust only those who have demonstrated and earned your confidence.
  • Avoid any form of belittling coworkers.
    Today’s assistant may be tomorrow’s senior vice president.
  • Build coworkers up, don’t tear them down.
    If you must use the grapevine, use it to praise coworkers. They will remember.

Finally, the next time the gossipmongers bring up someone’s name, ask yourself: “Aren’t there better things to talk about?” Of course there are, and you’re just the person to get the ball rolling.

Remember: “Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid,” said Walter Winchell.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars