Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I'm a kind of co-leader of my department, though I do not have official management capabilities or a management title. Basically, I'm a team lead, and am the go-to person after my manager, but I am not a manager myself.
Rumors have been flying around our department that my manager has been having an affair, possibly with someone in our company. I don't know if it is true or untrue, and in my opinion it's none of my business unless it interferes with our work. However, lately this has meant that whenever my manager is away from the office, speculation and gossip are prime entertainment in the department. Not only is it whispered about, it is also speculated upon quite loudly, for long periods of time, and I know people outside the department can hear the conversations going on. There have even been betting pools about who is involved in the affair.
I'm very uncomfortable with these conversations being broadcast so loudly. I feel like it makes the entire department look unprofessional and gossipy. However, since I have no real management authority, I don't feel I have a right to tell anyone not to discuss it. If I did, I would likely be scoffed at. Obviously it would be a very strange thing to bring up to my manager. So I am torn. So far, I've been discouraging these discussions by making it clear that I don't see why it's any of our business. Is there anything more I can do?
As team lead, you actually do have some standing to tell people to knock it off--and I would. The next time you hear gossip about this, say directly and firmly, "This is really none of our business, and it's not something people should be speculating about at work."
Frankly, you should say that even if you weren't team lead and were a peer, but you have additional standing to say it now.
If you're scoffed at, then you say, "I'm uncomfortable hearing this kind of speculation about someone's personal life, and it's creating a distracting and unprofessional environment here. Please stop."
You can say this one-on-one to people, or you can say it to a group, but you do need to say it. If the gossip isn't true, it's wrongly damaging someone's career and reputation--and if it is true, it's still not appropriate for this kind of focus at work. If someone has a serious concern about the rumor (such as that there's abuse of power or harassment involved), then they should deal with that through official channels--not through betting pools and gossip.
Also, I would seriously consider telling your manager that this is happening. That'll be an awkward conversation--but if it's disrupting the department and affecting her reputation, she needs to know about it. I'd say something like this: "I have something awkward to bring up, and I want to say up front that I feel uncomfortable raising this, but I think I'm obligated to. There's been a lot of speculation in the department recently on your personal life and a rumor that you might be involved with someone in the company. I want to make it clear that I don't care one bit about your personal life, but I'm at a loss in how to handle this with the team, because it's become so frequently discussed that it's posing a distraction. I've asked people to knock it off but it's continuing, and at this point I feel obligated to make you aware of it."
From there, it's in your manager's court to deal with. But please speak up--this is obnoxious and potentially damaging to someone who may not deserve it.
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