The offices and factory floors would be pretty empty in Canada if employees were routinely fired for gossiping about their bosses.
So it must have been with a certain amount of guilty curiosity that so many of you globeandmail.com readers clicked on last Wednesday's online story about four town employees in Hooksett, N. H., who were fired for speculating about whether a senior town official was having an affair (he denies it). Can you be fired for gossiping about your boss?
Indeed, it was the best-read story on The Globe's website that day, and clearly generated a lot of buzz in workplaces everywhere.
Should office gossip be a firing offence? Or, in the case of the Hooksett Four, was getting caught their biggest mistake?
In a story on the front page of The Globe and Mail's Careers section last Friday, experts agreed that malicious gossip can sink a career - but that there are also certain advantages to knowing the dirt.
(Wouldn't you rather know before applying for a transfer to another department that the manager is a tyrant?)
What's your opinion or concern about the issue?
Michael Stern, a trenchant observer of workplace culture, was online Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. EDT for a discussion about office gossip and its potential consequences.
Your questions and Mr. Stern's answers appear at the bottom of this page.
Here's the buzz on Mr. Stern: He is president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Michael Stern Associates Inc., a firm that specializes in executive recruiting, management consulting and coaching. In his more than 25 years of experience, Mr. Stern has accumulated a lot of first-hand knowledge of bad moves that can limit a career.
Virginia Galt, Globe and Mail: Good afternoon, Michael. Thanks so much for joining us today, over the virtual watercooler, for our online discussion about office gossip. I think it's fair to say that most of us indulge in workplace gossip from time to time, and the boss is always popular grist for the rumour mill.
But, in your years as an executive recruiter and management consultant, have you ever heard of anyone being fired for gossiping about the boss -- as those four women in Hooksett, New Hampshire were?
Do you have any opening thoughts on the Hooksett case? Is there any danger that other thin-skinned bosses will follow suit?
Michael Stern: The Hookset Four case has certainly caused a stir. No, I have not heard of anyone being fired for gossiping about the boss. But that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.
I also think we have to be careful before jumping too quickly on the "thin-skinned boss" characterization. Could be he was. But this may simply be another example of poor judgment on the part of the gossipers and not the gossipee.
Virginia Galt: Thanks, Michael. Your comment about "thin-skinned bosses" is a good one. That said, how do you think most managers would have handled the Hooksett situation, where the gossip about the boss having an affair was nasty and untrue. As an executive recruiter, I'm sure you assess candidates on their people skills as well as their business acumen. How much emphasis do you place one the ability to manage difficult situations with employees?
Michael Stern: People skills have always been a crucial factor in assessing employees - at any level. And managing difficult situations means taking "appropriate" action in difficult situations. There may be some debate about whether termination was overkill in the Hooksett case. But most managers I know would have taken some kind of disciplinary action.
Another key factor in this case - and most situations like this - is whether the behavior in question caused work related problems. I believe that employees off hours activities are no one's business unless those activities have an effect on the person's ability to do their job. That guideline should hold true for managers and subordinates.
Virginia Galt: Thanks, Michael. Still, I suspect that many people would reflect on what happened to the workers in the U.S. and say, "Oh, come on, everyone gossips. And, in particular, they gossip about the boss." This person has a role of authority, and so has an impact on everyone in the workplace. Of course they're going to talk about her . . . Or him. How can they seriously consider policing this?
When the story first appeared online last week, a reader wrote about a boss who used to eavesdrop outside office doors to hear what his employees were saying about him. (I imagine that manoeuvre would be somewhat diffficult to pull off, without being too obvious about it.)
Michael Stern: Policing? Pretty tough. And spying on a co-worker - boss or otherwise - is evidence of a rocky relationship. Yes a lot of people gossip - especially about the boss. But I suggest to you that those people who think it's OK, should also feel ok when the situation is reversed. For example, accesses an employee's computer files. Would it still be OK when that happens?
While we are talking about office gossip, I think it's important to clarify what it is and what it's not. The example given in the promo piece for this chat mentions the benefit of finding out the boss in another department is a tyrant. To me, finding out about that prior to transferring to his/her department is not gossip. It's smart business.
Mester Moilin, Toronto: My boss wants to fire me because I commented on his big teeth and bad breath. I was really just a sideline man who heard these conversations and chimed in on occasion.
One specific employee told the boss that I was the main contributor to the gossip, and he's had it in for me ever since.
I think that he is trying to find any way to fire me, he gives me near impossible tasks and makes large demands of me. I want to call him out on it but I think he's too proud to listen. I can't keep working under these conditions but he might fire me on the spot if I bring up the subject. What should I do?
Michael Stern: Thanks for your question, Mester. It's a very sensitive situation for sure. You don't mention anything in your email about attempting to sit down with your boss and clear the air. Perhaps you should try that. For now, it appears that the rumor mill is running overtime and your boss has yet to hear directly from you.
RM, Toronto: What should you do if you get caught gossiping inappropriately at work?
Michael Stern: Thanks for your question RM. Like mould in the basement, the damage caused by being linked to gossip continues to grow if left unchecked. If you know you've been caught - presumably by the object of that gossip - don't pretend you weren't. You need to have a face-to-face talk with the other person and attempt to put the comments in context and apologize if necessary.
Proud Canadian, USA: How about firing CEOs who receive excessive pay cheques in return for dismal results?
Michael Stern: Your question, while off topic for today's discussion, is a good one. Let me attempt to make it relevant to the Hookset case. I for one, would much rather support CEOs achieving exceptional results for their shareholders - regardless of their off-hours activities, than CEOs with "dismal results" but no vices.
Virginia Galt: I'm glad you made the distinction between gossiping and gathering "market intelligence," but it's a fine line sometimes.
I suspect that, in most workplaces, there is an official version of what's going on, and then there is the real story. One's success often depends on being plugged into the grapevine. Can you give an example of what constitutes legitimate fact-finding? When you recruit executives for your clients, I'm sure they want to know what he or she is "really like," what's the buzz, what's his or her style? How does one find out this stuff without invading the candidate's privacy?
Michael Stern: Great question. With, unfortunately, no black-and-white answers. Perhaps "market intelligence" is best defined using two criteria:
- are your questions job-related and;
- would you feel comfortable repeating the question you are asking a third party to the person you are asking about.
Job related question examples? What's he like to work for? Does she believe in work-life balance? Does he support his subordinates (Always ask for examples vs. yes/no).
Regarding the invasion of privacy question: as long as the questions are job related, no candidate should have a problem giving their ok. And one should get that ok before proceeding .
HG, Toronto: Michael, last week I said something quite uncharitable about a colleague, certainly something that I would never in a million years have said to her face. I think she might have overheard, but I'm not sure. She is actually a fairly influential person around our company.
How bad is it, career-wise, to get a reputation as a gossip? Would you hire someone who was an excellent worker, but had a reputation for being indiscreet?
Michael Stern: … and from my "One Word Changes Everything Department" - the word is "consistently." Yes, everyone gossips and "mis-speaks" from time to time. But you won't get a "reputation as a gossip" unless you gossip consistently and, I might add, indiscreetly.
And to your question "How bad is it…?". It's bad! Most work involves communication and collaboration with others. For that to work there must be trust. Having a reputation as a gossip kills trust - and all the benefits that go with it.
Virginia Galt: Michael, we're pretty much out of time. Thank you so much for joining us today. Any final thoughts on the perils of gossiping about the boss -- or, at least the perils of getting caught gossiping about the boss?
Michael Stern: At the end of the day, I guess it is about getting caught, isn't it? Still, most people are fair and wouldn't want to knowingly do something to hurt another person. It's just that sometimes one's better judgement takes a holiday. Closing thought? Be careful. Companies want to hire team players. A reputation as a gossip is a tough one to live down. And it can be career limiting.
Thanks to all of you who took the time to participate in the conversation, and to all of you reading the exchange on line. I've enjoyed chatting with you.