Rumor Mill at Work

It sometimes seems like it will never stop – in high school there were whispers and notes passed and maybe outright words said to you. In college it may have felt less… life threatening, but then you go to work. And you just can’t shake the feeling that people are talking about you.

That they are spreading rumors about you.

That you are the talk of the town.

It’s not a good feeling – in fact, it brings up all of the insecurities from our younger days. Why are they talking about me? Why don’t they like me? What did I do? Am I not good enough?

Doubt has officially crept in and getting quality work done seems almost impossible.

I usually get an inquiry email for coaching asking me if I can “help them deal with rumors being spread about them at work.”

Of course rumors to me means something aghast – so I think the worse. Did something inappropriate happen at the holiday party? Was there a scandal?

How bad is it really?

Luckily, it doesn’t tend to end up being one of those things above. I am no Olivia Pope. Most of the concerns start something like this:

  • Something just feels off
  • I am not invited to go to lunch any more
  • It seems like every time I walk into the room people stop talking

Most rumor-spreading scenarios are less… dramatic on the surface. But they are still incredible difficult to deal with.

What to Do when You are at the Center of the Rumor Mill

1. Be objective and figure out how bad it really is

It feels bad, I know – it makes you uncomfortable, but most of the time our perception of the situation is much worse than the reality. It’s personal to you, so you are of course going to take it personally.

But find a way to be objective – ask a neutral friend, your boss (if you have that kind of relationship), or a coach. Figure out what you are actually dealing with, instead of what you think you are.

Sometimes our imagination takes over and we start filling in the gaps when nothing is there – ensure that there is something to “combat” before moving forward.

2. Does it matter?

Of course feeling uncomfortable at work isn’t awesome, but when you take a strategic approach to your career, the important question is… are the important people paying attention to the chatter? Is it becoming a hindrance to you being able to do your job?

If your boss is part of the problem, that’s a good sign that it matters (and that you have a horrible boss). Another sign is if someone in a leadership position has asked you about it, or hinted that there are issues.

However, if your only sense of a bad situation is you feeling like the target of the office gossip pool, then it is not worth your time to address – in fact, you may end up doing more harm than good.

3. Is there a way to combat the situation?

There isn’t always a way to change the perception of the situation. That’s just the hard facts – perception is something that takes not only a lot of work to change, but also a lot of time.

Depending upon the severity of the gossip, is a good starting point to determine if it’s able to be salvaged. If the gossip gets in the way of you getting assignments, being able to get work done, or trust is broken, it is going to be a long uphill battle for you to change the situation.

Not impossible. Just incredibly difficult – particularly when broken trust comes into play.

You have to make a decision and be honest with yourself – is it worth it to you?

4. Your approach will speak volumes

If you do decide to address the situation, you are going to have to fight against your natural tendencies. In other words, you cannot go into the situation accusing and blaming. It will only make the situation worse.

Instead, your rational crucial conversation skills need to kick in. Approach it from a curious perspective – ask the ringleader about what is going on. Saying something like, “It seems like there is something that I did that is causing some concern. Are you able to share what’s going on with me so I can be sure to not do it again?”

Or perhaps, “It has been brought to my attention that XX is going on – I’d really like to work it out with you. Can we discuss what happened and how we can move forward?”

Remove all accusations and blame – and instead, ask questions. Most people don’t like their faults (ahem, gossip) being pointed out, so they will either back off or explain the situation. When you call them on their bad behavior without casting blame or pointing fingers, the natural inclination is to feel bad about it – and you can usually stop things there.

But your approach is critical here – add a raised voice or a “I heard you said,” and things will turn ugly fast.

5. A word to the wise

People will talk in absence of something – maybe they need to be the center of attention, or they are super stressed out and need the release, or there is some jealousy there – or a hundred other things. It’s really up to you how you manage the situation, versus letting it get to you.

Remember, if it isn’t detrimental, rumors will pass. Make sure it’s worth the battle before getting involved.