Some amount of gossip is par for the course in every workplace, but how much is too much – and what do you do when it is? Fix It Or Forget It? See what Virgil* and Zola* did when it became too much for them on the job.
Virgil* had begun his position with a new company several months ago and felt he was getting to know his job and the company and people pretty well so far. He welcomed the opportunity to attend the upcoming social function for spouses and dates, in a more informal setting.
He was unprepared for the reaction from his co-workers when people saw that his wife was in a wheelchair, however.
“Of course, people are always a bit surprised or taken aback,” Virgil explained. “We’re both used to that. But the response we got – all night long – was really out of line. It was as though there were no adults there!”
People’s reactions ranged from outright avoidance to overcompensation, such as condescension, or talking around Virgil’s wife, as though she wasn’t there. (“And what would she like to drink?”)
Unfortunately, this type to treatment continued after the event was over – directed at Virgil, in the office. People tending to swing to one extreme or the other: either they went to great lengths to avoid him at all costs, or even those he didn’t really work with much at all found reasons to lavish heavy praise upon him for any effort whatsoever.
“If I handed someone their printing off of the copier,” Virgil explains, “They acted as though I had done something magnanimous! It was obvious this was really about them expressing some deep admiration for my ‘sacrifice’ at having a handicapped wife instead. I never asked for anyone’s pity, admiration or avoidance.”
There was also a buzz that started around the office, implying that Virgil must secretly be ashamed of his wife, he later learned. It had to do with the fact that he had no photos of her displayed in his office. Speculation went wild. This was the last straw for Virgil, and he contacted me about starting a job search.
“I’m not one to put up diplomas, trophies or photos in my office,” Virgil explained. “I’ve never really adorned the workplace with many personal touches, but some people seemed to interpret this as my being ashamed of my wife somehow, once they met her.”
“I have photos of her on my phone if I want to look at her during the day – that’s all I’ve ever needed. Why should I change my routine for petty people?”
Virgil decided to Forget It! and we began his job search immediately.
“My relationship with my wife is more important, and I refuse to explain myself to people who have nothing better to do than gossip and speculate all day long,” Virgil said.
Zola* managed the data processing unit of the membership department at her nonprofit, and recently shared an experience that caused her to re-examine a common practice among her team.
On a monthly basis, she attends meetings of department heads, where status reports are given, quarterly projections made, troubleshooting discussed, etc., from each department. Although her reports for her department are fairly short, factual, and to the point, one specific department changed its reporting style when a new director recently came on board.
This particular manager, in charge of major gifts, felt the need to elaborate about recent donor visits to the point that Zola felt was beyond bragging about obtaining contributions and ventured into personal attacks, almost.
He seemed to enjoy depicting individuals’ personal attributes – often in various disparaging ways, such as their poor choices in clothes, home furnishings, hairstyles, cars, accents, etc. – as he told how he “won them over in the end.”
“I felt as though I was attending some type of reality tv show, rather than a staff meeting,” Zola said. “It seemed very disrespectful to our donors that he would speak about them in this way, when he obviously wasn’t during the visit.”
Not only did other department heads seem to enjoy the fodder, but the Executive Director clearly didn’t mind the meetings taking this direction, either, so Zola really couldn’t control this, she realized.
“It did make me take a harder look at myself and how I ran my department, though,” Zola said.
One “game” people in data processing began playing a few years ago was find the silliest nickname, and whenever a staff member would come across a nickname deemed odd, silly or unusual, s/he would call it out, and start a contest for the week, attempting to see who could “beat” that name for “silliness.”
“I decided that this was really a lesser version of what I was hearing at the staff meetings, and explained why we shouldn’t be making fun of the people who support the organization, our mission and, ultimately, us,” Zola said. “It took a while, and I think the ‘contest’ went on for a bit behind my back, but I felt better knowing that I took steps to Fix It! by setting a more professional tone in my department.”
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
— Rita Mae Brown