Dilemma of the Month: My Boss Gossips

Back Q&A Jan 12, 2017 By Suzanne Lucas

My boss is a gossiper. She gossips to me about a team member of mine. I’ve worked at this company for two years. The first year it wasn’t bad, but she gradually started to say negative things to me about my colleague. The sad part is I believed all this stuff at first. As I started to hear more, I couldn’t handle it. I told HR the truth and was advised to speak with my boss’s immediate boss. He said it was inappropriate and he would address it with her without mentioning any names. Our team includes only four people, and I feel my boss will know who complained. Do you think this was the right move on my part or should I have not done anything at all?

You did the right thing. A little bit of gossip exists in all companies, and most of it is harmless, but what your boss was doing was not harmless. It was destructive, not only for your department but to the entire company. Your boss isn’t sharing harmless chit-chat like, “Did you hear that Jane has a new boyfriend?” — she is engaging in destructive gossip. (Although let it be known, even the “Did you hear Jane has a new boyfriend” kind of gossip can be divisive.)

The problem is, doing the right thing isn’t always easy and, contrary to what your elementary school teacher probably said, doing the right thing doesn’t always turn out the right way. Ratting out your boss, which is a harsh expression for what you did, can often end badly. A poor HR manager will chastise you or tell your boss what was said. It sounds, though, like you’ve got a good HR manager: She directed you to your boss’s boss, and that’s what needed to happen.

Why does he need to take care of this and not the HR manager herself? Because HR’s job is to advise while management’s job is to manage. She can help your boss’s boss deal with this problem person, but she doesn’t have any power herself. There are some management models where HR does have this power, but it’s a bad model. Managers should manage; HR should advise.

In your case, it looks like there is good management. When you took the issue to the big boss, he listened and thanked you for telling him. As for your boss finding out it was you that complained — well, with only four direct reports it makes sense that she’d be able to figure it out. The important part, in your case, is that the big boss is going to handle the issue.

So, if I was the big boss, I’d tell your manager that her gossiping is going to stop right then and there; she should never talk negatively about one of her staff members to another staff member, and that if she had a problem she can’t solve herself, she should take it to HR or to me. And I would further advise her that if any of her staff suffer negative consequences from telling me, she’d face my wrath.

I trust your boss’s boss will do the same or similar. It’s what a good manager does. And it’s also possible your boss will realize she was being stupid and change her ways. I say this because oftentimes managers are given no training and are continuing their individual contributor habits (not that individual contributors should gossip either). It takes a mentor to explain what is and is not appropriate for a manager to do.

As for you, if your manager tries to tell you bad things about your coworker say, “I really like Jane and don’t wish to hear anything negative about her.” Every time. Don’t indulge even for a minute. Gossip is only fun when someone listens, so just don’t. Practice: “I really like Jane and I don’t wish to hear anything negative about her.” If necessary, you can follow up with, “Is there a work task I need to do in connection with this? If so, can you tell me my new assignment.”

Overall, it sounds like you’ve got good company support and hopefully your boss will reform and you won’t need to worry about gossip anymore. And let it be a lesson for you: Someday you might be the manager, and you’ll know you should not bring problems to people’s peers. 


Visitor (not verified)January 13, 2017 - 12:07pm

That's a weird perspective. Why would a manager gossip as a means of "getting even" with someone? Don't they have the power to do it directly?

My recent experience is just the opposite. I hired on with a medium-size company and was there just over 3 months. My boss and colleagues liked me; I had two performance reviews, glowingly positive; and three days after the last one, I'm called in to HR and fired without warning. All they would say about why is "you were in a probationary period and we don't think you fit in." No chance to ask any questions or even discover whose idea the firing was.

The thing is, this company touts its culture as not having any of the kind of gossip, cliques, or backstabbing that goes on at other companies. I believe my experience shows it does -- we peons just don't get to participate in them. In other words, the "no gossip" rule seems to exist to protect the inner circle from having anybody find out how capriciously they're willing to screw people over. I wasn't even close to being the only person fired that month.

Victoria S (not verified)January 15, 2017 - 3:19pm

You did good. It will be quiet for awhile and a little tense maybe. Chances are she does not realize how bad her gossip had gotten.

Ellen Parisi (not verified)January 16, 2017 - 7:42am

My recommendation to new hires is if they are approached by anyone that is gossiping to stop the person immediately and politely say "You know, I can't help you with that. You should talk to your manager or contact HR."

MEM (not verified)January 23, 2017 - 11:40am

Here's a thought to assuage your concerns, LW. Will boss know it was you who told about the gossiping? It could be any of your coworkers she's gossiping to about you.

Visitor (not verified)July 10, 2017 - 1:45pm

I am an HR Specialist for my company and it has been a challenging position. My Boss is the one person who starts the gossip. You cannot go to her for support or say anything in confidence because she will go to that person immediately and say, "HR just told me you...". It's just sad that your own boss is the one person who brings such negative energy into the building and there is no one else anyone can go to aside from the owner and he believes anything she tells him. She believes you cannot be nice around here and get things done. Everyone stays clear of her, takes her wrath and there is nothing any one of us can do about it. What I know and have learned about HR does not apply here.

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