Boss in the middleBy Joan Lloyd
I have a question about how to handle a problem between two coworkers. One of them came to me recently (I’ll call her Cheryl) because her peer shared some personal information about her. The person who shared the information (I’ll call her Patty) probably didn’t have a malicious intention but she is outgoing and chatty and she probably said it before she even realized it. In fact, I know she didn’t have a bad motive because she sent Cheryl an email about it and was making jokes about it!
In the past, Patty also has shared information about other people in the office. I told Cheryl that she shouldn’t tell Patty things she doesn’t want repeated. But in this case, Patty actually went into a company database (which is open to all—and probably shouldn’t be!) and found out her age and some other personal data.
Cheryl needs to work with Patty and has said she would give her another chance but the trust has been somewhat broken. How would you handle this? I am in a senior position in the office and I should probably say something to Patty. However, I don’t want to put a bigger wedge between them.
Patty needs to understand how her behavior is affecting her reputation. She also needs to take ownership for what she did to her peer and made amends. If she doesn’t clear the air, it will hang in the air between them and affect their relationship going forward.
And it goes without saying that the open database needs to be removed from public access or modified, so this can’t happen again.
Since Patty has sent Cheryl an email, that can be the impetus for your conversation with Patty. It is evidence about what she has done, and also indicates that she didn’t have negative intentions. I recommend a face-to-face conversation, with the desired outcome being Patty agrees to apologize to Cheryl.
You could open the conversation by letting her know you are aware of the email. The goal here is to keep defenses down by acknowledging Patty didn’t mean any harm. Also, it’s going to be important for Patty to walk in Cheryl’s shoes to realize the unintended consequences of her indiscretion.
Here are some potential questions to use in the discussion:
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to offend her, but can you put yourself in her shoes and imagine how she felt when you shared that information?”
“Cheryl values you and wants to work with you but I think you will need to clear the air. Do you agree? If I get involved it will only make the situation bigger than it needs to be. What could you say to her?”
“Since you shared this information about her to someone else, there could be a perception out there that you talk about your team members’ personal lives. I have heard little comments made in jest, but I think that may be happening. (For example, I’ve heard, ‘If you want to know anything, just ask Patty.’) Even though you may think it is just office chit chat, others may view it as crossing a line. That can damage your reputation. I know you want to be liked and trusted but people may start avoiding you or watching what they say when you are around.“
This kind of honest, caring conversation is likely to surprise Patty. She probably has no idea she is being perceived this way. The key will be to stay neutral and nonjudgmental. Keep holding up the mirror so she can see how she is hurting herself. If she has enough self-awareness to apologize, she will be well on her way to healthier relationships at work.