Ask a Boss: My Co-workers Are Gossiping About Me!

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Photo: Tim Brown

Dear Boss,

I recently learned that there’s a rumor at my office (at a company of around 250 employees) that I am involved with a male work friend of mine. This news is extremely upsetting since there is no truth to it. While we do talk quite a bit at work, it has never “crossed the line.” We’re both happily married, don’t have romantic feelings for one another … our friendship is strictly platonic. This friend and I frequently have lunch together, but always with other friends and always in the office cafeteria. We don’t do one-on-one lunches, we’ve never left the office together, etc. His wife (who doesn’t work with us) is also a close friend of mine, but I don’t think our co-workers are aware of this.

I’m perplexed as to how this rumor started since there is no evidence supporting it. I feel strange even writing this letter because the whole thing is just so ridiculous and immature.

I don’t know who started the rumor, nor does my friend. He was given a heads-up about it from another friend of his. Immediately upon hearing it, my friend went to his manager to set the record straight. He said he wants her to know the truth in case someone comes to her about it. I doubt that was the best move, but I honestly have no idea what else to do in this situation.

What can we do, if anything, to stop this rumor in its tracks? Or do we just have to wait it out and hope it goes away? I feel like my reputation is on the line, but I refuse to stop talking to a close friend at work on account of petty gossip. This news has affected my productivity level and, frankly, made it quite difficult to come to work because I’m so disturbed by it. Please help! Do we have any recourse here?

Ugh, this is so gross. It’s one thing for someone to quietly think to themselves, “Huh, it seems like Jane and Fergus are really close,” and something entirely different to spread a rumor that you’re having an affair. There are marriages and jobs and reputations involved here, and whoever started the rumor is really in the wrong.

Practically speaking, though, I think you have a few options here.

Most obviously, you can try to stop it. This can be tricky when the gossip is essentially whispers and you don’t know the source, but you have a lead: the co-worker who tipped your friend off to the rumor. You could enlist his help in figuring out where he heard it and trace it backward from there, setting the record straight with each person in the chain and appealing to their sense of right by saying something like, “I’m obviously really concerned about the impact of this on my reputation and my marriage, and I’d appreciate your help in shutting this down.”

There’s some inherent awkwardness in doing this, so you’d have to decide if you were willing to take that on. (Keep in mind, though, that people who passed along the rumor should feel far more awkward about their side of the conversation than you do.)

You could also try thinking about how you’d spread gossip if you wanted your co-workers to know something. Do you have a colleague who always seems to know the latest gossip? That person might be an effective lever to pull in spreading correct information, too. Or you might just enlist other co-workers whom you trust: Explain to them what’s going on and ask them to go forth and shut it down wherever they hear it.

A totally different option, and one that might seem counterintuitive: You can ignore it. Often when you’re at the center of something like this, it feels like you have to figure out a course of action – but sometimes you really don’t. Sometimes you can roll your eyes and decide not to care and go about your business. Of course, this isn’t always feasible; if a rumor is affecting your marriage or your reputation or the way people treat you, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. But I’d seriously consider this route if none of those things seem like likely risks.

A better course might be a modified version of ignoring it. Figure out what the risks of the rumor might be, address those directly, and then commence ignoring the rest. That might mean that your friend should tell his wife about the rumor so that it doesn’t blindside her one day, and that you follow his lead and talk to your boss about it too. I know it feels really weird to approach your boss about something like this, but a short, matter-of-fact heads-up to her will probably give you some peace of mind. You could just say, “Hey, this annoying thing is happening that I don’t think I can do much about, but I don’t want you to hear this and think there’s any truth to it.”

Which of these strategies to pick really just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. But don’t let fear of awkwardness be the thing you weight most heavily here. The situation already is awkward, through no fault of yours, so to some extent this is about choosing which type of awkwardness serves your interests the best – the type that might come with ignoring the situation or the type that might come with setting the record straight.

Dear Boss,

I’m an intern at a prominent tech company in the field I thought I wanted to go into after I graduate next spring. I’ve done research previously, but this is my first internship. I’m a few weeks in, and while I still have a couple of months left, I’m worried that I’m not going to get much out of this program or seem very impressive as a potential full-time hire.

I haven’t been assigned much work, and a lot of the work that I have been assigned I’m not really sure how to proceed with. Additionally, my manager has been in and out of the office and difficult to get a hold of. I’m paid hourly so I can’t just get my work done and leave, even if I need to wait days to hear back from my boss about something. I’ve asked him and his co-workers in my office for more, but everybody has been busy. And then I end up spending a LOT of time bored at my desk, on the internet, reading about things vaguely related to what the company does. I worry that it appears that I’m slacking off, but I am not sure what else to do.

Another aspect is that, while I don’t know if I want to work for this particular company after graduation (especially given the directionless last few weeks I’ve had), I do really want to have a good reference and the ability to talk about my contributions in interviews with other companies next year, and also put them on my résumé. Are my expectations too high? What kind of direction and/or guidance should I expect from my manager? How do you kill time in an office without seeming like it? If I’m so bored now, should I be rethinking the industry or department I want to go into? Help!

This isn’t a terribly uncommon thing with internships, even though it should be. People often bring on interns with vague ideas about what they’ll work on, without actually thinking through what those projects will be, how much time they’ll take up, and how much energy the manager will need to invest in supervising the work. In fact, I have to fess up that the first time I hired a summer intern, she finished in three weeks the list of projects that I’d thought would keep her busy the entire summer. I’m cringing looking back on it, and it definitely taught me not to hire interns without far more preparation — but yeah, it’s a thing that can happen.

That said, your expectations aren’t too high. It’s reasonable to expect that if a company hires you, they have work for you. It’s also reasonable to expect that you’ll get guidance from your manager, particularly in an internship, where the whole point is that you’re new to the workforce. So while it’s a thing that happens, it’s still a thing that shouldn’t happen, and you aren’t naïve or unrealistic for expecting that you wouldn’t be stuck watching YouTube videos all summer.

Your best chance of solving this is to schedule a meeting with your manager and talk about what’s going on. Sure, he’s not in the office much, but you can email him and say you’d like to schedule time to talk about what you should be working on. Then, in that meeting, say this: “I haven’t been assigned much work, and I’m hoping we could come up with some longer-term projects I could work on that will keep me busy much of the summer. It’s really important to me to earn a good reference here and also to come away with experience that will help me as I start to build my career. I’m not expecting glamorous work, of course; I just want to keep busy and contribute however I can.”

Ideally, this will guilt him into realizing that this has been a pretty bad internship for you so far, and he will try to remedy that. But if it doesn’t, you could try having a similar conversation with a few others in your office who seem approachable. (Don’t be intimidated by everyone seeming busy. That just means that you shouldn’t walk up to their desk and launch in, but you can email them, ask to meet, and give them a heads-up about the topic.)

Also! Try proposing your own projects. That can be a little tricky as an intern because you might not have a great vantage point yet on what would be helpful or what might be stepping on someone else’s toes, but if they’re abandoning you to your own devices, maybe there’s a problem you could try solving, a program you could write, or a project you could tackle (that they then could use or not). You’d want to run it by your boss so he can tell you if there’s some reason not to do it, but that could be as simple as “Hey, I’m going to experiment with X as a way to get some experience with this, with the understanding that it may or may not end up be something you ultimately want to use. Let me know if I shouldn’t!” Frankly, your boss is so hands-off that he might be relieved.

If none of that works, your fallback is this: a self-designed program of study for the summer. Work on coding, work on learning a new programming language, whatever makes sense in your field. That will help you stay busy without looking like you’re just slacking off, and it’ll give you something productive to describe when you talk about this internship in the future.

And don’t let this experience sour you on the whole field. This likely isn’t representative of what it would be like to work in the field full-time (witness how busy everyone else there is). This is just a terrible case of intern neglect.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.