Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Overheard Me Bad-mouthing Her!

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Photo: Barbara Freeman/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I talked badly about a co-worker behind their back and unbeknownst to me, she overheard and now I feel terrible.

I was complaining about her work ethic, and the co-worker I was complaining to had the same complaints. It was things like “She’s done that to you? OMG, she has done that to me too, I had to carry the entire load on this project and she did nothing,” etc.

The person we were talking about normally works until 3 p.m., so we thought she was gone. It was 6 p.m. and the office was empty (we thought). She sits in a cubicle diagonal to my co-worker’s cubicle, where we were when we were venting unkindly. We heard a giant ruffle of papers from there and both of us fell quiet and then a few minutes later, she walked by us to the sign-out sheet.

We tried to make small talk about looking for candy because we all felt awkward, and she sweetly offered us Snickers that she said she had at her desk. It was a nice gesture that she probably made even though she heard us. I don’t know how much she heard, but the worst-case scenario is terrible and the best-case scenario is still not nice.

I’m so ashamed and embarrassed and yet still not sure what to do. One part of me feels like the complaints are very justified; this person has an awful work ethic and it’s very frustrating to work with her. But another part of me feels I violated my own value system because I’m not normally a person who talks about anyone. Even in high school, where I was not popular, I overheard one of the popular kids saying they would trust lowly me because I had a reputation for never talking badly about anyone. It’s been a lifelong value I’m proud of so it took a little digging to find out why I violated my own boundary. It’s because this person’s egregious behavior over the years has worn away at me and I’m angry. (Everyone on the team is irritated by this; it’s been noticed by all of us.)

I don’t want to feel this way, though — it pulls at me, especially because this co-worker considers me a friend and ally and sits next to me at meetings. I must look very two-faced by being nice to her in person while secretly harboring judgments and resentment, but I don’t know how to be frosty or honest. Part of me doesn’t want it to be my job to address her performance issues with her (management knows), so I am reluctant to explain myself, but it’s mean and immature to gossip and I don’t know how to handle this. What is the right thing to do here? Do I apologize and tell her why I complained, or do I keep quiet?

Ooof. I think all of us who have ever talked behind someone’s back are cringing in sympathy right now.

The reality is that most of us do occasionally vent about people who annoy us. I’m not even sure that’s intrinsically a bad thing; when we’re frustrated or upset or demoralized, there’s value in seeking out a connection with another person and talking through the thing that’s bugging us. Obviously, this can go too far, like if you’re being petty or mean-spirited, or if the venting becomes so frequent that it keeps you mired in negativity (as prolonged venting has a way of doing), or if you don’t consider whether you’re truly in private (ahem). But sometimes venting is a way of better understanding and coping with a frustration.

So one question for you before you do much more self-flagellation is whether you were really just gossiping and being unkind, or whether there was anything constructive about your conversation. You were speaking critically of a co-worker, yes, but you were also talking about something that’s a legitimate work problem.

That doesn’t change the fact that you were overheard by the last person you would have wanted to hear you. But it might help you stop beating yourself up quite so much.

As for what to do now … Well, you can say something to your co-worker or you can not say something, so let’s look at both of those options.

Saying something feels to me like the right thing to do. It’s taking responsibility for what happened, and it’s stopping an awkward thing from festering unaddressed. Things will be awkward in a different way if you address it, of course, but discomfort in the service of owning up to something is usually better than the discomfort of just pretending it didn’t happen.

If you do decide to say something, you could approach it this way: “I want to apologize to you. I think you may have overheard a conversation the other day where I was complaining about some projects you were involved in. I was blowing off steam, but it’s no excuse. The reality is, I’ve been frustrated when we’ve worked on projects together and I felt that I ended up with more than my share of the work. But I should have talked with you directly about my frustrations rather than talk to someone else about it.”

Of course, the downside to doing that is that you’re not 100 percent sure if she really heard you or not. If you apologize to her and it turns out that she didn’t hear you after all, now you’ll have made things awkward for her when they didn’t need to be.

But either way, maybe there’s some value in being transparent with her that her work habits have caused problems for you. I hear you that it’s not your job to address her performance issues — and it’s not — but since your management apparently isn’t acting (or isn’t acting very quickly), there’s no reason that you can’t say, “Hey, this impacts me.” In fact, that’s especially true because you mentioned that this co-worker sees you as a friend and an ally. Given that, it’s arguably more unkind to keep her in the dark about how frustrated you are with her.

The other option is not to say anything and just let it go. I’m not a big fan of this route when you may have hurt someone. In theory, you could argue that if your co-worker willfully shirks work and leaves others to pick up her slack, she shouldn’t be shocked if people are unhappy with her. And maybe if relations between the two of you were already chilly, that would justify just letting this go and moving forward without addressing it with her. But in a context where she thinks of you as a friend, I think it’s probably cruel.

So that leaves you with needing to say something. It’s not going to be a fun conversation, but I think you’ll feel relieved after you have it — and frankly, I think your current sense of shame and mortification are nudging you to do it.

It’s even possible that you both might come out the better for it, if it pushes you to address the problems she’s caused you and it gets her to hear that her work habits are hurting people she likes.

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