I have always maintained that I could get anyone in an organization fired just by placing the right hints in the right ears.  It’s so easy to ruin someone’s career and reputation.  In my many years in HR, I have seen this kind of backbiting, gossip and hurtful behavior more times than I want to recall.

Why do we do this?  Why do we speak badly about our co-workers?  Are we that insecure?  Does it elevate our position in the organization if we diss someone else?

Here’s a good example:  A salesperson gets a call from a client and the client is angry that he has not received the information he requested.  Without checking the facts, the salesperson sends a scathing e-mail to the person who was supposed to provide the information and he copies her boss, his boss and the CEO of the company.  It turns out that the employee did send the information in a timely manner but the recipient had not checked his e-mail.  The employee is extremely upset because she is new.  She says, “they don’t know me that well so they will assume I didn’t do what I was supposed to and that I am incompetent.”   She crafts an email in response and does not even receive an apology from the salesperson.    It’s like when a newspaper has a hot, juicy headline story.  When the facts finally come out that refute the story, they are buried on page 20.   Why wouldn’t the salesperson first contact the alleged and say, “Gee, the client was so upset.  Did you not forward the information?”  This would create opportunity for the new employee to clarify and end confusion.

There are a couple of occasions when it is appropriate to report the behavior of a co-worker.  Are they doing something illegal or unethical?   Are they doing something or not doing something that affects your work?  Try approaching them first to see if you can work it out one on one.   If private communication is a dead end, then tell your colleague you may have to get the boss involved if a resolution can’t be reached.

And Mr./Ms. Manager, what can you do to stop this kind of behavior in your group?  And yes, you do control what happens in that regard.   You define what’s appropriate to report and what is not.  You let them know that gossip or tattling is not acceptable and they will quit coming to you.   Again, you define what you want to hear and what you don’t.  A good approach might be to put that “reporter” in charge of helping the employee correct the problem.  You want to create a teamwork environment rather than one that is so competitive that you have employees stabbing each other in the back to get ahead.  Careless whispers can be stopped. You, as the manager, set the tone.