We don’t often talk about employee relations — so let’s do it more. A troubled reader submitted this:

How do you get people to stop making negative comments about other employees? I worked for a company last year and had several employees on my project who I discovered were trashing others — and they were really going after one employee in particular. I feel that these individuals are really doing damage as their actions could not only put the company in jeopardy of being sued but will also (and unfairly) hurt others’ chances of getting re-employed. (There has been a layoff at this firm).

Is making an example of a few of them the best way to handle the situation? What about company policy? Can that be used as a tool to get employees to understand that making negative comments about former and current employees will not be tolerated?

Some HR departments are so busy perusing job boards that they seem to have no time for their employees. Who is going to reprimand the bad dog?

Have you taken this to HR? Filed an anonymous complaint? Dropped a line on the culprits? Nothing changes unless someone acts. You can’t just wonder what to do next. First, follow policy and file a complaint with HR. Second, go around the structure (HR) and go directly to management. If you wonder whether it’s the right thing to do, ask yourself, If I were running this company, would I want to know?

If you believe your management does not want to know, either live with it or move on.

Let’s open this up. What should this troubled employee do?

  1. This kind of social dynamic is of course hardly restricted to the workplace. Anyone who’s made it through high school will recognize it.

    There’s no reason to make your first reaction a referral to HR. Team dynamics are a management responsibility. The correspondent doesn’t say whether they were the manager, or a co-worker, but the initial response needn’t be that different.

    First: is there a legitimate problem with the employee? If so, then counsel, coach and get it rectified.

    Second: model good behaviour. Treat the employee in a friendly, supportive manner that shows that you value their work, and them as an employee.

    Third: reinforce with the complaining employees that they are colleagues, and are expected to work together professionally. Shut down any pointless bitching that happens in your presence.

    If the social cues don’t work out, then you can go with a policy-based response including formal counseling and eventually discipline for the whiners.

    The root problem: whoever was managing this team wasn’t managing.

  2. At my last place of employment there was a lot of misinformation being spread by an employee. Being the new guy on the job I didn’t want to rock the boat at first, but things were getting so bad that eventually I sat down with management and let them know about the situation. I knew that if I was in management I would want to know if an employee is blowing smoke. Unfortunately management did not seem to want to hear nor verify my findings, to my surprise as up til then I had thought them to be fairly smart, and I suspect the meeting may even have had a play in my layoff the following week. I have decided that at my next place of employment I will ignore such things unless I am in a place to actively do something about it, and not just alert someone to the situation.

  3. Sodeguruma,

    I agree that this was a failure of management. But from the perspective of an employee who is concerned about the problem, notifying HR anonymously is a good idea because it puts the roblem on the record with a date attached to it. Too often I’ve seen situations like Jeffrey Land points out — management doesn’t correct the problem. HR has an obligation to look into such matters, and it is in fact HR’s role to attend to them. Leaving HR out of the process is a mistake, in my opinion. The legal implications of management’s failure to give proper notice of the problem to HR are significant. The company has exposure.

    Consider Land’s new position: He’s not going to do anything about such problems until he has authority to deal with them. I can’t say I blame him, but if management’s failure to deal with a problem makes other employees sit quietly doing nothing, what does that do for the company as a whole?

    The purpose of HR is to manage human resources. This is clear case needing such management.

  4. First, I’m not a lawyer. If there are real and present legal concerns the writer may wish to contact an attorney in his or her state. Laws on matters of this nature can vary widely by state. So, for example, behavior toward colleagues and employees that is perfectly legal in Texas might be a major offense in California or New York.

    Disclaimers aside, there are a couple of considerations – is this verbal disparagement or is it in writing? If it’s verbal and there are no witnesses, the anonymous tip to HR is going to get investigated, but it’s going to be difficult to act on the investigation or discover anything of substance. In fact, the anonymous report in itself could be perceived as a dig on the employee(s) who made the disparaging comments. I presume that there are witnesses since it was a project team, but I find people often say “they” when they mean “he or she with others present.”

    If the comments were in fact damaging to a person’s career, reputation or emotional well-being; slander laws might apply. If the comments were made repeatedly, there is the chance that a hostile work environment was created. Check your company’s policy on harassment and, again, be aware that some states are more employer and some states are more pro employee in matters of this nature.

    That’s all the official stuff… I believe you are right on target with the statement asking whether or not management would want to know or be willing to do anything about it. I have a little variation on that. Did the writer tell the alleged slanderers (ok, I think I just made up a word – work with me though) that their conduct made him/her uncomfortable? I’m not suggesting that anyone is being childish — I just think the link below is kind of funny and it makes a point. We all have power to influence the behavior of those around us. We just have to use our words. If that doesn’t work…. well, tell HR (or get a lawyer)!!!!!