dealing with the rumor mill when your boss might be having an affair

A reader writes:

I was recently promoted in my department and now a kind of co-leader of the department, though I do not have official management capabilities or a management title. Basically I’m a team lead, and am the go-to person after my manager, but I am not a manager myself.

Anyway, rumors have been flying around our department that my manager has been having an affair, possibly with someone in our company. From my limited perspective, I don’t know if it is true or untrue because in my opinion it’s none of my business unless it interferes with our work. However, lately this has meant that whenever my manager is away from the office, even for a little while, speculation and gossip are prime entertainment in the department. Not only is it whispered about from person to person, it is also speculated upon quite loudly, for long periods of time, and I know people outside the department can hear the conversations going on. There have even been betting pools about who is involved in the affair.

I’m very uncomfortable with these conversations being broadcasted so loudly. I feel like it makes the entire department look unprofessional and gossipy. However, since I have no real management “powers,” I don’t feel I have a right to tell anyone not to discuss it. If I did, I would likely be scoffed at. Obviously it would be a very strange thing to bring up to my manager. So I am torn. So far I’ve been discouraging these discussions by making it clear that I don’t see why it’s any of our business. But I don’t think this kind of discussion can keep happening. Is there anything more I can do?

Betting pools?!

I think that as team lead, you actually do have some standing to tell people to knock it off — and I would. The next time you hear gossip about this, say directly and firmly, “This is really none of our business, and it’s not something people should be speculating about at work.”

Frankly, you should say that even if you weren’t team lead and were a peer, but you have additional standing to say it now.

If you’re scoffed at, then you say, “I’m uncomfortable hearing this kind of speculation about someone’s personal life, and it’s creating a distracting and unprofessional environment here. Please stop.”

You can say this one-on-one to people, or you can say it to a group, but you do need to say it. If the gossip isn’t true, it’s damaging someone’s career and reputation — and if it is true, it’s certainly not something people should be spending a lot of time on at work. If someone has a serious concern about the rumor (such as that there’s abuse of power or harassment involved), then they should deal with that through official channels — not through betting pools and gossip.

Also, please seriously consider telling your manager that this is happening. That’ll be an awkward conversation — but if it’s disrupting the department and affecting her reputation, she needs to know about it. I’d say something like, “I have something awkward to bring up, and I want to say up-front that I feel really uncomfortable raising this, but I think I’m obligated to. There’s been a lot of speculation in the department recently on your personal life, and the rumor that you might be involved with someone else in the company. I want to make it clear that I don’t care one bit about your personal life, but I’m at a loss in how to handle this with the team, because it’s under such frequent discussion that it’s posing a distraction. I’ve asked people to knock it off but it’s continuing, and at this point I feel obligated to make you aware of it.”

From there, it’s in your manager’s court to deal with. But please speak up — this is obnoxious and potentially really damaging to someone who may not deserve it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Do speak up to your manager. There could be all kinds of explanations behind the suspicion and if she really isn’t having an affair, this could be really damaging to her career.

  2. EJ*

    I would definitely raise it with the manager in question. Having neen the target of my share of this sort of gossip, k gad no idea it was happening.

    Often these rumours can stem from something in the target’s behaviour that can be managed – being overly friendly with a particular person, for example, should not be a crime but often gets the gossip mill going. In one case I had a routine of grabbing coffee with a male coworker (I’m female) when I arrived in the morning. We used that time to debrief on the project we were jointly working on. We were able to these the gossip mill by inviting people along rather than going solo for a while.

    In other cases I had no idea until years later.

    1. Brooke*

      Off topic, but I just have to say that I laughed when I read the second sentence of your post… and not in a mean way. I laugh because I have so been there and typed funny things in error..usually on my cell phone.

  3. km*

    At a previous job, my boss told me in confidence that she was involved with a co-worker (they were both separated from their spouses at the time so it wasn’t quiiiite as scandalous as it could have been) and shortly after, the office rumor mill started churning fast and furious about how an unknown colleague had broken up the co-worker’s marriage. I told my boss as a heads up and it was incredibly awkward but I think she appreciated it.

  4. Yup*

    I’ve been in your position twice. Once, the rumors turned out to be true and the person’s personal life disintegrated very publicly (ugly divorce, depression), which was sad and hard to watch. Another time, the rumors were totally untrue and did serious harm to someone’s professional reputation.

    I personally wouldn’t bring it up with my boss unless we had a good working relationship and the boss seemed reasonably sane. But I’d definitely address it with coworkers. Whenever they bring it up, you can say, “Guys, I’m really not comfortable speculating about someone’s private life like that. It could really end up hurting people.” Just keep repeating some version of the same sentiment: “Please stop, I really don’t like this kind of thing at work,” or “I’m not comfortable talking about my boss like that,” or “I wouldn’t want anyone to say that kind of stuff about me.” You may need to discreetly leave the lunch room or the water cooler from time to time until people get the message, but I recommend putting plenty of distance between yourself and the toxic talk. It tends to get out of hand quickly.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, absolutely. I might even go full-on schoolmarm: “Have you thought about how this could harm her reputation if it’s not true, or even if it is?” “Have you considered the damage you’re doing to her by openly speculating about this?” Etc.

  5. Anony*

    I’ve had this conversation with my Boss. I went to a poker game with a bunch of work people and they engaged in a lot of gossip about him and another manager.

    I did go talk to him, I made it a seperate 1 off conversation (not part of my 1:1) and said something like “I want to be clear, I don’t want to have this conversation, the topic doesn’t interest me at all, I don’t know anything, I don’t want to know anything, and I didn’t participate in the gossip, but I went to a poker game this weekend and there was a lot of gossip regarding you and XYZ. I really don’t want to go into further details, but i thought you had a right to know.” He thanked me for the feedback and said he has heard some rumors as well. It did not damage our relationship at all.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If anything, with a good boss it can even improve the relationship — it sends the message, “I’m on your side” (in general, not in terms of the gossip).

  6. Karen*

    Not that it should matter, but he/she has been allegedly having an affair, but no one has a strong inkling who it’s with? This reeks of idle gossip.

    Coming from a workplace where rumors run rampant (more have been untrue than true), I say tell your boss. If all that’s sparking the rumors is your boss being friendly with a certain person, or leaving work early some days, etc, at least they can change the behavior to slow the speculation. It shouldn’t be necessary, but when people have nothing to do but gossip, sometimes you need to alter your behavior.

  7. Anonymous*

    I know I’m going to be in the minority, but I just say let it go. First off, you are never going to stop office gossip. Whether its something like this, or someone just shit talking someone else, that is (unfortunately) a normal part of what happens when there is a large group of people spending lots of time together. Now, if you really think it is affecting the work that is getting done thats one thing. But if its just because you don’t like being exposed to that, I think its just something you should ignore.

    Telling the manager who is the subject of this, could make things more awkward if they decide to address it with the group. That will just make it a place that is uncomfortable for everyone because people will know there is a rat among your group who runs to the manager with things. I know from experience that is bad, and it ruins any trust there may be in the group.

    1. Anonymous*

      I also agree with this. Most of the time we’ve had rumors, they’ve been true enough. How awkward is that?

        1. Anonymous*

          There are probably a lot of conversations in the office people shouldn’t be spending time on, but unless you are going to police them all, I think its futile

          1. -X-*

            “unless you are going to police them all, I think its futile”

            You don’t have to police them all to stop the most egregious ones. And conversations about other people in the office are inherently worse than, say, wasting the same amount of time talking about knitting or football or the weather.

  8. Elizabeth*

    As uncomfortable and awkward as it will feel, please tell your boss.

    I’ve been the subject of these rumors a couple times. The first time, it was while we were doing a facility-wide education push on a major federal regulation for our industry, and I taught a lot of the classes. I wasn’t new to the facility by any stretch, but I was a new face to many of the clinical staff. And, my boss at the time was new to the facility. I also had a good working relationship with him, and we were friendly. The combination led to some very ugly rumors floating around that didn’t go away until he left a few months later.

    A couple years later, my husband’s assistant lived next door to us. My husband had left for work, and I was getting ready to leave. But, the car wouldn’t start. I knocked on his assistant’s door and asked if he could drop me off. No problem, he said. He took me to work, I thanked him, and I went into work thinking nothing more of it. I didn’t realize that several people had been walking by.

    About 3 hours later, another friend came into my office. He worked across the street, and he’d heard about the “hot young guy” that I was obviously getting it on with in the parking lot from no less than 3 people. I thanked him for letting me know that the gossip grapevine was obviously alive & well, and I set him straight. He went back to the people who had told him and set them straight, and so on.

    If I hadn’t been told what was going on, there was no way I could ever put a stop to the rumors.

    1. Anonymous*

      Your second story is especially scary – how a rumor like that can get to an office across the street (!) in a matter of hours. Good thing your friend was watching out for you!

    2. AgilePhalanges*

      This is an old thread, but I still have to comment to say HOW GLAD I am that my workplace isn’t anything like this. I’ve asked a male (I’m female) co-worker for rides to/from the mechanic before when I had to leave my car there all day (the shop is on his usual route between home and work), I currently frequently carpool to Toastmasters with a male co-worker (he carpools into work with a different female co-worker (SCANDAL!) so doesn’t have a car here), and have been at the office at the beginning or end of the day all alone in the building with a male co-worker (various ones over the years).

      Oh, and I’ve even gone on a multi-day business trip with my boss at the time, who is a man. Rode alone with him in the car, ate in restaurants together, walked down the hotel hallway together until we reached our separate but side-by-side rooms… Honestly, he is probably the second-from-last person on the planet I would ever want to have physical contact with, so it actually ooged me out a bit, but it was completely professional, and normal in the course of a business trip.

      My current boss is male, and I fully expect there will be a business trip in our future in which we are the only two traveling from this location to another.

      I must be a downright slut according to the workplace gossips I’m reading about on here. (And no, noting remotely sinister or titillating has happened between me and any co-worker, ever.)

      I mean, seriously. There are so many potential INNOCENT occasions with legitimate business purposes that can cause someone to be alone with someone of the opposite sex (not to mention the fact that the opposite sex isn’t what every person is interested in for non-innocent purposes). Closed-door meetings, car-pooling to off-site meetings, business travel, etc. And that’s without considering non-work-related reasons such as a ride to the mechanic I mention above, or just actually enjoying each other’s company in a completely platonic way. Sheesh.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    I am not sure of the particulars of your setting, OP. Perhaps a candid conversation is just not doable right now.
    I think you could take a specific and go to a general setting.
    “Boss, what is the company policy or practice regarding rumor mill type things that could ruin a person’s reputation?”
    “What do I do if I feel that the focus on the rumor mill replacing the focus on the work at hand?”

    In some situations- probably not yours – the rumor mill can be linked to bullying, harassment, etc. If you have an HR, they should be interested in doing something.

    To be honest with you- I would not try to do this one myself. I would see if HR or some Higher Authority could send out a reminder to all about rumors/gossip is bad for business. After that reminder is sent out- then you can point to it as needed: “Oh we shouldn’t be talking about that stuff. HR just sent out a memo about that type of talk. We need to be careful what we say about each other.”
    I am saying this because I have tried to be that person who shuts down gossip. All that happened was they quit telling ME. They persisted in keeping each other filled in. (At least I had less stress, but that was not the point.) You want to spread this out so it seems like many ears are listening- not just yours.

  10. EM*

    What drives me nuts is the implication in all of this that coworkers of opposite gender (or same if they’re gay) can’t be friends without it being a coverup for a steamy love affair. There were similar rumors going around about a man and a woman at an old job. I saw them having coffee together and I assumed they were friends. Apparently everyone else assumed they were “getting it on” on the side.

    1. Ry*

      Ugh, exactly this. It’s reductive and kind of insulting when someone assumes that everyone either is sleeping with each other or wants to.

    2. AgilePhalanges*

      Good point. People who are conducting workplace affairs probably generally try to keep it pretty clandestine (though I’m sure there are exceptions), possibly even going out of their way NOT to associate with the other person in the office, be seen as showing favoritism, etc. Therefore, it’s safe to say that in the vast majority of instances of two co-workers being friendly in or out of the office, it’s probably because they are just that…friendly. Either actual friends, or just simply nice to people they have to work with.

  11. Marie*

    I have personal experience with this kind of ugliness. Years ago, when I was married, I worked with a fellow who was not my direct supervisor, but a supervisor — we didn’t cross paths much, but had a basic work relationship.

    I left the company (for other reasons) and, a few months later, separated from my husband. I was in the process of a divorce when I reconnected with this fellow and we started dating. He had recently been promoted, and one of the people he was promoted over went around telling everybody in the company that he was having an affair with a married woman who was his subordinate. There was just enough truth to it (I was technically still married, and I had been sort of his subordinate) that the accusations stuck, and he started getting a chilly reception from his employees, as well as snide “that’s what she said” type side comments.

    He had no idea what was going on. Finally, one of the employees brought this to his attention. She actually thought the rumors were true, but she still felt he should know about them and have a chance to put a stop to the malicious gossip, since she could see it was hurting his career. He told her what the situation was, then he spoke to his boss and HR about it.

    Unfortunately, this was a pretty bad company; HR interrogated him extensively and inappropriately about our “affair,” because, in their words, “if the rumors are true, we’re not going to try to stop them.” They even attempted to get my new number out of him so they could call me for questioning. He left the company (and is much happier now!).

    Everything your coworkers are saying might be true, but it doesn’t matter at all — spreading rumors like this is extremely damaging to a person’s professional career, and contributes to an ugly work environment. I wouldn’t be able to trust coworkers who gossip like that, because as far as I know, they’re gossiping about me as soon as I leave the room. I hope you let your boss know, and I definitely hope you tell your coworkers this is gross and childish behavior.

  12. Rana*

    It’s also not only bad in terms of your manager’s reputation, but the reputation – and work environment – of the various people who are being named in those betting pools.

    If I heard that people were betting as to whether I was having an affair with someone, I would be utterly mortified, and I can’t imagine that this doesn’t fall under some form of hostile work environment. I mean, these people are betting on their colleagues’ sex lives, which is beyond skeevy. On those grounds alone HR should be putting the kibosh on this crap.

  13. Pickles*

    Two thoughts:

    One, don’t go to HR with unfounded accusations. I’d be careful there. What if, for instance, your boss is divorced and didn’t tell anyone, thinking it a private matter? Additionally, “someone in our company” doesn’t indicate an inappropriate (manager/subordinate) relationship immediately, so that’s another reason for caution. I’d bring it up with your boss directly.

    Two, there are a lot of team leads in my organization. Each department handles it slightly differently, but generally, team leads are told when they overstep their boundaries. You actually may have some freedom here to set your own limits and boundaries. So…step up and consider it your first post-promotional challenge!

  14. Anonymous*

    I have several thoughts on this one, and my opinions on this are strong, having been put in your boss’s situation myself.

    First of all, unless the 3rd party is someone that reports to the manager, or that the manager reports to, I would imagine (regardless or whether or not anyone is married) that it doesn’t violate any company policy, and therefore should not be officially reported.

    Secondly, I do agree that you should tell the manager. I had no idea that someone was spreading these kinds of rumors about me, and was thankful when someone told me, so that I could also address them on my own.

    Lastly, it seems as though the company trusts your leadership abilities enough to put you in a leadership role. In this case, it seems they were right on target–your feelings on this being unprofessional and wanting to address it are signs of good leadership instincts (IMHO). And as such (and even if you weren’t “officially” a designated leader), you are completely justified in addressing it. I would be sure to strongly and directly (just as Allison said) address it when they are in the midst of the conversation. In my opinion, waiting until its over or addressing it 1:1 with people later allows the opportunity for them to use the he-said/she-said defense. Addressing it strongly to the group in real-time makes a very clear point. Also, if it were me, I would bring up how it makes them appear (petty, unprofessional, immature, etc) to others in the company.

  15. Ry*

    I would try to address the rumors with my coworkers, not the manager, if this were me. When another person’s behavior in the workplace makes me uncomfortable, I find it’s easier to address if I pretend it’s all about me. It might be satisfying to say, “Hey, you jerks, stop being jerks” (though it doesn’t sound like you’d actually say that, OP!). It might be less aggressive or more polite to say, “I’m not into this topic; could you please keep it out of the office?”

    If you can’t get them to stop, and if you respect the manager in question, please do talk to the manager, as awkward as that would be. S/he deserves to know – just make sure it’s clear that you are not interested in the veracity of the gossip (that is, you’re not saying, “I heard this rumor, is it true?” but “this gossip isn’t cool and the truth is your business”).

  16. OP*

    Hi all and hi AAM, thank you so much for all the advice. I’ll have to keep this short as I’m on vacation (hooray Cabo!) and typing on an iPad but I really appreciate everyones thoughts on this.

    I am going to do suggested and both have a quiet talk with my manager telling her about the rumors so she can work to stop them and I will be telling my coworkers when they bring it up that it isn’t a conversation that is appropriate. It may be that they simply stop having the conversation when I’m around but due to how our office is laid out at least that means they essentially would stop discussing it at work at all.

    I will defintely write in with an update, too!

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