when a coworker calls your family to say you’re in trouble at work

A reader writes:

A coworker of mine, “Sally,” recently got called into HR for something. Another coworker, “Betsy,” knew that Sally was going to get called into HR. Betsy is friends with Sally’s sister, so while Sally was in HR, Betsy called the sister. Betsy told the sister that Sally was going to get put on administrative leave and then fired. Betsy approached it as “I’m concerned about Sally and wanted you to know,” but I know Betsy well enough to know that she wanted to dish on the gossip — even if it was bad news.

Sally didn’t get fired or put on leave. She did get written up, but now she’s humiliated because her family found out about the work situation. Sally probably wouldn’t have told them about the write-up and if she had been fired, she would have wanted to break the news to them in her own way and timing. I agree with Sally. I think it was completely unprofessional of Betsy to make that call and a violation of Sally’s privacy. Sally wants to take the complaint to HR, but she thinks since she already has a write-up in her file, it will either be ignored or will reflect poorly on her.

Do you have any advice on if she should talk to HR about this and if so, how she can do so without looking like she is trying to get revenge?

No, Sally should not talk to HR about this.

Obviously Betsy was way out of line in calling Sally’s family, but this isn’t something for HR to handle; it’s an issue between Sally and Betsy, and if Sally wants to address it, she should talk directly to Betsy about it.

HR isn’t there to mediate personal disputes. They’re there to deal with business issues, and this really isn’t one. If Sally goes to HR, she will look like she can’t maturely handle interpersonal relationships and conflict on her own. and she’ll look naive for expecting HR to intervene in a personal issue.

The only exception to this is if Betsy had this information about Sally through some professional capacity — for instance, if she’s Sally’s manager or in another management or HR role that required her to have access to this information. If that’s the case, then yes, her own manager should talk to her about how to handle confidential information — and she should be taken to task for mishandling it. That would be a big deal.

But if she didn’t get the information through official channels because of her job and instead just heard about what was happening through the grapevine, then this is between Sally and Betsy to handle themselves.

{ 82 comments… read them below }

    1. John B Public*

      Yup. But I’d do two things in addition to avoiding her:

      1. I’d talk to her, and inform her that her actions were unprofessional and could be considered slander, and that I’d appreciate any future gossip she might have heard about me NOT be repeated, or I’d have to consider taking additional steps, and

      2. I’d speak to her manager about her drastically unprofessional behavior, and that while I have informed her that it wasn’t acceptable, s/he should be aware of the situation.

      And then she would cease to exist for me.

      The sister in this scenario also deserves a conversation.

      1. John B Public*

        I should note that at my job gossip is considered detrimental to morale and has been a reason for termination. I don’t necessarily agree with the second part, but stories like this are clearly a reason for the first.

      2. Natalie*

        I would probably avoid using a term like slander as it can have a specific legal meaning. Betsy was way out of line, but it’s incredibly unlikely that Sally actually has a tort case here.

        1. A Bug!*

          What, you mean “Thanksgiving’s going to be a bit more uncomfortable than usual this year” isn’t a good basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress?

          Everything I’ve learned from the Random Internet Commenter School of Law is a lie!

  1. Lizabeth*

    Wow…totally over the line. With a “friend” like Betsy who needs enemies?

    BTW How did Betsy know about it before Sally did? I would think that would be an issue for HR to address, perhaps?

    1. some1*

      “BTW How did Betsy know about it before Sally did? I would think that would be an issue for HR to address, perhaps?”

      Probably through the grapevine. Not really an issue for HR, unfortunately. It’d be nice if managers & employees kept discipline issues about other people confidential to anyone who doesn’t need to know, but they aren’t obligated to do that. Even when I had a Union job people gossiped about this.

  2. Anonymous*

    All that said this is highly inappropriate why oh why would someone do this?

    I honestly thought from the title this was going to be something like someone had a heart attack or was really sick or something like that.

    1. some1*

      Like others mentioned, some people love drama and gossip. And some people (subconsciously or otherwise) bask in the misfortune of others, especially when they are part of the same group like co-workers.

      I’ve known people who were otherwise good and decent people but were downright gleeful when they reported to me that a mutual friend or co-worker they had no previous issue with was fired, getting divorced, and got pregnant unexpectedly.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      I actually thought of when I was in grade school and got in trouble with the teacher. I had 5 siblings at that school, and of course at least one of them would hear about and make sure my mother found out.

      Betsy’s lucky she didn’t try this on me. I’d go all Walt White cuckoo on her.

  3. Diane*

    This is so far over the line that I would advise going to Betsy’s manager or HR to discuss a serious breach in professionalism and possibly confidentiality. It’s not a small personality conflict, nor is it the kind of behavior one just accepts or confronts: it’s serious and can reflect badly on the employer.

    1. Meg*

      HR confidentiality doesn’t really exist in this situation though. They’re not required to keep this a secret – they could post an all-caps notice on the bulletin board if they wanted. I agree that it’s horribly unprofessional and rude of Betsy to do this, but HR is there to serve the business. Unfortunately, Betsy’s rudeness doesn’t have a significant impact on how the OP’s business is run.

      1. AnonHR*

        It can’t be good for the business for this unprofessionalism to be taking place AT work. Calling a friend to gossip about her workplace while she’s at work seems like a behavior Betsy’s manager (and HR) would want to shut down.

        And, while the subject isn’t necessarily confidential in the strictest sense, chatting about work gossip at happy hour to your friends is one thing. Calling someone with no relationship to the company during work time to report on real-time disciplinary action that does not involve you to another co-worker’s relative is a whole other scenario.

        1. Meg*

          It may not be good, but it doesn’t have a significant impact on business either. If managers and/or HR spend their time hunting down gossip, the company would be much less productive. And for what it’s worth, I don’t really see “gossiping at happy hour” as that much different than the OP’s situation. Sure, it’s rude on a higher level, but at it’s heart it’s the same thing – Betsy doesn’t know how to mind her own business.

    2. EngineerGirl*

      Lets call it what it is – workplace bullying. It is NOT a “personal dispute” between women. This is far, far, far over the line for that.

      I think that Betsy should go to her manager but with the right attitude. She needs to highlight that company information is being relayed to a third party. Not only that, but it is false. I would end it with “I’m concerned that other info is going out too. This could affect our company’s reputation by making us look unprofessional”

      The company doesn’t care about Betsy. But you better believe they care about their own reputation. Public release of company related info is a big deal.

      And maybe Sally knew about it because she’s the one that reported it?

      1. Jessa*

        And what do you do if the person that was told is Sally’s abusive partner, who then decides to have a go at Sally. This is absolutely workplace bullying and could have gotten someone hurt. There was no call to tell anyone this information and no right to leak it outside the company no matter how you found out about it.

  4. some1*

    The only other thing I’d mention to the LW is not to say anything to Betsy about this, as tempting as it is, because it’s Sally’s battle to fight. And assume any and everything you tell Betsy will get repeated and used against you.

  5. Arbynka*

    I had co-worker call my mom once. It was my first job after graduation. I have made a mistake and my manager was little upset but we worked it out. So she called my mom and said:” I am worried about her because she is so new and I think you should know., ” My mom said: “Thank you for your concern, however she is an adult and I am sure she can handle her problems herself. Have a nice day”

      1. Arbynka*

        “Wow. Please tell us more about this coworker — this cannot be the only time she displayed bizarrely unacceptable behavior”

        No, it was not. She was quite manipulative. The other time I remember her being out of line is when one of our clients called for me, she answered and said:” She is here but doesn’t want to talk to you.” Not cool. But our manager liked her very much. When he finally had to fire her, she sued him.

          1. Arbynka*

            The whole job was quite “interesting” and after a while everything went south. Because as much as I liked my boss (I am still friends with him on Facebook, the job was in 1997-98) he would not manage :(

            1. Cassie*

              I’m the same way with my boss (although I’m not FB friends with him) – he’s a good guy, even-tempered, nice, doesn’t relish making staff and students cry. But he’s a terrible manager. Maybe he works well with other faculty and managing his students, but when it comes to staff? Just terrible at it. (I don’t think he sets out to be a bad manager, it’s just that he is a bit clueless/oblivious and unwilling to be firm).

      1. Arbynka*

        Yep, my mom is pretty cool. Her take on it was that her duty in that matter ended when I finished high school :)

    1. A Bug!*

      This is exactly what Sally’s sister should have done when faced with Betsy’s loose lips. Honestly, Betsy’s a jerk here, but the sister’s behavior is way more reprehensible for several reasons.

      1. Sara*

        I’m confused, (unless I’m missing an update from the OP), what did the sister do in this situation? The letter doesn’t indicate that the sister did anything?

  6. Katrina Bass*

    I would be so mad it would take me days to calm down enough to be an adult about this. But I wouldn’t beat around any bushes, and I wouldn’t be nice, sweet or overly apologetic. “I’m sorry to bring this up, Betsy, but…” Hell. No.

    I would ask Betsy if we could have a one on one away from the office, maybe over coffee after work hours (not lunch, I wouldn’t want to fume all afternoon if she was combative). Then I would very clearly, calmly, tell Betsy that she needs to begin recognizing what is and is not her business and that when it comes to explaining my work situation to my family, that is clearly not her business.

    If she made one excuse, or said she did it out of concern, I would cut her off with, “No, you didn’t. You’re a gossip monger, and it’s not going to affect my personal life. You need to stay in your own lane when it comes to my personal business.” Then I’d leave before I assaulted her. Ugh, poor Sally :(

    1. Yup*

      Oh yes, Hulk Angry. I’d need a couple days to simmer down too.

      But I don’t think I’d say a blessed word to Betsy the gossiper. Standing in Sally’s shoes, I’ve just been reprimanded for something at work: my mental focus needs to be on that — how to fix, whether to look for a new job, etc. Engaging in any way with someone who’s shown themselves to be a class A sh*t stirrer is guaranteed to agitate more drama in the office. Which could boomerang back on me, who’s already in trouble. So I’d probably go silently right to the “stay in your own lane” place and remain there.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Shit stirrers should be made to lick the spoon. I would be beyond livid with something like this. I can see both the good and the bad with talking to Betsy, but I would probably confront her once with a “My life is not your business, do not do this again.” I would also talk to my sister. I’m curious about what the sister said/did in this situation. If I was the sister, I’d be angry with Betsy for calling me. My loyalty would be to my sister, not to Betsy even if she was my friend.

      1. Loose Seal*

        Sure, if Sister really participated. However, since my imagination is fertile today, I can envision something like this:

        Sister sees Sally’s company on the caller ID and think it must be an emergency for them to call her because why else would she get a call from them (as Sally never calls from her office phone — always her cell)? She answers the phone while picking up her car keys, wondering which hospital she needs to go to. She stands in stunned disbelief as Betsy tells her that her sister is being fired. Still unable to process exactly what just happened here, Sister thanks Betsy for calling and hangs up.

        Is that what happened? Who knows? But my sisters would have been the sister in my story, not the type who are hanging on to Betsy’s tattle-taleing.

          1. fposte*

            Yup, agreed. And if Sister and Betsy are friends, a phone call from Betsy is SOP for Sister–Betsy doesn’t need to be disguised as Sally to get picked up.

          2. Loose Seal*

            See, I thought “family” finding out was Sister finding out, not that Sister was telling everyone else in the family the news. If Sister did spread the news further, then I agree — there would be war between me and my sister.

            1. Anonymous*

              Just imagine, sister recovers from stun and does a WOW. Other relative walks by, asks whats up.
              Oh I dont know why, but CRAZY person from Sallys job called to tell me shes getting fired omgwth?!

      2. Katrina Bass*

        I’d ask my sister just what she thought she was doing giving Grandma a heart attack before the holidays. Then I probably would hit her, just ’cause it’s more socially acceptable than hitting my coworker. And I’d teach her daughter to twerk.

  7. ExceptionToTheRule*

    If I were Sally, I think I would also have words with my sibling. She also perpetuated the gossip by telling the rest of the family something that was ultimately untrue without talking to Sally first.

  8. KarenT*

    I can’t even imagine how mad I would be at Betsy if I were Sally. If I were Sally I would approach Betsy and ask her not to discuss work situations with my sister in the future. I would then avoid Betsy like the plague, to avoid giving her more fodder for drama.

  9. Construction HR*

    I’d call Betsy’s husband/SO/mother and tell them I saw her in flagrante delicto in the bathroom with the bottled water delivery guy.

    1. Aisling*

      Of course, because the way to combat immaturity at work is with… more immaturity. Not to mention downright lies.

      1. John B Public*

        I read that as something to fantasize about, not something to actually do.

        And oh, did it feel good imagining that…

        1. Arbynka*

          “I read that as something to fantasize about, not something to actually do.
          And oh, did it feel good imagining that…”

          And not the worst thing I fantasize about at work either :)

    2. Aisling*

      I actually know people for whom the above would be an acceptable response, so my apologies. I should leave those issues out of the internet!

        1. Aisling*

          Unfortunately, no real stories! My sister is one such person who likes to start rumors about people to undermine their integrity. I could absolutely see her doing the above – her goal would be to undermine the person, and she wouldn’t care how she did it, if the end result was what she wanted. Lovely…

  10. Abby*

    I actually would say that this was way more than a personal issue between the two women. If Betsy has called the sister and just said, Everyone at work hates your sister” or something like that, it would be between the two of them. But an employee called the sister of an employee and gave INCORRECT and CONFIDENTIAL information to an employee’s sibling. To me, that is an issue to be addressed by HR.

    1. fposte*

      It’s not confidential information. It’s information Sally didn’t want people to know, but that’s not the same thing.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      fposte is right. There’s nothing confidential about telling an outside party (in this case, a friend) that your coworker got in trouble, or making up a story when you don’t know the facts. Unless the company has a policy against it, which Betsy had to sign upon her employment, and most companies don’t.

      The only thing that’s unclear is HOW Betsy knew Sally would be called in–the OP doesn’t say Betsy actually works in HR. However, maybe the person who witnessed or reported Sally’s offense gossiped to Betsy: “Sally snapped at Mr. Bigwig and he called HR; I was there when she did it.” Then it wouldn’t be hard to guess why Sally got called in to HR.

      1. fposte*

        And even if it’s because HR told Betsy, it’s not a breach of confidentiality because there *is* no confidentiality. I think it’s bad practice for HR to shoot their mouths off if that’s what’s going on, but I think it’s important to remember that there is no automatic confidentiality with HR, no matter how much they think there should be.

  11. S from CO*

    If Sally decides to have a conversation with Betsy away from the office (which I recommend) she might want to take a friend with her to the location. The friend can stay in the car or just a few feet away incase Sally needs a witness or a bodyguard.
    Since Betsy likes drama she might also blow things out of proportion during or after this conversation!
    Years ago, I worked with someone who loved office gossip and was a very angry/emotional person. She often lost her temper at work!

    1. A Bug!*

      I disagree that a conversation should happen away from work, or with a “bodyguard” or witness. Betsy’s already
      shown herself to be a drama llama, so doing anything to make it seem like a Big Deal is more likely to make it worse than better.

      A low-key, unscheduled conversation, at Betsy’s desk, with a coworker or two in close enough range to be able to hear raised voices but not muted ones. “Betsy, phoning my sister was really uncool. Obviously, I wasn’t fired, but even if I were, I’d want my family, including my sister, to be able to hear it from me first. I know we’d never really talked about this kind of thing before and you didn’t know, so that’s water under the bridge, but I hope you’ll respect my privacy in the future.”

      There’s an intentional white lie in there, because obviously Betsy knew exactly what she was doing and she’d almost certainly be pretty choked if the roles were reversed. But I’m assuming here that Sally is interested in preserving some semblance of a working relationship, and sometimes that means being gracious to ungracious people.

      1. Katrina Bass*

        I wouldn’t white lie or beat around the bush at all. I’d call her out, plain and simple. I wouldn’t yell, but I’d be clear that her actions were wrong and not imply for one second that she didn’t realize it.

        “Obviously, I wasn’t fired, but even if I were, I’d want my family, including my sister, to be able to hear it from me first.”

        I’d totally use that line, though.

        Not to be a feminist or anything, but I think women apologize, or act in an apologetic manner, way too often in the hopes of preserving relationship of some sort. I’ve had tough conversations with coworkers that didn’t go over smoothly, but by showing them with my attitude that a) I meant what I said and b) I’m completely amicable and trusting that you’ll take care of it after the fact, we still got along swimmingly. (For instance, telling a trainee for the third time that they will need to take notes. The third time, I’m more forceful with the message, but only during that conversation. I’m totally back to normal right after that. And now our trainee walks with a notebook. Mission accomplished.)

        If Betsy couldn’t maintain a working relationship after being told she behaved inappropriately, that would really be on her. That also depends on the work environment. If Betsy’s the one employee the owners are absolutely terrified of, and generally fire anyone she has a problem with, I’d either get my application in at McDonald’s or tough it out until I got a job elsewhere.

        1. A Bug!*

          You’re right that it shouldn’t be necessary. But this issue shouldn’t have come up at all if Betsy were a reasonable, respectful person.

          Since she’s not, and since Sally has to continue working with her, I think it’s a small compromise to offer a face-saving opportunity to Betsy.

          (I also don’t think Betsy is going to think Sally doesn’t know the score. I expect that she’ll see it for what it is – a very gracious offer to put some pretty vulgar behavior behind them.)

          I agree with you that women are generally socialized to apologize to smooth things over and that it’s not a good thing. But what’s ideal and what’s practical aren’t always the same thing, and the principled approach could result in Sally seeing backlash down the road if it causes Betsy to nurse a grudge.

          Not to be a feminist or anything

          Why not? I don’t want to start a de-rail here, but that opener is at odds with the rest of your comment. I wanted to note that people’s refusal to identify as feminists because feminists are seen as irrational man-haters creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          1. Katrina Bass*

            Just because I feel that the word itself puts a premium on boobs. I’ve been raised to feel it’s a dirty word.

            Statistically, women apologize more with their words and body language than men. Changing that isn’t feminist to me, it’s simply realizing a detrimental habit and altering your behavior. Like swearing at clients, or shuffling your feet when you walk. Men who over apologize should change it, too. (Especially the ones I’ve dated, lol.)

            For the record, I’ve found that I can replace, ”I’m sorry,” with, ”Thank you,” and remain gracious while more clearly communicating the importance of what I’m saying.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              If you believe women should have access to the same opportunities as men and get equal pay for equal work, you are a feminist. Whoever taught you it was a dirty word is doing people a disservice.

                1. Katrina Bass*

                  Apparently we’ve moved to far to the right, cause I can’t reply to that one… But I’ve never experienced access being hindered and I’ve always worked in male centric environments. Auto salvage, motorcycle manufacturing, construction and demolition, and I’ve made a career in financial planning and investing. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky and/or sheltered.

  12. coconutwater*

    To me it seems like a huge violation of personal and work boundaries.
    If I was Betsy’s supervisor, I would want to know. It was so incredibly unprofessional.

  13. Not So NewReader*

    I am still working on why a person would be put on leave AND fired.
    Hmm. If a company knew it was going to fire a person, wouldn’t they just fire them? (Am talking about when a company knows for sure that they want to fire someone.)
    A lot of companies that I have worked for have stated it was a big no-no to be talking about someone’s dismissal (real or imagined) with people outside the company. OP, does your company have that policy in place?

    OP, try not to get caught up in this. It will only pull you down. It’s Sally’s battle. Just my opinion, but the quickest way to take the energy out of this one is for Sally to show it had no effect on her.
    This can be as simple as “So, Betsy when you called my sis about my problem, my sis just said ‘What is Betsy calling me for? There’s nothing I can do about it.’ ” Then Sally can go on to say something like “Sis said not to bother her while she is at work. ” OR “Sis said to tell you that it was my problem, not hers. ”

    It does strike me that the woman is using company time and (presumably) company phones to spread negative news about her company. This could be a way of life for her. It won’t serve her well in the long run.

  14. Cat*

    We have a no gossip policy at work, that is strictly enforced, and if this were my workplace, Betsy would be terminated immediately. Stuff like this is toxic in the workplace, and does have an effect on people’s productivity and morale. Bad morale at work IS bad for business.

  15. LCL*

    I know Alison is the HR expert, but I disagree with her take on this. The reason why the Betsys of the world get away with their behavior for so long is because everybody thinks these are just isolated incidents. Someone has to let HR know that their is a pattern, and that Betsy’s manager should keep a closer eye on her.

  16. Stephanie*

    I wonder if there is a general rule to use to determine when a difficult person is really a difficult employee and therefore when to resolve it amongst yourselves and when to raise it to a manager/hr? Where is the line when the behavior shifts from being interpersonal to creating a toxic workplace? When it happens to more than one individual? When it happens more than once to one person? Thoughts?

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