how do I tell my manager that people are gossiping behind his back?

A reader writes:

I’m currently working on a project that’s comprised of about half employees and half contractors from a well-known consulting firm. I found out a while ago that my manager, “Jack,” is dating one of the contractors, “Audrey.” He didn’t tell me himself. I had lunch more than a year ago with someone who works on another team, “Chloe,” who also interacts with Audrey for another project, and she told me they were dating.

My employer has no issues with employees dating each other, or employees and consultants dating each other. I can think of three other couples who met while working at our campus, two of whom who are now married, and none of them had any problems. Chloe told me Jack and Audrey have let both of their respective managers and HR know they are dating each other, but apparently they don’t want anyone else involved on my project knowing this. Unlike these other couples, they’ve never said a word to anyone on our team. They behave as if they barely know each other when we’re in the office, but I’ve spotted them off campus more than once now (they don’t know this) and their behavior/body language clearly says “We’re dating.” I’ve followed suit and also kept my mouth shut.

A number of contractors on the project rolled off a few weeks back. Audrey is still here on our team. Since this downsizing, three people on my team have separately told me about the “juicy gossip” they’ve recently heard through the grapevine. Each time, it’s been the same juicy gossip that I already know about Jack and Audrey. I was able to get out of one of them where they heard this. It turns out that one of the recent departing members figured that since she was leaving, she could reveal all the secrets she knew without personally facing any consequences. As a result, I believe everyone on the team now knows they’re dating.

I feel like I need to tell my manager that everyone knows this now. I want to tell him I don’t think there’s any problem with them dating, but because people are finding this out through office gossip, they believe something fishy is going on and this must be inappropriate. I want to prevent anything bad from happening to him or to our team. I just don’t know how to do this. I have a 1-1 scheduled with him in a few days, but I don’t know the best way to tell him. I don’t know him all that well and don’t know how he’d take this, and also I don’t want to get in a situation where I have to confess I’ve seen them at local malls and that I’ve known about them for more than a year now. I think it would be just embarrassing all around. Is there any good way to tell him this? Would it be better to just anonymously tell this to HR? Or should I just continue to keep my mouth shut, and tell my three coworkers there’s nothing inappropriate going on here?

Move along, nothing to see here.

I don’t think there’s any reason to alert your boss that people know that he and Audrey are dating. This isn’t scandalous gossip — presumably neither of them are cheating on other people, and they’re not in a manager/employee relationship where this would be inappropriate*, and your company apparently knows about it and is fine with it. So there’s no damaging scandal here. If there were, you might have more of an obligation to give Jack a heads-up — but there’s not.

You don’t have to be involved in this at all! And in fact, it’s better not to. There’s no reason for you to have an awkward conversation with Jack or to involve yourself at all. If coworkers mention it to you in the future, just say “It’s not really any of our business” or “I’m sure if they wanted to share that they, would” and change the subject.

Consider this permission to ignore this entirely.

* I’m a little unclear about whether he hires and has authority over the consultants and thus Audrey or whether he’s one of multiple managers involved in this project. If it’s the former, I don’t think that’s super appropriate, but apparently your company explicitly allows that.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Persephone Mulberry*

    I don’t think the fact that Jack and Audrey haven’t announced their relationship and act professionally toward each other necessarily means they “don’t want people to know,” it just means that they are doing the grown-up thing and treating their relationship how they want everyone else at work to treat it – as a non-issue.

    When your coworkers bring this “juicy gossip” to you, I’d just treat it matter of factly: “Really? That’s nice for them. Did you have any questions on that TPS report I sent yesterday?” You don’t have to reveal that you already knew, and treating it as totally not newsworthy will help quell the gossip train.

    1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

      Yup. I worked with my fiancé (now husband) for a couple of years. It was 100% Not A Secret — we came in together, left together, he brought me lunch when I couldn’t get away from my desk. Everyone was aware (or so I thought), but we weren’t PDAing in the office.

      When we took leave for our wedding, I sent out an email to the whole team with who was picking up what while I was away, etc. etc. One of the team members came up to me and said “Wow, isn’t it weird that you and Josh are both getting married right around the same time?” She was totally unaware that we were together.

      My reply: “Really not as weird as you’d think!”

      1. hbc*

        Ha, I got a message from one of my husband’s coworkers (we’ve hung out) asking if we had a spare baby item because another of their colleagues just gave birth to twins. When I told him, he said, “Huh, that’s weird, I didn’t even know she was seeing anyone, let alone pregnant. And coincidentally I think [Male Coworker] just had twins.”

        Unsurprisingly, it was not a coincidence.

    2. Lucky*

      Same, except I don’t see that OP has any responsibility to lie for manager & consultant. If someone brings the juicy gossip to OP, s/he can just say “yes, I heard that they are dating” or “yes, that’s true but I understand they are trying to make it a non-issue at work” or something similar that is true, without playing into the ‘gotcha’ of gossip.

  2. Helen*

    If I were in that situation, I think I might just say to whomever was sharing the gossip “Oh, yeah. I think they prefer to keep it on the D-L at work, though.” That way, you aren’t seen as being judgmental about gossiping, just signaling that this particular piece of gossip is pretty boring and not worth circulating.

    I don’t think there’s any reason to tell your boss though. I mean, what is he going to do about it, anyway? Break up with her? Make a big announcement telling people not to talk about it? If the cat is out of the bag already, it’s too late.

    1. Jane*

      This is a really great point as well – there is nothing your boss can do with that information at this point. Either he’s already aware, in which case he doesn’t need to be tipped off, or he’s blissfully unaware.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I like this–because I agree with the idea that they are trying to treat it as a non-work thing. They aren’t hiding it–it isn’t scandalous. It’s just that they don’t want to bring their romantic relationship into the office.

      So I like the idea of (1) acting like it’s already a known thing, and not a secret; and (2) making the comment that it isn’t intended to be related to work.

  3. Blossom*

    Isn’t the issue that, as Audrey has survived the contractor cull, there might be the appearance of favouritism or conflicting interests? If the relationship was out in the open, these suggestions could be headed off more directly – or one of them moved off the project.

    You don’t have to go into having seen them at the mall, though. You don’t even have to say you know they’re dating. It’s enough just to say that others are saying that, and that you don’t care either way but thought he should know. And that’s only if you think his reputation or team morale is being harmed.

    1. Aurion*

      Yeah, this is what I was wondering. If Jack had any say in whether Audrey would or wouldn’t survive the cull, it might be looked as unfair favourtism.

      But if that’s not an issue, this is totally not the OP’s business. OP, I’d just say a rather uninterested “oh, really? okay” and move onto other things like Alison suggests.

    2. Helen*

      They have told the company in an official capacity, so I would think that doing so would head off those kinds of problems, or at the very least lay them at the feet of HR, not OP.

      1. Aurion*

        Oh, I don’t think any of this is OP’s responsibility per se, but the optics of favourtism could be why the coworkers are treating this as super salacious gossip.

  4. Lily in NYC*

    OP, don’t say anything. If you really feel the need, the next time someone brings it up just say – “You know, that’s actually not quite the juicy gossip you think it is; they aren’t breaking any rules – they just prefer to keep their private lives private”. There is nothing to gain from telling your boss.

    1. Jane*

      I like this suggestion a lot as well. It also will stop people from telling you about it because once you shut it down you will no longer be someone they feel the need to tell this to and you at least no longer have to hear about it and are doing your part to shut down any negativity. It’s not necessary, but if it would make you feel better about the situation, it is certainly a perfectly reasonable response.

  5. Jane*

    My fiance and I used to work together (same level of seniority). We tried to be discreet but eventually stopped trying so hard because once things got serious, we no longer felt the need to hide anything. As with your boss, people probably figured it out before we dropped our guard. At one point I heard that some people had been asking about us but I think that type of gossip is normal in an office and to be expected. I don’t think it happens because people necessarily think it’s inappropriate but simply for the same reasons that people gossip at work – it can be a fun distraction and people like to feel like they are “in the know.” I agree with Alison’s advice completely. There’s nothing for you to feel badly about here in not telling your boss. He may already know but in any event it really should not matter if they’re not doing anything inappropriate. Some people are going to think what they want to think no matter how above-board the situation is.

    1. Cat*

      Yeah, it doesn’t sound like people are being mean-spirited here. And friendly gossip is a basic human bonding activity. It’s never going to be eliminated from the workplace; no reason to come down too harshly on it or, conversely, to give it too much importance in talking to your boss.

  6. Recruit-o-rama*

    I despise office gossip and think very poorly of the people who do it. When people come to me with a story, I cut them off and just say, “please stop telling me this, it’s not my concern” and move on with my work life.

    1. TootsNYC*

      My only objection to this is that it leaves an implication that the topic is a bit salacious or should be private. That’s why, especially in -this- case, I like the, “Oh, yeah, that’s not a secret–they just don’t really want to make a big deal of it at work, is my impression.”

      1. Recruit-o-rama*

        I suppose I can understand that, although it’s not her job or responsibility to manage other people’s need to make hay out of nothing if she is not their direct supervisor.

  7. Karo*

    Honestly, I disagree with not telling Jack. I think he deserves to know what people are saying, and he may have a preferred script he’d like OP to use – “Yes, and?” vs “Yeah they seem happy together,” vs Lily in NYC’s more eloquent suggestion (“You know, that’s actually not quite the juicy gossip you think it is; they aren’t breaking any rules – they just prefer to keep their private lives private”).

    Also, I think it speaks pretty poorly of the person who decided that it was their gossip to share when her contract ends. It seems very petty and vindictive, which isn’t someone I would want to work with in the future.

    1. Sadsack*

      Yeah, but if people are just saying they are dating, why would Jack care? Saying anything to him would just be inserting yourself into his business for no reason. Why should op get a script from Jack about his personal life? Just say, huh, so anyway, and move on. Jack can address it however he likes if someone asks him about it directly.

    2. Persephone Mulberry*

      The main reason I don’t think OP should be the one to bring this up to him is because she says “I don’t know him all that well and don’t know how he’d take this.” I have had managers where I would feel comfortable having this kind of discussion, and managers where I wouldn’t, and I’m not going to fault the OP for not wanting to be the one to bring her manager’s personal relationship into their work relationship.

  8. Sherm*

    Judging by the names involved, OP should stop worrying about office gossip and instead find out who the mole is!

    1. TheLazyB*

      Ha! And, aw. I miss Chloe and Audrey. Especially GothChloe.

      Also, I’m so excited i recognised the names :D

  9. PK*

    When I hear gossip like this, I react with a shrug and usually say “Okay”. I’ve found that not reacting to gossip tends to keep the gossipers from bringing it to me.

  10. Chris*

    Dealing with comments like this really depends what the tone is. If the person mentioning it is excited and happy and sharing news that makes them personally happy, even if it happens to be personal rather than work related, that’s one thing entirely.

    If, as seems to be the case here because it’s described as ‘juicy gossip’, someone is implying there is something wrong with what’s going on, then it should be addressed calmly and directly, and by the people involved.

    As a manager, when one staff member tries to gossip about shortcomings or personal faults of another, my usual answer is to bring them together and stop the whispering campaign at its source. Something like ‘Hey, Person Y, Person X has mentioned that the feel there are some issues with this specific thing that may be impacting productivity. Let’s discuss and get some specifics so we can see if there is an issue there that needs resolving’ usually works, and lets people know that concerns are expected to be addressed in a professional and ethical manner, and that talking behind people’s backs won’t be tolerated.

    In this case, the manager is involved in the issue, and the fact that he has tried to keep the relationship a secret from the team gives rumors of wrong-doing fertile ground to breed, whether there are any grounds for concern or not.

    When a personal relationship is mixed with work, and particularly when it’s someone who is in a position of authority, to whom others look for leadership, I believe you need to be clear up front with your team so they understand that you are avoiding favoritism and undue influence, and that business decisions will be made on the basis of business needs, and not personal bias. The manager’s failure to do so in this case left the team open to being receptive to these rumors, and to wondering if that was in fact not the case. After all, people will reason, if there was nothing shady going on, why hide it? The potential downside far outweighs the discomfort of exposing your personal life more than you would prefer to, in this case.

  11. AB*

    You don’t need to tell your manager. If HR and their managers know about it then there’s no scandal. If you bring it up with him and tell him what people are saying it’ll just come across like you’re spreading the gossip, and honestly like your inserting yourself into other peoples problems where you have no business. It sounds harsh but as they’ve been keeping their relationship private it sounds like he really wouldn’t appreciate you bringing it up for discussion in a 1-2-1 which i assume is supposed to be about your work and development.

  12. Not So NewReader*

    I have no clue how they would stop the gossiping. Even if they announce they are dating the gossips will have a field day with “what took you so long to announce it?”

    On some level, OP, couples know that workplaces gossip about them. They probably have an awareness of it already.
    There is little that can be done here.

  13. mortorph*

    Does this advice change if members of a leadership are gossiping about the CEO to non-management staff? For example, gossip in the sense of undermining the CEOs decisions and daily activities by calling them ‘uninterested’, ‘incompetent’, ‘flighty’, ‘not knowing what they’re talking about’, etc….

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