my employees eavesdropped on my private conversation and gossiped about it

A reader writes:

I am the general manager of a large healthcare company. I share my office with the HR manager, Jenny. We have many important, difficult, and, most importantly, confidential conversations in our office. The walls are not very thick, and we have placed sound machines everywhere to try to prevent conversations from being easily heard. We are the only management in this particular office, and are surrounded by administrative employee offices.

Jenny had a rough week, and we were discussing in our office after hours, behind closed doors and with sound machines running, the issues of the week, including disciplining a difficult, explosive employee and succession planning for Jenny’s unannounced new role in the company. She was also ranting, in confidentiality, about the lack of support from our COO (my supervisor) in regards to several recent HR situations, and Jenny’s inability / lack of authority to properly discipline any employee (our COO takes an abnormally friendly, “many chances” approach to discipline).

When we exited our office, we noticed that an employee, Patty, was quietly working late in the office next to us, and her supervisor Ashley (who I manage) was in there. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I found out the next day that Ashley had moved into Patty’s office to “work,” or rather, eavesdrop. The next day, all of the sensitive details of our hour-long conversation had made their rounds through all of the employees in the office, as well as to the COO. Patty had told Ashley to come over to her office to listen! We just had a training session on reducing gossiping a week ago, because of an incident with another one of Ashley’s employees, and it’s done nothing to stop the pervasive gossip problem in our office.

I am livid. I chose not to respond immediately so I could cool down and not respond emotionally. I know that I need to confront both Ashley and Patty, but have no idea what to say and worry that I’ll just go into Bob Newhart’s “STOP IT!” sketch, and nothing will get resolved. Both Jenny and I feel like we cannot have any conversations in our office any longer, and there’s nowhere else we can move right now. Please help – what can we do?

Ooooh, that is really not good. It would be problematic if just Patty had overheard you while sitting in her own office and then gossiped about what she heard … but a manager joined her in there specifically for the purpose of eavesdropping?

This is a zillion times worse because Ashley is a manager, and she needs to be held to a higher standard. She needs to act in the best interests of your organization, and instead she’s setting up an us vs. them divide, and putting herself on the non-management side of it. That is very, very bad in a manager. Prohibitive, really.

So you have a serious Ashley issue.

I’m more worried about that than I am about the gossip itself. People share work-related information that they come across, unless they’re clearly instructed to keep a specific piece of information confidential. You obviously want people to exercise discretion and not go around talking about conversations they overheard that weren’t meant for them, and both Ashley and Patty were in the wrong here.

But the bigger issue is that you have a manager on your staff who’s actively working against you. And her employees clearly know that, as evidenced by the fact that Patty invited her into her office to join the eavesdropping. Patty wouldn’t have done that if Ashley hadn’t already conducted herself in a way that made it clear she was open to unprofessional behavior. Again, a huge problem.

And when you combine this with the fact that you’ve already had to have a training session about gossip (which is not all that common itself), I suspect that you have serious cultural problems in this office in general. Maybe they all stem from Ashley, or maybe Ashley’s behavior is reflective of something larger. That’s something you’re going to need to find out.

But step one here is going to be a very serious conversation with Ashley to figure out what’s going on with her, and whether there’s any way to salvage her ability to continue to work for you, since you can’t have managers under you who operate this way and who model that behavior for their staff.

I’d meet with her and make the following points: (1) Intentionally eavesdropping on what was clearly intended to be a private conversation was a serious violation of both ethics and judgment. (2) Doing that with an employee she supervises suggests that she’s unclear on what’s expected of her in her role as a manager. (3) Sharing confidential details with others was an additional breach and suggests that she can’t be trusted to act with judgment or discretion, both of which are necessary for her role. (4) She appears to be spreading an us vs. them mentality with her team, which is absolutely unworkable in a manager. (5) All of this calls into question her ability to stay in her job, since right now she’s acting in ways that are directly counter to what you need from managers on your team.

Then see what she has to say. It’s possible that she has legitimate grievances, and you should hear those out if she does. (Sometimes people devolve into really bad behavior like this out of cynicism about a highly dysfunctional organization. If that’s what’s happening here, that doesn’t make it okay, but it does indicate that there are issues bigger than Ashley that you’ll have to figure out or this kind of thing will keep happening.)

But unless Ashley gets what you’re saying and does an immediate, clear, and convincing turnaround, you’re likely to need to fire her. And there might be serious work to do on the culture there as well. Basically, consider this a massive warning sign that All Is Not Well, beyond the specifics of this one incident.

{ 373 comments… read them below }

  1. BadWolf*

    I used to work in offices that weren’t “well-sealed.” Sometimes when I was working with a coworker who sat next to our manager, you could overhear manager/employee conversations. So we’re sitting there pondering issues with chocolate teapot glaze, both pretending we hear nothing from manager’s office.

    1. Ennigaldi*

      My current office is all open plan, including HR. Only the heads of the department have offices, which have glass doors, and the only other place to talk is the conference rooms, in the middle of the desks, also with glass walls. It’s a gossip nightmare in here. Guess what happened when I tried to confidentially ask for ADA accommodation.

        1. Anonymous for This One*

          I really, really, wish they would. I’m also HR in an open office, and it’s the worst.

        2. The Original K.*

          Yes! It’s ridiculous. I am anti-open floor plan in general, but even if you must do it, give HR folks spaces with doors that lock.

          1. Violet B*

            Even then though it is super hard. We are an open office floor plan, with two doors that shut and lock. The first is the CEO’s office, which has frosted glass. The second is the HR person’s office, but her’s is pure glass like the rest. So you may not hear what they’re talking about, but you know EVERY SINGLE TIME anyone is in there talking to HR or HR has asked them to come in. And you can see the conversation and it’s pretty easy to tell if its a good one or bad one. It starts a lot of gossip and a lot of people messaging “Ooh do you know what So and So is in there for?”

          2. rdb0924*

            So am I. My employer moved us to an open plan office late last year. I. Hate. It. No one has an office, including the CEO and HR. Senior management compensates by scheduling a conference room every time someone has to sneeze. Handling conference room reservations is part of my job, and I spend easily 40% of my day searching for conference rooms on the fly (I get a call at 10:25 requesting a room for a 10:30 meeting).

        3. Bea*

          My former employer was a nightmare. HR was a co owner of a family business, there were spare offices but nope, took a cube in the back. She would then gossip about the HR stuff with a manager who sat across from her. Others heard this happening. I can’t even.

          Accounting was also in the cube farm.

          I’m glad to be done with that garbage.

          They held a meeting on sexual harassment and issues surrounding harassment. Men only. I. Cannot.

        4. Anonymoose*

          Well, frankly any sort of supervisor (incl HR) need space to speak in confidence. The company and their glass walls/”transparency” are really doing themselves a grave disservice. What if someone cries duringa feedback session? Everybody knows. What if someone is screaming at a vendor on the phone with another staff member? It looks like the staff member is getting fired.

          This open concept BS only works for individual contributors that collaborate in creative projects. But I swear operational leadership just see it as a cost savings benefit and thus, no more walls. It’s like cutting your own legs off at the knee.

      1. Totally Minnie*

        I hate the trend for all glass office walls. I had a coworker a few years ago who needed to be transferred to a different office, and our boss’s office had two glass walls. So when our boss broke the news my coworker got emotional and ended up crying in front of the entire office because there was no way for us to not see.

          1. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

            I’m for some reason reminded of the invisible mazes in Pokemon gyms. Bonk!

        1. Bea*

          And you have to keep them clean. Smugly glass would drive many of us insane. The point of walls include being able to not be seen at all times, argh.

      2. xms967*

        Wait, do you work where I work? We moved offices recently, and a lot of us are appalled that there isn’t even a single-person room to have a private conversation in. I don’t know who thinks these open office plans are a good idea…

    2. Sketchee*

      Yes I also once worked in a office where my computer wall was connected to the Company president’s wall. He was quite loud and I could often hear him or other heated conversations with coworkers. I’d always put my headphones in immediately. I often only kept one ear bud in so coworkers could feel free to approach, but this was a two earbud situation.

      I don’t want information I’m not meant to have!

      Not only is it ethically a problem, it’s also just stressful. Most of this information was for managers and leaders to resolve. If I trust them to resolve it, I don’t need to know. And if I don’t trust them then I would have questioned my employment situation.

    3. Girl friday*

      I ignore all convos that do not concern me. It is a useful skill. Modeling a full and useful life outside the office/restaurant helps too.

      1. Clorinda*

        The trouble is, what if your mental firewall between what you’re supposed to know and what you overheard but aren’t supposed to know isn’t 100% reliable, and you end up saying something you shouldn’t? That level of self-checking is horrendously stressful in itself.

        1. GreenDoor*

          I have worked in confidential environments for 18 years. If you can develop an “I receive it but I don’t repeat it” attitude, it does serve you well. I have had numerous people come back and tell me how much they appreciate my discretion.

          That said, it is hella stressful pretending I don’t know things about people that I do. I dread the day I become privy to things like potential layoffs where I’d have to act cheerful around someone I know is about to lose their job.

      2. All or none*

        I wish I was as mature as you. I admit I want to know everything. At my current organization, although I’m primarily a grant writer and fundraising database administrator, I have been tasked to do the minutes for pretty much every Board and Committee meeting, and I love knowing what’s behind the scenes (although it can be distressing when things aren’t going well).

        That behind said, if I know something someone at my level probably shouldn’t, it stays with me. I’m nosy as hell, but I’m no gossip. I understand the importance of discretion.

      3. NorthernSoutherner*

        Yes, yes, yes, girl! Learned the hard way about what to/not to say in the office. If it means I don’t join in the gossip session and do the mean girl bonding, oh well.

    4. Misteroid*

      That doesn’t seem like the issue here, though, since the OP had sound machines running in an attempt to keep people from hearing AND Patty didn’t just accidentally overhear, she actively called Ashley in to listen, too.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        And it seems they didn’t TEST those sound machines to make sure they worked as intended, or they’d have discovered what Sleepyheadzzz tells us below: the sound machines block sound FOR the room they’re IN. They don’t block transmission of sound at all.

        1. Lisa*

          I think they are definitely using the sound machines wrong. If it’s in the office where the private meeting is being held, they are just making it harder to hear each other (and potentially making them talk louder). The office next door should have had the sound machine on or it should be placed in the hallway to prevent passersby from eavesdropping. The bigger problem is an ethical one, but using equipment correctly might help.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I used to share an office wall with another law group, and I think the partner’s office was the shared wall. I heard all manner of things I wish I hadn’t, including loud in-office sex with his secretary, his wife yelling at him when she found out, his racist comments about his clients, etc.

      That’s not on point, but it sounds like the sound machines are not adequate. I realize Patty and Ashley were intentionally trying to eavesdrop, but in addition to Alison’s advice, it sounds like some more robust soundproofing (or another more private office) may also help. All that said, the problem sounds cultural, and Ashley is definitely the biggest issue to tackle.

      1. ginger ale for all*

        When I was a teen, my parents put up thick corkboard instead of wallpaper on the walls of my brother’s bedroom so they wouldn’t have to hear his choice in music. It did alleviate the problem significantly.

        1. AnonAdult*


          Preventing THEM from hearing HIM was soooo not where I thought you were going with that.

          (I’m a parent who has been pondering how to handle, erm, “quality time” with my husband as our shared-wall son gets older. Thanks very much for the idea!)

  2. essEss*

    Considering you’ve already addressed this through training sessions and they still deliberately listened to confidential information and spread it, it’s time for targeted PIP action on employees who deliberately continue this behavior, starting with this incident.

    1. Pollygrammer*

      I’m particularly concerned about the COO, who should be 100% on team Shutting This the Eff Down and not contributing to the problem!

      1. The Original K.*

        Exactly – the fact that the COO isn’t shutting this down really speaks to how pervasive the cultural problem is. If senior leadership is letting this stuff slide, the company is pretty far gone.

      2. Hills to Die on*

        I would make the arguement that the COO is the real problem, and that the many chances BS needs to stop immediately. I would start by having a serious conversation there. If the COO does not allow you to dole out serious consequences, this job may not be salvagable. At a minimum, Ashley and Patty both need offices int he basement.

        1. Luna*

          +1. The COO is the main problem. Employees might gossip amongst themselves (not to this extreme, of course), but who the heck felt comfortable enough to share this type of gossip with the COO?? The fact that someone was willing to draw a person at that level into petty employee gossip is seriously problematic, and the COO must have shown herself to be open to participating in this kind of thing in the past in order for that to happen.

        2. JS*

          I also agree that it seems the COO is the problem and in that case Ashley for being perceived by him to be “giving him the heads up” would likely be viewed in a positive light and Jenny in a negative one.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think it’s both Ashley and the COO. It’s difficult because if the COO is constantly undermining others and feeding into/allowing this kind of shady eavesdrop-mongering to flourish (and participating in it!), then there are also limits on OP’s options with respect to disciplining Ashley.

        4. GreenDoor*

          I agree that the COO is the problem. This is a healthcare company. One of the bedrocks of the healthcare system is respect for privacy and restricted access to confididential information. I would think if someone is prone to gossip about co-workers, they’d be just as prone to reveal patient information or legal information – a lawsuit waiting to happen right there. That’s a huge problem and this COO is ignoring some serious warning signs.

      3. de_pizan*

        And the fact that this is a healthcare company is particularly egregious in regards to gossiping and the COO letting it slide—if it’s a company that has any immediate patient relations, it can go from gossiping to HIPPA violation pretty quickly.

      4. Jules the 3rd*

        Yeah, I really think Alison missed a little bit here – there’s a lot of yellow flags indicating a problem with the overall office culture, and ‘COO won’t manage’ is the biggest one.

        Problems often roll down from the top.

        Solutions? This seems like a ‘speak as a group’ situation, where OP and HR sit down with COO and explain that they are being undermined by COO’s ‘many chances’, and would like to move to [propose alternative here]. I like [3mo PIP; limit 3 in 5 years], and would start with Ashley.

    2. Antilles*

      Considering you’ve already addressed this through training sessions
      Can I just point out how weird it is to even *need* a training session on gossiping? You’re professional adults in a professional workplace, working at a healthcare company – stopping office gossip should require no more than, like, a one paragraph office-wide email (or equivalent at the start of your regularly scheduled meeting):
      “Gossiping has become a problem recently that we need to fix. We know the walls are thin around here and unfortunately we can’t do anything about that, but please remember that if you overhear something, we expect you to use your professional discretion and maintain confidentiality by not passing such information along. Protecting the confidentiality of information is not optional; given the nature of our work and the laws surrounding the healthcare industry, this is both a company requirement and legal requirement. If you have any concerns about this policy, please discuss them with _____.”
      The fact that it required an actual training session to convey that message? Pretty telling in and of itself.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Yeah, it’s weird. We had an issue a few weeks ago where I overheard someone, from my non-insulated office, talking publicly about a provider in our practice that was having sex with patients (it was completely hearsay and untrue!!) I went over there, exasperated, and all I could say was “HUSH!”

        And in typical mean-girl response, they all banded together and started shutting their office door so I couldn’t hear their gossip anymore. Oh, and they all said that I *yelled* at them. I know y’all don’t know me, but.. I’m not a yeller. I wasn’t aggressive with them at all. I was – again – flabbergasted by the accusation and ended up taking what I realize was a too friendly, as is our culture, wrong approach in that sitch too.. “I’m sorry that you all felt like I yelled at you. The convo was inappropriate and unacceptable. I’ll make sure I come across kinder in the future,” at which point they all apologized to me for their behavior.

        I just about feel like I’ve been brainwashed to default to being too effing nice, but that’s over. I’m kind of on a rampage for justice and tightening some shit up.

        1. MCsAngel2*

          You have been. Brainwashed, that is. (and not to be too nice). If you’ve been reading AAM for any length of time, you know that your sense of normal gets skewed when you work in a toxic environment.

          1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

            Yeah, I’ve been reading for about 3 years. It’s hard to see it sometimes until you ask the internet. Today’s been pretty eye-opening for me, and also very validating.

            I’ve often wondered if I was going crazy with the situations that pop up here… but I’m not. It’s the culture and the company. :(

        2. AKchic*

          Oh my. Oh my no.

          When I worked in behavioral health, we *did* have an… um… indiscretion where a front desk person at an outpatient program was having relations with a client. She was also the program manager’s offspring (our state, again, is small, population-wise). We have a no-tolerance policy for that. She was terminated immediately. We couldn’t prove that Mommy/program manager knew and was hiding the information from us, but I could prove that Mommy/program manager knew about the offspring’s poor job performance and had been hiding it, so the PM was put on a PIP, demoted, and did eventually work her way back to a management position in another program.

          Healthcare is one of those fields where discretion is a requirement, regardless of position and regardless of the “information”.

        3. Observer*

          I don’t care how many opportunities you have gotten here. This place is CrazyTown, and you need to get out. Sooner or later this is going to blow sky high, and you don’t want to be on top of the geyser.

          I know you want to focus on the care of patients, but realize that these people are compromising the care of every single patient in the place. Find yourself an employer that doesn’t allow destructive gossip about providers and patients.

      2. StellaBella*

        Yep. This.
        My last job was in an open plan office and it was so full of gossip – the director general of this NonProfit would gossip with people and pit people against others. The office had 12 people in it. She was terrible. It was terrible. I left over a year ago, and so have all of the other competent people. It’s a mess still.

      3. Nothing surprises me*

        I once worked for a place where we were all gathered together so management could remind us that we all are required to wear underpants to work everyday.

          1. Jadelyn*

            I feel like that’s a question we do not want to actually know the answer to.

            …okay, the trainwreck-watching part of me really wants to know. But the Professional Adult in me is running away with her hands over her ears yelling “LALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

          2. Nothing surprises me*

            I worked as an office manager for a private investigative firm. I managed processes as opposed to people. Let’s just say our dress code was nonexistent (sometimes due to rather unconventional assignments and sometimes because long blocks of time was spent tracking people down on the phone and we never, never, never had visitors in the office). There were 13 employees (12 women and 1 man) and a married couple who owned the agency. I wore underpants everyday. I swear. The owners weren’t in the office much. To say standards sunk doesn’t even begin to cover it. The first topic of the panties meeting should have been “wear underpants everyday. Period.” That should have been followed up with, “if for some reason underpants are against your religion, for the love of all that is holy, do not sit straddling chairs backwards or put your legs up on the desk while your scamming some poor parents into giving you their deadbeat son’s latest whereabouts by lying and telling them you’re calling to offer him a job.”

            Sleazy place to work.

      4. Jadelyn*

        Honestly, you shouldn’t even *need* that much. Perhaps it’s overly optimistic of me, but I do expect that once someone is working in a professional environment they’ve grown out of the grade-school gossip mentality.

  3. Pollygrammer*

    If there is authority to fire Ashley, I think she needs to be fired. This was causing deliberate harm to the company, her team AND to specific individuals.

    Patty may have enough of an excuse to stay–a manager really can do some brainwashing–but I would keep her on the thinnest of ice.

      1. Neosmom*

        And mine. Ashley has to be dropped from the payroll immediately and with no eligibility for rehire in any other department in your company. Patty – serious disciplining with an eye toward a PIP if her behavior does not correct immediately.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Fourthing this. My workplace is pretty understanding but this would get you booted, post-haste. It’s REALLY deliberate. Wow.

          1. SusanIvanova*

            I’m in one of the tech companies where there’s a whole secondary industry devoted to sniffing out our secrets. That kind of lapse of judgement would have them both out so fast they’d leave a dust cloud.

    1. Not a Blossom*

      Absolutely agree, especially because this wasn’t even the first time Ashley had been involved in a problem. I don’t know if the previous instance(s) was/were as egregious, but she has to go.

    2. neverjaunty*

      This. I don’t understand the conflict-avoidant “have a chat where you explain how disappointed you are” advice, unless it’s a workplace with mandatory progressive discipline where it’s a required step.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s not my advice! That conversation is where you find out what happened, because you don’t just fire someone with zero discussion. You talk to them first. But yes, as I wrote in the final paragraph, this will likely need to result in firing Ashley.

        1. Samiratou*

          What if the LW doesn’t have authority to fire Ashley? It sounds like firing is a thing Not Done at that office, thanks to the COO, so what should LW do if Ashley basically blows her off, says “you can’t fire me” and is right about that?

          Aside from keeping an eye out for a new job, that is.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yeah, from the OP’s later comments here, it’s clear that she doesn’t have the authority to do her job and really can only leave. (I’ve talked about this in comments below.)

    3. Artemesia*

      This Ashley should be fired. Patty should probably be fired too, not for the gossip per se but for inviting Ashley in. This was intentional. Having had the training on this, there is not the slightest excuse for ‘not knowing’ it was a problem. These people both need to be gone yesterday, but particularly Ashley. If the CEO is not on board with that then the OP has a serious warning that this company is beyond salvage.

    4. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Added fun stuff: Patty used to be the HR Manager, but wanted out, so she got put in another role in this department. She should have known better.

  4. Legal Rugby*

    We recently let a mid-level manager go because they shared confidential information about a complaint process with people, in an attempt to prevent people from blaming them for the discipline that had resulted. I don’t think its unfair to say that this incident demonstrates a distinct lack of judgement, and violation of ethics that might result in termination

  5. Juli G.*

    One hundred percent agree with Allison.

    We had a “gossiping” issue at one point and one root cause that there was a total lack of transparency and communication from the leadership in that group. Information became power and a currency so people were not above being sneaky about getting it. Since your COO doesn’t sound ideal, is this a possibility?

    It doesn’t excuse the behavior AT ALL but it’s a stab at the cultural issue.

    1. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

      Yeah – I do think this is a good point.

      Absolutely – Ashley and Patty were in the wrong and I agree with Alison’s advice about how to deal with that.

      Unfortunately it does sound like there’s a real gossip problem at the office. Even though it’s not the main point of the letter – it very well could be a major contributing factor and I would really recommend tackling that (in addition to the Ashley/Patty situation specifically). Regarding tackling the gossiping problem over all, I’ve had a very similar experience to Juli where the culture was specifically do to the extreme lack of transparency. I found myself engaging in behavior that I would never normally engage in (eavesdropping, sharing info that I would normally err on the side of discretion because I needed to use it as currency, etc.) – because I wasn’t being given the information needed to do my job properly but was blamed when I didn’t perform perfectly.

      Management’s response to the gossiping was to ramp up the lack of transparency and tighten the info flows even more, which then induced more of a power struggle/desperation for info.

      Not saying this is definitely what’s going on here – just one possibility to consider.

    2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      On most points, our COO is actually kick-ass. We’ve grown from being a tiny family company to a small monster of about 250 employees. It’s just time to really start tightening things up over here. There is definitely a lack of transparency here from the CEO & COO, so this is a convo I must have with them to start the culture change.

  6. Lily in NYC*

    I would say to give Ashley a strict warning and give her another chance, but the fact that the company JUST had meetings about not gossiping makes me change my mind. Fire her or at the very least demote her to a non-managerial position. Our CFO’s executive assistant used to gossip about things she’d see while doing her job (like raises and promotions, things she should really keep confidential). She was warned twice and didn’t get better – she was part of a family dynasty that used to work here so they couldn’t just dump her. They got her with a sting operation – her boss left something in his desk that was supposed to be confidential (she was NOT supposed to be going into his desk) but it was totally fake. She fell for it and started spreading info about it and finally got fired.

    1. Pollygrammer*

      I’m not usually in favor of luring people into bad behavior…but hell if I don’t get a whole bunch of secondhand satisfaction from that well-deserved comeuppance. Kudos to your office for the sting.

      1. Lady Phoenix*

        I am only in support of “stings” if done by professionals. Same with “amateur sleuthing” and “vigilantism”.

        Otherwise, amateurs tend to cause a bigger mess and/or get themselves in trouble.

        1. Pomona Sprout*

          Well, things obviously worked out great in the example cited by Lily in New York, and results like that are something to applaud, imo.

          1. Pollygrammer*

            And it sounds like the only other way to solve the problem was to wait for real confidential information to get spread around and then try to prove it, so this was definitely the better choice.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              Actually, real confidential information could have other sources. The fake information is more controllable / identifiable.

        2. Let's Talk About Splett*

          I’d normally agree, but Lily mentioned that the employee was well-connected so the first two times she shot herself in the foot with legit confidential info they could not terminate her. They probably didn’t want to risk legit confidential info getting leaked again so they made something up.

          1. Lily in NYC*

            She wasn’t well-connected in the way it seems from my comment – it’s more like her mom got hired, then her mom’s sister, then every kid in the family got hired as interns or admins and the moms have been here forever. One of the higher ups was friends with the family but he was gone by then. However, both of the moms were well-liked so they wanted to make sure there weren’t going to be hard feelings by all of their coworker friends. It’s difficult to argue with hard evidence after two warnings…

      2. Engineer Girl*

        It wasn’t a lure though. The document was hidden in the desk. The only way to know about it was rifling through the desk.

        1. tangerineRose*

          That’s what I was thinking. She shouldn’t have been going through the desk, so it’s not really a lure.

    2. DanniellaBee*

      A sting operation?! I am shocked it took something that extreme to fire a clearly problematic employee. Workplace culture is such a jungle.

      1. Bea*

        It’s actually smart imo since you can hear so much and repeating that is bad enough. But confirming she actually dug around for gossip is a whole new level of “GTFO”

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Ha, thanks! I was just a bystander and had nothing to do with it. But it scared the crap out of me and was a good deterrent any time I was tempted to gossip.

  7. Qwerty*

    In the meantime, sounds like all 1:1 meetings should happen outside the office, like on a walk or at a nearby coffee shop.

    1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

      This, unfortunately, is what we have to do in our office. It’s primarily open plan, with offices for the senior managers only. The walls are paper thin, and everyone knows that if you want to talk about anything that’s even remotely confidential you need to leave the building. It’s pretty bogus but at least we are all hyper aware of it.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        Imagine all the productive time that’s lost to leaving and coming back for every confidential discussion!
        One of the consequences of poor construction too, with thin walls everywhere. I think there are still people who do plaster walls out there… ;)

    2. Cat Supervisor*

      Most definitely agreed – I’ve already warned Jenny about what happened and we are keeping everything in office hush-hush!

    3. SoCalHR*

      its sad when a nearby coffee shop provides you better privacy than HR’s office (with noise machines!)

      1. Artemesia*

        This is also an illusion alas. I once had lunch with my son next to someone from a development office who was counseling a wealthy donor about how they could take the money left in the will of her relative away from our unit to which it had been willed and transfer it to the very wealthy other unit of the organization he represented. It was an appalling failure of ethics on his part and he had no idea that the person lunching next to him had an interest in his ethical failure.

        1. SoCalHR*

          Exactly – you never know who is sitting next to you (and may know who you are)…. you just have to HOPE for the anonymity of the public space

        2. The Original K.*

          Particularly if everyone from your office goes to the same coffee shop. A previous company was in an exurb where there wasn’t much around, so you saw a lot of people from the company in the local Starbucks because it was the only coffee shop around in a reasonable distance. (I once ran into a member of senior leadership and one of his directors who were rumored to be having an affair in there; they’re married to each other now, so I guess they were.)

          Even if you work in a location with lots of places around, if you always go to “the place on the corner,” you might find that the walls have ears.

      2. Persimmons*

        This trend is infuriating. Discussing confidential information in front of people you expect not to care about it is not the same thing as having privacy. FFS, at that point just put on a trench coat and meet on a park bench.

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Which immediately makes me think of Gene Hackman and John Cazale in The Conversation.

          (Yes, I am old.)

    4. essEss*

      Do NOT discuss confidential info in a coffeeshop! I was stuck on a commuter train listening to a very confidential meeting that the person in front of me was having on the phone. I had all sorts of details about their client and the hush-hush project that was being worked on, and the confidential plan that they were working on. I could have easily gone to the company and told them all sorts of leaked information that I had that I never wanted to know.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      If this weren’t sensitive and confidential meetings, I would agree. But a walk/coffee shop doesn’t seem like the right venue when an employee needs to share their frustration or other confidential conversations.

      I hear people (attorneys, doctors, therapists) break confidentiality all the time by having conversations on the train or in public that are meant to be confidential. The meetings should certainly happen somewhere more private than the current office room, but a coffee shop or walk has drawbacks, as well.

    6. JJ*

      My old company does this with annual reviews (even though there is an office in the back that’s totally private) which was very cool when they surprised me with a “we know we’ve given you no indication or warning that anything is amiss, but SURPRISE we are very unhappy with you and hope you will quit soon” review. At a restaurant. I was shocked. They then let me cry in public for over an hour while they continued to list my sins.

      Although to be fair, when I quit I did it at a restaurant too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      1. tangerineRose*

        That’s horrible! Like AAM says, the basic contents of the review should never be a surprise.

  8. Cat Supervisor*

    OP here.. hoping to keep up with the comments today after I get out of a few meetings.
    Thanks a million, Alison!

    First update: I met with Ashley on Monday, and she vehemently denied all accusations. She also denied that Patty said anything, would not help me come up with a resolution to the issue, and turned the conversation around to Jenny and problems she has with Jenny. After the meeting, Ashley immediately did some laps around the block with another person (who was the one responsible for relaying the info to ‘my side’ of the office).

    I really need to address the us vs. them mentality as you said – it has gotten way out of hand and there *is* a massive culture issue here. I was too friendly and lax in my conversation with Ashley on Monday and need to have convo #2 with her ASAP.

    1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

      So…. what was Ashley’s explanation for the leak, then, if she denied it and also denied that Patty leaked?

      1. irene adler*

        And why is she not doing her job by helping to come up with a resolution to the issue?

        That right there tells me she’s the guilty party. Or at least is aware that Patty is the guilty party here. And she’s not mature enough to ‘fess up to any of this.

        1. Pollygrammer*

          Even if she wasn’t the one spreading the gossip, she’s still the guilty party. The only reason she was in Patty’s office was to listen to the confidential conversation.

      2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        She had no explanation! Ashley has a tendency to just totally shut down and disengage in tough conversations.. kinda like me when I was.. 12.. Patty happens to be moving out of state soon, and so Ashley’s solution was that she won’t be in our office soon, and since Ashley didn’t participate, that means there is no problem.


    2. Teapot librarian*

      I suppose we should be neither surprised that Ashley denied everything nor that she went for a walk with someone else after that conversation. I wish you much success dealing with her.
      Unrelated, I like your username :-)

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        I’m prepared for everyone to laugh at this. But this is totally #familycompanyproblems.

        Patty or Ashley told [Sheila] who told her sister [Donna] who works on the ‘other side.’ Donna told her supervisor [Katelyn] who is the Exec Asst to the COO (my boss), who told me. Sheila & Donna are nieces of the CEO, who has stated they will “always have a job here” and they never get in trouble for anything. Donna is one of the main gossip perpetrators in our company who spreads everything she hears to everybody.

        The *only* way I know it isn’t total hearsay is that I pulled Donna in for a quick chat with Katelyn and myself to get the details of what she heard, and she recited most everything we had talked about word for word.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          So it got back to you via gossip, too.

          This gossip thing is out of control and the fact that you’re even participating in it to an extent is, while justified in this case, a sign that you’re definitely brainwashed by your time there. Get out, get out! Yes, you got some great opportunities there but you’re outgrown the company if you are unable to be an effective manager. If you’re unable to effect culture change there, it’ll probably only be a year or two before you’re so used to it and have given up that this kind of situation won’t even be a blip on your radar because it’s so much worse.

          No consequences means this kind of behavior won’t just be tolerated, but will blossom into an even more terrible working environment.

    3. Pollygrammer*

      I’m curious about how Jenny is reacting–is she as concerned about this as you are? Is she aware that Ashley is trying to scapegoat her?

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Oh yeah. Jenny’s ready to jump ship, and has her resume online. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She & I are good friends, and I’ve told her I totally support her if she ultimately decides to leave. The politics over here are too much for anyone who’s not a yes-person.

    4. CatCat*

      From the letter, “Patty had told Ashley to come over to her office to listen!”

      Was this from Patty? And now Ashley denied Patty said that?

      IDK if any of this is salvageable. Sounds like Ashley not only has bad judgment, eavesdrops, gossips, perpetuates an “us v. them” culture, but she is also a liar. I can’t see anything working other than firing her. I’d focus on getting this toxic dumpster fire of an employee out.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        CatCat, you’re totally right. I’ve just got to get my cajones together and build my case for the COO.

    5. SoCalHR*

      Extending sympathy to you here OP – I’m in a samebutdifferent situation

      She is deflecting if she is turning the issue around on HR. If Ashley didn’t gossip, then Patty, her direct report did, and its at least partially Ashley’s responsibility to address that (which will be difficult if Ashley does have culpability – let her ;make her own bed’). Does she know her block-walking friend is the mole?

      Sadly though, if the COO ties your hands in the situation, you may not be able to get very far.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Thanks for the support, SoCalHR.. I’m so sorry you are dealing with something similar! Yeah, she’s aware of who the mole is – I told her about all of the people involved in this incident, in hopes that she’d have a chat with those folks to at least let them know I’m on to them, even if she doesn’t agree with stopping the gossip and I’m powerless to actually fire the folks.

    6. neverjaunty*

      With respect, no, you don’t need to have another conversation with Ashley that consists of anything other than “Please collect your personal things and here is your final check.”

      She’s eavesdropped and, worse, lied to you when you confronted her. You let her shift the conversation to one about her personal grievances. She doesn’t respect your authority and isn’t interested in changing her behavior.

        1. Logan*

          Maybe I’m missing something, but this comment from the OP seems to provide potential problems with your answer as well as this question:
          “Jenny’s inability / lack of authority to properly discipline any employee (our COO takes an abnormally friendly, “many chances” approach to discipline).”

            1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

              Yeah, we can easily fire anyone within their probation period (3 – 6m), but the OGs are harder to terminate. We always have to build a big fat case against people, and it’s very hard to terminate based on a ‘few’ infractions, regardless of severity.

              I’ve even had to ‘build a case’ against those who we’ve caught drinking on the job, stealing from the company, snatching drug samples, and more! 2017 was a ‘year of termination’ for us where I finally broke through and was able to terminate a handful of OGs who did not need to be here.

              1. Anon for now*

                Oh wow! If they were resistant to firing people for stealing drugs (!) then there is no way they will fire someone for disclosing information that they overheard. This sounds like a place that is all kinds of dysfunctional.

              2. Totally Minnie*

                Things like drinking on the job and stealing drug samples are grounds for instantaneous firing, even if the employee’s never done a single other thing wrong in their life. I know you’ve said elsewhere in the comments that your COO is good at other aspects of the job, but I’m side-eyeing this guy HARD. As a front line employee, I could not respect or trust an administrator who didn’t fire people for those kinds of offenses.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I wasn’t clear on what authority the OP had — the letter says she’s the general manager, so I assumed she had some, even if Jenny doesn’t. (Jenny is the HR manager, so it’s possible that her situation is different from non-HR managers; it’s not necessarily unreasonable that HR wouldn’t be able to overrule managers about discipline on their team, as that might have referred to.) But the OP’s comments here make it clear that the COO is giving her no authority to manage — in which case, she can’t do her job and needs to leave. There’s no salvaging that.

            1. Logan*

              I noticed OP’s comment about this further down the thread after I responded – sorry for not catching the redundancy!

            2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

              I was formerly the Director of HR, with the HR Manager under me – as the GM, I’m still doing a lot of HR work, but supervising all of our department heads and diving into some deeper work with the CEO / COO. Jenny manages all of our front desk staff. We’re one of those weird places where personnel management and HR are tied into the same role, which I’ve been trying to split for years.

              Yeah, you’d assume a GM had more of a say-so in terminations, but our CEO & COO love to be in the weeds and have a very active part in running every aspect of the company. The intention of promoting me into the GM role was to help them get out of the weeds, but they can’t seem to do it. It’s hard when your baby (the company) grows up, but it’s time to cut the cord and let your managers manage! Trust us to make the right decisions – there’s a reason you put us in these roles, right??

        2. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

          It wouldn’t surprise if the OP didn’t have the authority to fire Ashley.

          I’ve worked in more than one place, where all firings had to be signed off on by the CEO or VP. And it sounds to me based on the letter if the COO overrules Jenny he/she will overrule the OP as well.

        3. Cat Supervisor*

          Excellent question. My resistance to fire her is strictly only because the COO wishes not to – Ashley is in a very important position in the company, but she is definitely not management material. I’ve already started this conversation with the COO to try to at lay demote her. We already have massive turnover issues [red flag, I know] and the cost involved in replacing someone with her knowledge is more than we can afford.

          And yeah, I’m totally aware of the major cost of toxic employees… It’s this weird situation where I’m the GM but every big decision has to be approved by the COO. I have very little power. If I had my way, the whole team would be replaced. The culture of that department is very mean-girls, manipulative, lying, etc.. I can’t even enforce the dress code over there without it being a huge hassle!

          And to answer the immanent “why are you still working there?!”…. I worked my way up to GM from a receptionist position here over many years. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities. This company specializes in mental healthcare, so my focus is purely the care of our thousands of patients and making sure they get the care they deserve.

          1. serenity*

            That’s very disappointing to hear. If you have no authority to fire/discipline, the COO has effectively cut off all your tools to be an effective manager. This is a lose/lose situation.

          2. Hills to Die on*

            So it sounds like you could do the following:

            1. Fire her anyway. If the COO doesn’t like firing anyone or giving consequences, perhaps he will forgive you and not fire you as well.
            2. Accept that you work at a shitshow and just not let anyone hear anything you say. Conduct meetings with Jenny at a coffee shop, in a car, or at a home.
            3. Leave for another Health Care company now that you have excperience under your belt and go someplace normal.
            4. Move Patty and Ashley to the basement and dig in your heels as hard as necessary to never let them see the sun again.
            5. Make Patty and Ashley so miserable and powerless in their roles that they leave, but in ways that the COO can’t find fault with.

            1. JS*

              Please do not do 4 & 5 OP! If you are going to fire them, fire them but don’t try to get rid of toxic behavior with toxic behavior. That helps nothing but further perpetuates the culture as if Ashley and Patty have people behind them, which it sounds like they do, its only going to make things worse and make people’s opinion of you go down.

              1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

                Yeah, I have no intention of fighting fire with fire. Not my style. I am well-respected by just about everyone except this one department.

                1. JS*

                  Great to hear. People dig their own graves with their toxic behavior best to take the high road when you can.

          3. Opting for the Sidelines*

            Yep, I’m going to be the one to ask the imminent “why are you still working there”? Although this company has given you great opportunities (which you have obviously excelled at or you wouldn’t be in your current position), IMO your loyalty is misplaced. You are being cut off at your knees and are not empowered to fix a toxic situation. They are not supporting you. They are not being loyal TO YOU.

            I’d be keeping my eye out for a new job. You certainly should be able to leverage all of your opportunities into a strong resume for an even better opportunity at a healthier office.

            1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

              Yeah, after seeing a myriad of folks posting similar comments.. It’s become clear to me that I don’t need to be here anymore. Sometimes you just need to hear it from someone else outside the situation and the commenters here (I <3 you all) have made it glaringly obvious that I need to GTFO.

              Thanks so much to everyone who's validated.. sometimes you don't realize how bad the sitch is until the internet tells you so. :)

          4. And So it Goes*

            I am sorry you are going through this. Your heart and spirit are in the right place however you may be on the wrong track.
            1. Regarding the two clowns in question, it is clear they are toxic and do not belong in the organization.
            2. The bigger issue is your career, which you have worked very hard to establish. Do you see a long term solution to the COO’s lack of stones? You have received some great advice on the day to day operation, now you have to start thinking long term. Take a deep breathe and figure out just what you will put up with and what outcome you want at the end of day and for your career. There is no quick fix to this. At one point in my career I was very unhappy with all aspects of what I was dealing with. I really did not know what to do. I’ll give you the advice I received which was the best advice I could have received and really needed: Do Something!!

            I wish you luck.

            1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

              Thanks for your support, And So it Goes..
              The long term solution is that I need to stop just accepting what the COO is telling me to do, regardless of the repercussions, and I need to stand up for what is right. I’ve been trying to use, “I’m sorry, but that’s not an acceptable answer / course of action” a lot more lately.

              Part of me doesn’t want to leave. I don’t want to see the bad guys win, and I want to be the catalyst that turns this thing around. Although I’ve hit one issue I have with my COO in my letter, she’s generally very supportive of me taking action and wants to help me make the change in a lot of other areas. This is just the one area that I can’t stand not having her support in.

          5. A Nickname for AAM*

            Oh Cat Supervisor, I just left a job that was the same way. It’s awful and upsetting and I’m sorry.

          6. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

            Unfortunately, you may have the GM title, but you don’t have the job it sounds like. If you did you would be able to enforce the dress code and fire employees when appropriate. I would highly encourage you to consider looking elsewhere. I understand loyalty to an employer and be afraid to leave, but I suspect while the COO has a strangle hold on personnel decisions things will only continue to spiral downwards.

            Is the COO a physician? I ask only because I’ve found many clinicians are hired into CEO and COO positions, but they often don’t have the appropriate skill set so they end up micromanaging certain situations.

      1. MuseumChick*

        +1000 to this. It’s one thing if someone does something, then when confronted apologizes and changes their behavior. It’s time to fire her.

      2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Yeah, there’s been a longstanding issue of me not having authority over this department. This is the first person I’ve felt totally flabbergasted managing. In Ashley’s defense, she’s been managed for the last several years by a toxic member of the family. She’s just been broken out of that and put under my management but cannot develop her backbone. I want to help her out and develop her but with each incident like this I’m just ready to let her fail, and I hate feeling like that as a manager.

    7. Engineer Girl*

      Ashley immediately did some laps around the block with another person (who was the one responsible for relaying the info to ‘my side’ of the office).

      Are you saying that Ashley went after your information source?

      I’d talk to that person and find out what happened. Did Ashely threaten her or ask her to cover things up?

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Ashley went after my info source’s sister. Info source & sister are nieces of the CEO. I have no idea what they spoke about, just speculation given the timing. Sister has loyalty to Ashley, and none to me. I won’t get anything out of her.

  9. Thirtysomething*

    Worked in a place like this recently. Was miserable and unable to make changes culturally. Leaving, even though I lost one of the best gigs, amenity wise, has been life changing. I was able to move laterally, keep my pay, but get away from toxic subordinates who did this stuff to me all the time. I used to do work from home, after hours, to avoid this stuff. Life shouldn’t be that way.

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Thirtysomething.. I’m in the same boat. Endless unpaid OT, no budget to hire the right amount of staff we need but stuff “has to get done” so we’re not lacking in the patient care department. It’s rough. Congrats on making the job change! High five!

  10. Lady Phoenix*

    Unless there is a serious issue, I say fire her.

    I am not in support of people who devolve to middle school antics of eavesdropping and spreading rumors—especially in the medical industry where confidentiality is the highest concern.

    As for Patty, put her on PIP, give her time to clear her head and hopefully outgrow the middle school toxicity… and if she doesn’t, then she can gossip with Ashley off the clock permanently.

    As obe of the bullied kids, I have harsh opinions on gossipers and mean [adult] girls. The only useful gossip is in video games and fantasys/scifi stories.

  11. CBH*

    I wonder if with the training, did the employees have to sign something that they attended and understood the nature of the training. If so, I think that would be a legal way to let go of Ashley and Patty. These are major ethical and professional breaches. I would also think that (at least the higher ups) wound now have trouble trusting Ashley and Patty because of the gossip.

    1. TCO*

      In the U.S. you don’t really need a “legal way” to fire an employee. You can fire anyone as long as it’s not for a handful of legally-protected reasons (like discrimination, being a whistleblower, etc.). An ethical breach like this is plenty of reason to fire Ashley, regardless of the training–a manager shouldn’t need to be told not to listen to confidential conversations and gossip about them. That should be a baseline expectation of any manager who’s competently fulfilling her responsibilities.

      1. CBH*

        TCO I agree with what you are saying. I am in the U.S. as well. I should have been more clear in my comment. I was trying to imply more along the lines that if Ashley and Patty signed something to say that they attended training, they can’t use the “I didn’t know” excuse. They will have had to acknowledge (if proven which is a whole other issue based on the comments already listed!) that they at least knew what was expected as an employee and playing naïve is not going to work.

        Also a little off topic from our comments, just a side note… while I do believe that OP and Jenny have a right to be upset, furious and NEED to address the gossip problem/ let go of Ashley and Patty… even though they were speaking outside work hours they were aware of the structural issues in the office. More precautions should have been taken with such a delicate topic.

      2. A Nickname for AAM*

        “In the U.S. you don’t really need a “legal way” to fire an employee.”

        Yes, but you usually do need a reason to fire someone where the cause is properly documented and the cause is enforced consistently across the company. When someone is fired, often someone higher up will come up with all sorts of reasons to second-guess the decision and harass the firing-manager, or if the person fired is a problem person (like Ashley seems to be) they will get back by filing all sorts of BS complaints against the company, ex: filing for unemployment under false pretenses, filing grievances with the state labor department, complaining to the CEO, filing a lawsuit, claiming sexual harassment. Even if none of these complaints have merit, they’ll take considerable time and energy to sort out, and the firing manager will be viewed as the one who caused the “trouble” by firing Ashley in the first place.

        Legally, you do not need a reason to fire someone in the US. Practically, you’d better have all of your ducks in a row because ugly behavior often follows terminations.

    2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      They didn’t, and I should have definitely gone that route.

      The higher ups are pissed, but are choosing their battles, and this is one they don’t want to delve anything into.

  12. Sarah*

    Patty and Ashley both need to lose their jobs, at the least neither should remain in any management role. Either of them keeping their jobs is just going to add to your office culture of gossiping, because there is no consequences. The second issue is you as a general manager and the HR manager you both dropped the ball here and you are at the top of the food chain. The two of you are setting the tone for the office and you have prior knowledge that you don’t have privacy, and that you have a gossiping issue, however you still chose to have this highly confidential conversation in a setting where you knew you did not have privacy. You have to address the Ashley situation, but you need to look at your part in this and how you are feeding the gossiping culture.

    1. LCL*

      Most people including me would think after hours, behind closed doors, with the ‘sound machines’ on (white noise generators or something else?) is private. It reads like this is the first time OP has been faced with dealing with a dedicated eavesdropper. OP dropping the ball is not a fair accusation. OPs only error was in expecting adults to behave like adults.

      1. SoCalHR*

        Agree LCL – it should be expected that an adult, hearing a conversation they shouldn’t be hearing, should take a reasonable effort to remedy the situation (leave/move, put on their own music/headphones perhaps?) not double down on the eavesdropping. Plus, this is also a failure on the C-suite’s part – having a confidential place for HR to do normal HR-y things is part of providing the correct tools for Jenny to do her job successfully. They, in essence, helped create this problem.

      2. Sarah*

        In a regular office, or if I was a employee not the general manager talking to HR I would agree 100%. But OP said they have so much of a problem with gossiping they had to have trainings about gossiping that was going on in one of OP’s groups. So I don’t think OP in the position she holds with the company can take no blame here. If you know there are people stealing garden gnomes in your neighborhood and you have held a meeting on the gnome theft then go and buy a shiny new gnome and put it in your front yard, when its stolen it’s the thieves fault but your poor judgement helped you lose your gnome.

        1. Naomi*

          But OP and Jenny were having conversations about work, which were part of getting their jobs done, and they were as private as they could get within the office. So in your analogy, it’s more like they’re running a garden store. The store isn’t showing poor judgement by stocking garden gnomes, even if there is a rash of gnome thefts in the area.

          1. JS*

            OP and Jenny professional convo was about the problem employee and Jenny’s promotion. Then OP said Jenny was ranting about COO. The ranting is what is unprofessional and not part of “getting the job done”. If OP and Jenny needed to rant they should have done so off property, otherwise they are feeding into the gossipy, complaining, them against us culture.

            1. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

              I’m not sure if I follow – you and Sarah are arguing that because Jenny and Cat Supervisor work in a pit of vipers, Jenny should expect that people are going to be actively pressing their ears against the walls of her office at all times, even when the office appears to be mostly empty?

              More to the point, are you suggesting that because she made a minor lapse in judgment (and yes, this is a minor lapse – you don’t talk smack about the COO, but it was in a setting that you could reasonably expect to be private), Jenny doesn’t have the right to feel violated by this invasion of privacy?

              Alternately, would it have been okay if – say – Jenny and Cat had gone to a coffee shop to have this conversation and Patty and Ashley happened to be out of sight but within earshot?

              I’m a little confused, and I want to make sure I’m reading this clearly.

              1. Sarah*

                Just to be clear LGC
                -Jenny Should be so very mad that she was violated.
                -Ashley and Patty should be fired , this is inexcusable on any level and there is no going back
                -GM and Jenny have blame in this. As the GM and HR working in an office where they have both an issue with gossiping (from Ashleys Group no less) and had a training over it(not just oh Patty like to talk but a training on gossiping for adults). On top of this they know there is no privacy due to thin walls. As management this high up speaking about things that should be confident they need to find somewhere private, and if you are going to talk about your COO a coffee shop is not private. Because they know it is not somewhere in their office space.

                What I am saying is as management when you know of an issue (ie no privacy, and gossipers to this level) then if you don’t take precautions on those known issues ((ie when you take about confidential information you do not want broadcast when you know you have no privacy and your teams are uncontrollable gossipers) then you have some blame here. I didnt say to fire her and Jenny, I said as management this high up not taking into account known issues they (Jenny and the GM) have to look at their part in this especially going forward.

                1. JS*

                  This 100%!!

                  The point isn’t to shift blame onto OP and Jenny but to point out they are in positions of authority and leadership and need to lead by example when there is a known problem. I do think they dropped the ball here but the main issue of the toxic culture is definitely not because of them.

                  I do disagree that Patty and Ashley need to be fired. I think its a bit scapegoat-ish to do so when it appears to be spearheaded by the culture enforced by COO. I do think they need to be disciplined but only GM who knows of other work habits, issues and overall culture can really make the call (even though OP said COO wants to let this go). If OP thinks Ashley or Patty are the main drivers of this behavior and things would be remarkably better without them then, yes fire them otherwise like I said its a scapegoat to a bigger issue. Overall OP has every right to be mad and annoyed at Patty, Ashley and especially COO.

    2. Totally Minnie*

      This feels unnecessarily shaming. OP thought the noise machines they used would block sound from traveling and genuinely didn’t know they could still be overheard. It’s not as if they weren’t trying to be careful with the conversation.

      1. Snark*

        I don’t think it’s unnecessarily shaming. I think it’s completely reasonable to remind people that most offices are not designed for perfect privacy at normal or elevated speaking volume and to proceed with that in mind. If you need to rant about the boss, go find a bar with two for one margs and do it there.

      2. OlympiasEpiriot*

        Yeah, this makes me wonder if Patty & Ashley hadn’t had glasses to the wall with their ears pressed against the bottoms.

    3. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Hey Sarah – I hear what you’re saying. We didn’t realize Patty was in the office (she’s pretty quiet, lights off in the office sometimes), and Ashley’s office is about 30ft away (enough so that she can’t hear when our door is closed).

      1. Khlovia*

        I think you need Patty’s office space for file cabinets. Lots and lots of file cabinets.

  13. Safetykats*

    Obviously, the personnel problem needs managing. However, the physical plant problem needs managing too. The two most common causes of unavoidable eavesdropping are lack of insulating n in interior walls, and interior walls that don’t extend above the ceilings. Both issues are really easy to fix on a per-office basis, and OP should be having the building owner fix the problem – as it’s completely unacceptable for these kinds of conversations to be overheard.

    Although I’m also struck by OPs assessment that HR manager was “venting,” which to me implies talking heatedly or with some energy. I worked for a manager (who had a nicely sound-insulated office; I witnessed the build-out) who was famous for shouting her criticisms of employees at their managers, albeit with the door closed. She was ultimately fired for cause, which included creating a hostile workplace for specific employees who were often the subjects of her diatribes. Even in a well built office, you need to have conversations at a professional volume. If the volume escalates, maybe take a step back and calm down. You can’t call it eavesdropping if people could hear you shouting three offices away.

    1. Myrin*

      I agree with your general point, but I don’t think “venting” necessarily means “talking heatedly or with some energy” (which also doesn’t necessarily imply “loud” to me) – I think it’s more “speaking with an annoyed/exasperated tone”.

    2. Not a Blossom*

      I can vent without yelling. To me, venting is complaining about issues at work just to get them off your chest, and it doesn’t necessarily imply increased volume.

    3. Misteroid*

      Venting doesn’t mean yelling, it just means getting something off your chest.

      And honestly, I think you’re underestimating how much disruption making physical changes to a building can cause, even temporarily, and how disruptive building owners and managers might be to those disruptions.

      1. Safetykats*

        My point was just that even with good sound insulation, people need to be aware of their volume. As far as office buildouts, I help coordinate and inspect most of them for our company – this kind of work can easily be done over a weekend. In our last facility, we did this for all the executive offices and HR offices in a single weekend. We work in mostly leased facilities, and I’ve never seen a landlord that wouldn’t do the work if we were willing to pay for it.

      2. Michaela Westen*

        The building/office should have been built right in the first place, but since that wasn’t done… A good team of professionals could probably get it done in a few days and then they would have the privacy needed to do their jobs.

    4. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Hey Safetykats, we weren’t being loud, but *everything* can be heard in these offices. I know way more than I care to about my office neighbor’s health issues, food preferences, and favorite tv shows than I care to know. Our company has very little revenue (so I’m told) to do any kind of construction.

      We’ve been working on whispering anything sensitive, or – an awful solution – messaging each other on slack and then deleting anything sensitive after it’s been read. I can’t believe we have to chat each other to do our dang work when we sit five feet from each other.

  14. Lisa Babs*

    I totally agree with Alison is saying. BUT I am worried about the effectiveness of saying something like “All of this calls into question her ability to stay in her job, since right now she’s acting in ways that are directly counter to what you need from managers on your team.” BECAUSE the employee overheard the fact of “Jenny’s inability / lack of authority to properly discipline any employee”. So what good can come from hinting at job stability when they know for a fact you have no authority in doing anything?

  15. Kms1025*

    OP, cat supervisor. Lol, as in herding cats? This situation is awful. I know, Capt. Obvious, right? I can’t say this enough, this will NOT get better without drastic personnel changes. Demotion at the least, termination more than likely. These people are troublemakers and there’s likely a clique that needs to be taken apart. Really sorry you have to deal with this. Work is hard enough without this high school drama.

  16. TootsNYC*

    and since your COO, your boss, has an overly friendly approach, it’s time for you and Jenny to be looking for work elsewhere, if at all possible.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Jenny’s resume is already on Indeed. I’ll be working on mine tonight.

  17. Mike C.*

    But step one here is going to be a very serious conversation with Ashley to figure out what’s going on with her, and whether there’s any way to salvage her ability to continue to work for you, since you can’t have managers under you who operate this way and who model that behavior for their staff.

    I appreciate this nod towards root cause thinking here. It’s clear that Ashley is a problem but in examining what’s going on, you can gain valuable information about what’s going on without shutting down any other options for further management, punishment, firing or whatever.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yep. You need to leave OP. Your authority is being wildly undermined and you can’t do your job. That’s bad for your professionally, and it’s bad for your mental health. Get out.

        1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

          This, this, this!

          If you mange other people, you are ultimately responsible for their work. If you can’t hire and fire as you see fit then you are being set-up for failure.

        2. Hills to Die on*

          Un. Forking. Real. You just need to go.
          Can you go to the CEO? If not, time to go. Just run.

          1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

            The CEO is much more unreasonable than the COO. :)
            So, yeah, time to go.

    1. chimichanga*

      You are in a large healthcare company, this cant be let go. Remind him that the company has to nip this before it moves into something HIPPA related and your fined or shut down.

      1. circlecitybelle*

        THIS. If these two mean girls keep gossipping, it’s just a matter of time before they are overheard spreading restricted information and the consequences will not stop with them.

    2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Oh for the love of green apples… Yeah, this is one of those situations that screams of a bad environment that will not be fixable.

      In other words, your boss and employees suck and aren’t going to change.

    3. CBH*

      What?! I feel like things will be uncomfortable if you are not able to address this gossip problem. Also the COO’s management style was a topic of the overheard discussion. It’s almost like the COO is giving himself a free pass.

    4. CatCat*

      If you’re feeling feisty (because it sounds like employees can do no wrong!) “Thanks, boss. It’s always tough when it comes to this. But I agree, the best thing we can do here is the let her go. I’ll get the termination process going including getting her final check drawn up and planning for her exit. Letting her go really is the best option here.”

      1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

        hahaha! I love it. If it’s past the conversation she can draw up the termination papers for Ashley and hand them to COO.

        “Oh, I thought you said to let her go, I mean that doesn’t make sense to let it go”

      2. Lady Phoenix*

        I love this option… even if it is catty and most likely to get you fired too.

        But hey, dude can just “let it go”.


        1. Airy*

          Seriously, it drives me slightly mad that people don’t understand Elsa means “set it free, release it” (her magic talent that she’s been suppressing), not “give up, stop caring about it.”

    5. thunderbird*

      Oh dear – the house is full of evil bees. Time to go. Do it for your own well-being.

    6. Pollygrammer*

      In those words??? How unbelievably, obnoxiously, [expletive] condescending! I’m so sorry your workplace is so vile.

        1. Arbynka*

          He should embrace his inner porn star and go f**k himself.

          Apologies, but I am not feeling that great today, I am cranky and already got upset over the LW with HR, stalker enabling mother…. and now this.

          I hope you can get out of there OP. This sucks.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        To clarify, she didn’t use the ’embrace your inner Elsa,’ but she did say “Just let it go.”

    7. DCompliance*

      This is not a surprise because you advised above that your COO does not discipline people. So either you really need to decided if you feel he is open to discussing this issue with him and how it undermines your authority and lowers morale or you start looking elsewhere or you decided you can work in this environment. ( I have been there and I know is sucks. I am sorry).

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        +100 I think this is a ‘group talk’ situation, where you and Jenny should approach him together.

        HIPAA is a pretty good angle to approach from.

    8. Thirtysomething*

      You should not be surprised. I am sure this is the usual from your COO. Begin the job hunt.

    9. LCL*

      I was formulating my post in my mind and read your update. I’ll post it anyway but much shorter: gossip, along with the anonymous note phenomenon, are usually much worse in a power vacuum. Your COOs response proved my point. If you can’t get support from COO this is unfixable.

      Here’s what happens next. You start making and enforcing some standards against your two troublemakers. The supervisorish one, Ashley, complains to the COO and gets her minions to join in the complaint. Whose side will COO take? The side of the person bringing this issue to his/her attention, or the side of the person who is causing all these problems, which is you, to the vacuum style of management.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        LCL, you’re right. The COO will support me hands-down over the other two.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        No, but she & the CEO have dealt with so much toxic abuse in their personal lives.. I actually asked the CEO this week – about *another* sitch – “Have you been abused so long that you don’t recognize it anymore??” I am currently ‘building a case’ against the DOO (who has been here for a long time, part of the family) for her years-long abuse to many staff, including myself & Jenny. I was told – by the COO – “You know Dan. He’ll never change. You know what kind of shitstorm would follow by us bringing up this issues with him, right?”

    10. Jayne*

      I agree….LET GO…of this job… Your COO just undermined you in a very direct manner. Mean girl Ashley will be confirmed in her invulnerability to consequences while your authority take a hit. Unless you can get a shredder in your so-called office and pass notes (that get shredded) rather than talk. Which illustrates exactly how wacko-0-doodle this situation is.

    11. Marillenbaum*

      Christ on a cracker! Your boss SUCKS and isn’t going to change. I think it might be time to walk. If you can’t walk, maybe just fire her anyway on your own, because we’ve established your COO is spineless and won’t do anything about it.

    12. Liane*

      I suggest a different kind of “letting go”: Letting go all the consequences, including firing, to fall on Ashley’s head. And a few more to fall on Patty’s.

      1. Liane*

        PS: I know it won’t work, unless you can Jedi Mind-whammy COO. “You will go to your office and write Ashley’s name on a pink slip.”

    13. strawberries and raspberries*

      Yeah, this is bullshit. Start looking for something else, these people are unsalvageable. I’m sorry.

    14. beanie beans*

      I am so sorry.

      You already know this, but your COO is brewing a culture where people know their actions won’t have consequences, therefore will never change their terrible behavior. Good people will leave and terrible people will stay.

      I am so sorry.

    15. serenity*

      Umm, while that’s disconcerting to hear I don’t see from your comments that you’ve absorbed Alison’s strongly worded message. You seem too focused on what Patty and Ashley think and feel. You have a major staffing issue in your midst – are you going to address it, or have a “convo” or two and sweep it under the rug?

      1. Delphine*

        Her boss has told her to let it go. Without the boss’s explicit support, there’s not much more OP can do.

        1. soon 2be former fed*

          Yep, I think that for whatever reason, COO wants LW to leave. Apparently, LWs contributions are not as valuable as Ashley’s.

      2. rldk*

        OP has mentioned around this thread that they have no authority to fire employees or even demote them without COO’s approval. Not only is COO refusing to manage, she’s undercutting anyone else who tries too. The OP is clearly not trying to sweep it under the rug – there is literally nothing she can do besides conversations or job hunting.

      3. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Serenity, in my ideal world (and job), I’d follow Alison’s words to a tee. I’ve done it many times before with other issues. The issue is that I don’t have the support of the COO to actually pursue this. Also, referencing Alison’s response, this is a massively dysfunctional (family) company.

    16. Sara without an H*

      I was afraid of that. Sorry, but I think you need to start looking for another job.

      Meanwhile, you can try enforcing standards, documenting violations, etc. Since your COO is incompetent, it won’t help solve the particular situation, but it may be useful to your successor in the future. (C-Suite imbeciles come and go, but the files remain forever.)

    17. Totally Minnie*

      Wait a second. This grown adult used a condescending metaphor from a children’s cartoon* as an excuse for why he should not have to do his job?

      Run for the hills, Cat Supervisor. You can do so much better than this toolbag of a boss.

      *I have nothing against cartoons. I watch them regularly. But they are not a basis for forming a professional philosophy.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        In her defense, she didn’t actually reference Elsa – but she did say “Just let it go.”
        That was just me being too dramatic!

    18. Mike C.*

      Well, now’s the time to gather up any and all dirt you have on the company and rat them out to the authorities.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        I’ve got plenty, but I don’t want to go that route, and ONLY for the sake of the thousands of patients we have, honestly. We’re a specialty practice that has the stronghold in the state. There are not near enough providers to take care of all of these folks.

        1. tangerineRose*

          If the company isn’t doing the right thing for the patients, alerting the authorities (even anonymously) seems like the right thing to do.

    19. OlympiasEpiriot*

      If those are the actual words he used, I am agog.

      Yes, please let it go. Let it go all the way out the door, being sure not to let it hit Ashley on the rear as she’s 86’d into the street and then let it go for yourself all the way to another company.

      I wouldn’t be able to take the environment you’ve described.

    20. KC without the sunshine band*

      Oh my goodness. Sharpen your pencil to that resume immediately. Otherwise, your reputation may end up the scapegoat in this whole mess when it hits the fan, and it will. Get out now.

    21. SpaceNovice*

      The Feds won’t let this go if HIPAA information gets out because of stuff like this. Gossip is a big source of HIPAA violations. If she’s able to gossip about coworkers so easily, she’ll happily gossip about patients. She as in either of them. This is a lawsuit that is waiting to happen and must be rectified immediately. So +1 to the suggestions of mentioning HIPAA.

      1. SpaceNovice*

        But you’ll probably have to leave this workplace, sadly, like everyone else is suggesting. It sounds like he doesn’t care.

      2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Yeah, luckily, of our 99 problems, HIPAA ain’t one. But it is a ticking time bomb.

    22. Observer*

      So, unless there is someone else you can talk to about this, the company has just lost any claim to loyalty that they ever had.

      Start looking. HARD.

    23. Not A Morning Person*

      This is also what I’ve come to understand is a typical response from someone whose background is mental health vs. business. IME the managers who started in mental health and are now managing people tend to treat employees more like patients or friends than employees. They are ineffective and sometime behave as if poor employee behavior is either 1. – An attempt to show personal disrespect and hurt the managers feelings, or 2. – behavior that should be overlooked because they have no idea how to have a performance discussion, only counseling discussions, which are not at all the same thing.
      OP, your office culture and your COO isn’t going to change and you need to get out!

    24. Lady Phoenix*

      Thta is NOT how the song works. That is definitely not how the song works. The film itself explains why hiding your problems is not “letting go”.

      In fact, the only song you should be singing is the parody “Fck It All” when you smack the COO with your resignation.

      1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

        Oh, how I have envisioned how I’d love my resignation to go if I gave zero f***s.

    25. JennyAnn*

      I’m a little late to this party and would like to second the “ESCAPE”, but I do have a general question for both Cat Supervisor and Allison. Since your hands are so clearly tied by the COO not wanting to do their job, would it make any sense to move Patty to an office further away and move someone in who is more likely to act like they’ve graduated high school? Not as a “managing out” solution but a point blank, “you can’t be trusted to be this close to confidential information while we’re working on dealing with your behavior”? It’s my instinctive reaction, and I get that it’s treating a symptom rather than the cause, but would there be any use or just make things worse?

  18. New Here*

    Yeah… I don’t know. If your employee distrusts you enough that she feels like she needs to eavesdrop on your conversations to get an idea of what’s going on in the company, it seems like a managerial issue to me. Is there any sort of internal feedback system at your company to see what is and isn’t working as far as work culture goes? It would be interesting to see how Ashley feels about the company overall (although it likely isn’t great).

    1. Foon*

      “If your employee distrusts you enough that she feels like she needs to eavesdrop” – you’re putting words into OP’s mouth. Eavesdropping isn’t necessarily a sign of mistrust, especially when it’s opportunistic. I would say this is case is caused by pure nosiness.

      1. New Here*

        Perhaps! Having worked at a dysfunctional company, this kind of thing was pretty common and often stemmed from being kept too out of the loop. Obviously, there are some conversations (like this one) that Ashley shouldn’t be included in on, but it’s possible that she doesn’t feel that she’s being included on enough conversations and feels that this is the only way to get information. It’s unfortunate that it got to this point, but I don’t think this kind of eavesdropping always comes from pure nosiness.

        1. JS*


          Especially because this wasn’t all professional work talk. OP admits that HR manager was ranting to her about COO. That isn’t professional and is gossip in itself. It looks bad for HR to be ranting to GM about COO.

          1. Not A Morning Person*

            Just because some of the talk was about how the HR manager’s hands are tied when trying to address poor employee behavior, doesn’t mean it was ranting or even unprofessional. And that was only one topic of what sounds like a few issues where they discussed what could be done to address some bad behavior and other confidential topics. I’m surprised at how many people seem to be on Team Ashley vs. Team OP and HR. It’s disconcerting to see how many people are coming to the defense of a really bad manager who encourages her employees in bad behavior, as well. Even if it is due to the COO, that behavior is not appropriate or professional. The OP works in an office of bees!

            1. JS*

              “She was also ranting, in confidentiality, about the lack of support from our COO (my supervisor) in regards to several recent HR situations,…”

              Ranting was OPs words. It’s in the letter they wrote. I agree the promotion and discipline of an employee isn’t unprofessional to discuss and should remain confidential. However the “ranting” part about COO is (even if valid which it sounds like it is). Especially when OP as GM and Jenny as HR knows they have a huge enough problem to warrant anti-gossip training/meeting. I said in another post I’m not really on anyone’s side here. Spreading overheard gossip is wrong but so is gossiping at work when you are GM and HR who are supposed to be setting the example.

              My stance on it is while Ashley and Patty’s behavior need to be addressed OP and Jenny also dropped the ball here and need to be EXTRA careful on what they do in the office and be role models of behavior. Everyone needs to be super mindful of actions if that culture is going to change.

              1. Not A Morning Person*

                Ranting does not necessarily imply loud and obnoxious. Ranting can be a reasonable expression of frustration. People can have a conversation in a quiet volume of voice and express how they are frustrated with being stymied when they try to implement standards or discipline and oh how they wish the COO would support their efforts instead of blocking them, particularly as an effort to discuss what some solutions might be. And I might argue that it isn’t gossip if it’s a true expression of the facts and something that isn’t being shared with people who don’t have a need to know.

                1. JS*

                  But it doesn’t have to be loud and obnoxious to be unprofessional. It could be a “true expression of the facts” but in an office environment where gossip is already a huge problem its going to look like gossip. This is especially true as it is the GM and HR doing so about the COO. OP called it ranting so while I dont believe Jenny was being extra loud or volatile in anyway I wouldn’t call any kind of ranting professional.

                  OP definitely as a right to be annoyed at Ashley and want to see efforts in place to discipline or correct the behavior, but at the end of the day it was unprofessional to even have that conversation in the office. They need to lead by example if they truly want the culture to change. Save the ranting for an offsite Happy Hour.

              2. Cal*

                Seems like you’re nitpicking. You see the word “ranting” and your mind was already made up. The rest of OP’s explanation is nonexistent to you, which is unfair to OP.

                1. JS*

                  OP mentioned “ranting” about the COO separate from other issues they were discussing in regards to work which means the tone and attitude were different. Words and context are important so you cant just disregard them. It’s not nitpicking to point out that part of the convo was different that the rest of what they discussed because OP said it themselves.

                  Also I am unsure what is unfair about saying that OP needs to be careful about the conversations she has with others in the office and what can be perceived to be gossip since there is a gossip problem? They are GM and were speaking with HR. They set the tone, they are the leaders. This isn’t a big deal on its own but its important to call out in context of the culture that supports gossip and lack of accountability for leaders to be extra careful.

          2. NDC*

            The general manager and HR manager were discussing (we don’t know the volume or tone) matters that affect their ability to fulfill their duties to their employer and clients. That’s not gossip, it’s a professional conversation that could reasonably be viewed as part of their job description.

            1. JS*

              But that’s incorrect because we do know both. The tone, it was ranting (ranting is complaining their is a definite tone to it) and we know the volume since OP mentions they used sound machines so they were trying to be conscientious of how loud they were being. If it were just a discussion about obstacles then OP wouldn’t have called it ranting separate from the other work issues they were discussing. It’s all about the context.

              1. NDC*

                Clearly I erred when attempting to characterize the tone of their conversation, and undermined my central point. Which is: the content of the conversation was 100% related to the specific duties of the people involved. Not gossip.

                Even if they were “ranting”, that doesn’t make it OK to eavesdrop on what was clearly a private conversation, or to disclose said conversation to others.

                And as an aside, characterizing someone’s tone as ranting comes very close to tone policing (feel free to google that), which is a tactic used to silence groups such as women and people of color. Think very hard about what you are doing with this line of argument.

                (Alison, I recognise that my last point could start a digression, and I’m not going to pursue it any further.)

                1. JS*

                  I never said ranting made it OK to ease drop and spread gossip. Two wrongs don’t make a right. The overall point I am making is when there is a known gossip issue in your office as leadership it is a misstep to rant about other leadership in-office where there is a very real chance you could be overheard (if you need to use sound-machines). I am not trying to take responsibility away from Ashley and Patty, only to point out that OP needs to be careful as her and Jenny don’t come out of this squeaky clean either.

                  As far as tone policing, it appears you erred yet again. OP used the word “ranting” in the letter to describe the conversation. Please feel free to re-read the letter as it appears you missed it. I don’t want to go into this too much further as I am annoyed by it but I need to say that am both a woman and POC. Please be more cautious in the future before you make wild assumptions and try to get more clarification as it’s pretty offensive to jump to this conclusion knowing nothing about me especially when I am not pulling this word out of thin air.

        2. tangerineRose*

          But what about the gossiping? I could understand how someone might listen as a measure of self-protection (I don’t recommend it), but spreading the details through the office is just too much.

    2. Enough*

      You don’t need distrust to have eavesdropping. Some people just like to know as much as possible about every thing.

    3. Two Sides*

      I was kind of thinking the same thing. Having worked for a cliquey and disfunctional company before, I’ve observed this dynamic before and its never one sided. Not saying the OP is at fault, but Ashley probably has her reasons for being upset too

      1. Totally Minnie*

        I would argue that Ashley and the OP have the same reason to be upset, and that reason is the COO.

    4. MonteCristo1985*

      I can see how someone might start eavesdropping if they felt out of the loop, but that doesn’t excuse passing the information on. Two very different things, and at least IMO, the gossiping is the real problem, not overhearing stuff.

    5. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Awesome idea, New Here.. We used to utilize the anonymous site SuggestionOx, but we don’t get much feedback there anymore. I asked Ashley to participate in our company’s Gallup 12Q and she refused. She also prevented her staff from participating in it!

  19. loslothluin*

    Is there no way to fire Ashley? She’s never going to get better, because she’s never going to admit to anyone that she’s part of the problem.

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      I’m working on -at least- demoting her, but I don’t have the COO’s support to fire her.

  20. Amber Rose*

    Time to polish up that resume, OP. A job that toxic is unfixable and going to hurt your health long term, and a job hunt can take a while, so I’d start looking around yesterday. Meanwhile, maybe emails/texting/passing notes is more feasible? Pretend you’re trapped in a spy movie and you have to be careful because the walls have ears, which is sadly half true, and not the fun half.

    Obligatory joke idea for hopeless situations: pass notes in front of nosy person. When you see her looking at you, shove the note in your mouth and slowly chew while maintaining eye contact.

    1. SarahKay*

      In which case, write the notes on rice paper, using a cake decorating pen – might as well make them easily edible ;-)

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Ooh! This totally shouldn’t be done for obvs reasons, but: write on flash paper!

        Flash paper is the stuff magicians use. (See link in my user name.) Just a bit of flame and that stuff is *gone*. Pass the note in front of Nosy Person and when you see her looking, flick a cig lighter at the note and *poof* it’s gone. It doesn’t even burn long enough to hurt your hand.

        This is a terrible idea for reasons of building safety rules and you should totally never do it.

    2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      I can verify that it has already been detrimental to my health in many ways I won’t get into here. And the worst part – being the company confidant, I hear about how it’s affecting everyone else, too. I want to be a catalyst for change before I peace out.

      Maybe I could get one of those invisible ink pens I had as a kid for me & Jenny! Viewable by UV light only!

  21. Frankie*

    Trying to be constructive and say more than just “look for other jobs”…what is it that your COO does care about? Like, what’s his worst-case scenario? Is there any way you can frame this to get the problem through his head? Might not be a productive exercise, but could be worth a think if you really want to stay in this job.

    1. loslothluin*

      The COO is part of the problem and doesn’t seem to get it, at all. Some days, the best advice is to get the hell out of Dodge and let that place continue to burn.

    2. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Honestly, what she cares about right now is completing the process of due diligence.. We’re in the midst of securing -gasp- millions of dollars in EXPANSION REVENUE. So yeah, this is about to bust into being a regional issue instead of just a state-wide one. So she’s letting a lot of stuff go right now if it’s not important enough to distract her from DD.

  22. AKchic*

    My desk/office was right next to the HR Manager’s office. Walls were thin and he was loud. In the 4 years I was next to him, I pretended I couldn’t hear a thing, unless he directly asked me if I could, and even then, I would tell him yes, I could hear noise, but other than that, it was none of my business and I could easily tune it out. Any stray word I *did* happen to catch would be ignored or forgotten.
    Why? Because it’s not my concern. If HR wanted me to know their business, they’d include me in on the emails and they would have invited me in on the calls and into their office directly. Specifically listening in is not only rude, but it is gauche. To then gossip about what you’ve overheard and then (probably) misinterpreted is testicular fortitude of the highest magnitude, especially so soon after a lecture about workplace gossip.

    Alison’s advice is great. If this were me (and it’s not, and I’m not a forgiving person after I have lectured a group against specific activities), I would be placing both Ashley and Patty on PIPs. I would also be removing Ashley from any managerial/supervisory roles as it is obvious she is not suited for them within this company.
    Honestly, since it is so soon after the group lecture/meeting about workplace gossip, I’d rather just let Ashley go since she is a supervisor and she is supposed to be modeling appropriate workplace behavior and ethics, to which she both did not do, and flagrantly violated rather than shut down as appropriate.

  23. Foon*

    I’m not sure what Ashley and Patty expected to happen by spreading the details to the entire office. There was zero chance that the breach would not be traced back to them. Did they not realize? Or do they not care, knowing that the office has a lenient attitude towards discipline?

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      They don’t care because they know nothing will happen (esp. when they deny everything).

  24. TJ*

    I might have missed something in the letter, but how do you know it was in fact Ashley and not Patty who gossiped? Either way I can’t see a path forward in which I wouldn’t fire both of them immediately. It shows such an egregious lack of judgement and frankly, asshole behavior that I couldn’t work with either of them. It sounds like it’s certainly worth stepping back to see if this is all indicative of a larger cultural problem, but even so I couldn’t have people like that on my team.

    1. CBH*

      I was actually just going to ask Alison / opinions of this scenario in a post. Let’s say you can’t prove who gossiped, Ashley or Patty. There’s a 50/50 chance that just one of them gossiped or both of them gossiped. How do you go about addressing the situation? I believe that the ease dropping is a fireable offense for both however it sounds like this COO is not going to take that route of discipline. You take the risk of blaming someone (for gossip not ease dropping) for something they didn’t do.

      1. CatCat*

        You don’t have to prove who gossiped to fire someone. You don’t have to figure out which of the employees is the more toxic one to cut either one loose.

      2. TJ*

        True, but I think both employees showed a severe lapse in judgment. Both offenses are serious enough to me where I couldn’t work with them again. And if I didn’t have the authority to fire them then I would start looking for a way to get myself out of that job pretty quickly.

      3. Jules the 3rd*

        You address with both of them, and judge their responses. Managers are responsible for supporting the concerns of their higher managers.

        If mgr = Total_Denial, then PIP, else
        If mgr = That’s_A_Problem, then Discuss_Solution, including how to address with Employee
        If Employee = Total_Denial, then Monitor

      4. AKchic*

        Ashley gets written up for not shutting Patty down when Patty invited Ashley over to listen in to a private conversation and not walking away when she was originally invited.

        Patty gets written up for inviting someone to listen in to a private conversation rather than minding her own dang business.

        Both get written up for the information getting spread about because both were privy to the information and didn’t have enough discretion to keep it to themselves initially.

        Ashley gets demoted because as the supervisor, she had the authority to shut Patty down from the start, but instead chose to foster a culture of gossip and eavesdropping. Both are considered to be on their “final warning”. Anyone else heard discussing the private matter will be written up for discussing a private matter after their coaching meeting that discouraged active gossip (that training? Yeah, that was a soft verbal warning). Any further gossip will result in a PIP/final warning.
        Gossip culture stops now.

        Granted, this is all predicated on having a boss that will actually back you up. It sounds like LW has a higher up that likes to give too many chances. At some point, the line staff will gossip and disclose something sensitive and detrimental to a client or the company. It will backfire and then the boss is going to be in a panic. That’s on the boss for fostering such a lenient attitude and allowing this kind of thing fester.

    2. Liane*

      “I might have missed something in the letter, but how do you know it was in fact Ashley and not Patty who gossiped?”
      Maybe it was just Patty gossiping, but that doesn’t change the fact that ASHLEY is the one who took up a report’s invitation to “Come here and listen to your Boss and HR discuss confidential stuff” instead of saying “WTH, Patty, how stupid and unethical can you be?”

    3. rldk*

      Since Patty reports to Ashley, it would be the same approach, wouldn’t it? Talk to Ashley, express concern that a confidential conversation got out, especially after seeing them both in the next office. Ashley would be responsible for disciplining Patty if she was the leak.

    4. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Yeah, I can’t prove who gossiped. Ashley denied that she was even in the room (although I saw her there when we left). I told Ashley on Monday – well, if it wasn’t you, then clearly it was Patty, right? How else would the info have gotten out?

  25. Girl friday*

    Sounds like a serious climate problem. Rewarding this would be bad as it is not just one person. If you can avoid paranoia, and not give attention, that would be better. If the chosen climate isn’t an enlightened one, then I think less response is called for. Negative attention actively sought is rewarding to the unstable, as is pointing fingers. Do not grease wheels in general.

    1. Girl friday*

      You could have a message of, “This is an open office. Keep the tone positive and rational please, as over-emotionality dilutes our effectiveness and scares clients.”

  26. Mouse Princess*

    I work at a dysfunctional non-profit and this didn’t sound that bad to me. Just goes to show how working in a dysfunctional office changes your perception of things! Yikes

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Mouse Princess, OMG, you are so right!! It’s not until I talk to people outside of the company that I realize how totally effed up the whole show is.

      1. Mouse Princess*

        Thank the lord for AAM for keeping us aware of what a normal, functional workplace should be like! Red flags all over the place. It also helps me consider when my own behavior is sinking to the same level as the workplace. Kudos to you for realizing that this situation was messed up and reaching out for advice. I think a lot of people would have just chalked it up to a crappy workplace with crappy co-workers. Best of luck to you.

  27. WellRed*

    How does a COO of a healthcare organization have time to be involved in lower level personnel crap?

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Funny enough, we joke about the cone of silence all the time. But seriously, I’m ready to install it ASAP.

  28. Maggie98765*

    My question throughout was — how does OP know this is what happened unless through more gossip? What if Ashley denies she went in there to listen and just says she had to work on something with Patty and it was easier to take care of it right there? Isn’t it Ashley’s word against OP? And how do you address that if you do decide to fire her? BTW, I am NOT defending Ashley but am honestly curious how to address it.

  29. Colorado*

    I don’t have time to read the comments today but both Ashley and Patty should be fired. Not only do they deserve it for this complete (intentional) breach of confidentiality but it will also send a very strong message that this will not be tolerated. Sounds like you’ve got more problems with the COO too. Give us an update!

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Yeah, I’m definitely going to update you all after some time has passed for me to work through this!

  30. Snark*

    I mean, yeah, Ashley needs to be fired, but….

    [blockquote]Both Jenny and I feel like we cannot have any conversations in our office any longer, and there’s nowhere else we can move right now[/blockquote]

    OP, mi muchacha, you are precisely correct! You cannot have loud, ranting conversations about the professional failings of your supervisors and superiors at top volume in your office, particularly when your office has a documented gossip problem of long standing. Hell, even if your office had no gossip problem AT ALL, you should not do that because obviously. Ashley displayed terrible judgment, but frankly….yours was not unimpeachable either. Stop the venting, stop the ranting, play your cards close to the vet. If you do need to vent about the COO, hie thee to the nearest bar with a happy hour and vent there. That’s basically why happy hour was invented. But no more at the office.

      1. Oilpress*

        Exactly. You are supposed to whisper the really juicy bits or write them down on paper. The OP was gossiping and doesn’t realize that the gossip started with her.

    1. WellRed*

      Where do you get ranting from? Venting does automatically not equal loud, ranting or wrong.

      1. JS*

        “She was also ranting, in confidentiality, about the lack of support from our COO (my supervisor) in regards to several recent HR situations,….”

        It’s in OP letter that it was ranting.

        1. Damn it, Hardison!*

          I’m perfectly capable of ranting about my annoying coworker without raising my voice. In fact, I did it this morning. Ranting can be done quietly if the situation requires.

          1. JS*

            I think the loud here is besides the point. As GM OP should not have let HR rant to her about COO in the office period. Even if someone is being nosy and ease dropping, “ranting” in this case is going to look like gossiping. Gossiping that is coming from the GM and HR about COO. That’s the main take away.

        2. SoCalHR*

          I would argue that even “ranting” doesn’t mean LOUD – especially given that they were both aware of the thin-wall issue since they had the door shut and machines on. I’ve ranted in a whisper before!
          Its getting a bit into semantics to assume this, OP would have to elaborate as to the volume and tone. Plus presumably, the first part of the conversation was just “discussion” and Patty and Ashley heard this as well, so its not like they only heard “unprofessional loud ranting” and that caused the issue.

          1. JS*

            Agreed, ranting doesnt have to mean loud. But I would also argue that you could take the loud of the equation and it would still be “unprofessional ranting” in an office that has a gossiping problem and you were overheard. The fact they are GM and HR and are supposed to lead by example makes it worse.

    2. Dr. Doll*

      Hard disagree here. They were in a private office, after hours, doors closed, with noise machines going, trying to problem-solve which devolved temporarily into unproductive frustration aka ranting. And “ranting” does not have to be loud, just vehement.

      Mi muchacho.

    3. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Sorry, Snark, but we were totally not being loud. Neither of us are loud people. The walls are just super thin, really! I promise I’m not trying to deflect me being the problem at all in this situation. We really are in a paper castle.

      1. Strawmeatloaf*

        Yeah I’m not really get where people are equating ranting = yelling/being loud. I even looked up the dictionary definition and it didn’t have any words in it to imply that ranting included being loud.

  31. Workfromhome*

    While I agree that Ashley needs to be dealt with (while her reports have some fault its difficult to fault them if their direct manager may be instructing them on their behavior ).There are some other bigger issues:
    1.The office space- If there is absolutely no place in the office where management can have private conversations that are not easily overheard (it sounds like even if someone was not intentionally eavesdropping they would still hear) then either they need to reconfigure the office so there is or you’ll have to start having all confidential conversations in an offsite location. Its not right for management to not be able to have the discussions they need but its also not right to expect even good employees to ignore this information if they cant help but hear it. If you were discussing layoffs and I heard my name I wouldn’t just ignore it like a judge telling a jury to disregard something that was objected to.

    2. Your culture has issues. In the absence of information rumor and gossip fill the space. Your COO refusing to “discipline” people futher adds to this.

    I wonder if maybe the COO may change his tune about discipline when people gossip about him?

    Likely you can get rid of Ashley but it wont solve the culture issue. This stuff usually runs downhill so you you need to be prepared that you are going to have issued with rumors etc as long as the COO is there.

  32. Paloma Pigeon*

    Alison, can you elaborate more on why ‘us vs. them’ from a manager is not cool, or point out another thread that highlights this? We are going through this exact thing at our office right now and I’ve had a hard time quantifying the situation and how to address it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s incredibly undermining to the leadership team that they’re supposed to be a part of! Really, you want managers to see everyone as all on the same team, but it’s even more detrimental when they portray themselves as being on an opposition team. They’re basically signaling to other people to see management as the enemy. It creates a huge amount of cynicism and toxicity in your culture, and it destroys other manager’s ability to trust them to handle confidential or sensitive information with discretion, or to trust that they’re not undermining you behind your back. It’s totally unworkable.

      1. SoCalHR*

        Agree – the front line supervisors need to be the bridge between the employees and the management team. They can’t abandon their team, but they also need to back up management. I try to take a similar approach with HR, but its a fine line to walk.

  33. Bea*

    We’re a bunch of chatty Cathys over here but holy sht it’s curiosity and not a gossip mill. We’re also not in a sensitive field like Healthcare. I would worry that these women also don’t take confidentiality seriously and would fire them both.

  34. JS*

    The issue isn’t really with Ashley it’s with the culture. I’m not on Ashley’s side by any means but I am not necessarily on Jenny’s and OPs either. While Ashley shouldn’t have eased dropped and spread the gossip, OP and Jenny were gossiping themselves since OP admitted Jenny was ranting. It looks bad if HR is ranting to GM about COO. That isn’t a good look either the fact that it was meant to be private doesn’t mean anything. They all have some blame in this.

    I do think that Ashley and Patty’s behavior need to be addressed but this clearly isn’t a one off situation. If Patty knows to alert Ashley when things are being said and COO gives out chances like candy then there is a clear “tell & reward” or “them against us” culture here that one meeting about not gossiping in the workplace isn’t going to cover.

    If I were OP I would be looking for a new role ASAP, it is super hard to change a culture and especially when C-level leadership is perpetuating it as well.

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Hey JS, I’m catching up on comments – just posted above about how Ashley’s previously been under a toxic, abusive supervisor previous to me. So yeah, she’s got a lot of development ahead of her to try to get out from under the DOO’s thumb, and it’s been really hard for her, but I’m losing my momentum with her every time something like this happens. I want to help her develop her backbone so badly. Ashley is basically the DOO’s mouth, and exercises no authority as a manager nor accountability for her own or her team’s actions.

      I definitely admit that we shouldn’t have been lamenting about the COO not supporting us in the office, but it was in the guise of confidentiality (an empty office).

      1. JS*

        Hey thanks for responding. I also just wanted to say that I am not trying to put any unnecessary blame on you, since clearly you seem to be a good GM and are not responsible for this culture and it is being enforced by COO.

        As a manager myself in the corporate world I have also been a victim of perception and optics. It’s probably why I am more conscious to the fact that even though leadership is human too and we like venting as much as the anyone else (I do my fair share at happy hour with my friends), we have a greater responsibility to keep up appearances when in office as we never know who could be listening. The smallest things can spiral. I understand 100% you guys thought the office was empty and would have never spoken freely if you knew people were around and it wasn’t your intention to appear to be gossiping.

        That is too bad about Ashley, it really does seem like the best solution if someone could snap their fingers to change things would be ridding the company of the COO. I saw above you said you have been with the company for years and worked your way up. I really hope their is a solution that reveals itself where C-level leadership is held accountable and you do not have to leave, but as others said it may be best to cut losses.
        WIshing you best of luck!

    2. tangerineRose*

      Venting doesn’t necessarily equal ranting.

      This seems like one of those times where the OP is getting blamed for something that is very human.

      1. JS*

        It literally amazes me how many people responded with this and clearly missed that OP used the word “ranting” to describe Jenny speaking of COO in her letter.

        I deal with contracts in my line of work. Attention to detail and context in words is super important which is probably why I always read things extra carefully and try to understand the context of what it means in relation to other words (especially when it could mean clients trying to wiggle out of paying thousands of dollars!). It’s funny that you aren’t the only one to bring that up though. I even had to recheck myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t crazy! lol!

  35. Public Health Nerd*

    If your nonprofit is in health care, you may have an anonymous corporate compliance hotline. I would suggest looping them in about COO’s unwillingness to rein in gossip as failing to address HIPPAA related confidentiality regulations.

    If not, then leave. There are lots of hospitals and agencies that need good managers and are less dysfunctional than this.

  36. sleepyheadzzz*

    To OP, just an FYI on noise machines – if you have it in the same room as you, all it does is block the sound out for you, and not people outside the room. We use one for our toddler and when we’re outside the room we can hear everything he’s doing, but when we’re in the room we can’t hear anything outside of it.

    It sounds like an unfortunate set up, but if you want to try using the noise machines, they should really be in the area where the other people are.

    1. Cat Supervisor (OP)*

      Thanks, sleepyheadzzz – we have them outside of each office door. They really only seem to help for people outside of the office, not neighboring offices.

      This week I added music in my office, but if my neighbors don’t do the same thing, it doesn’t help. Moving to a well-constructed building is really the only answer here, and we don’t have the funds for that yet.

    2. Someone else*

      Yeah I was just thinking about this. The best course of action is to rein in the gossip culture, and get rid of Ashley and/or Patty. But since it sounds like OP’s authority to do so has been quashed, her options are:
      1) Get some actual soundproofing to the offices where confidential discussions should be expected to happen
      2) Quit

    3. tangerineRose*

      “noise machines, they should really be in the area where the other people are.” Since the other people in this case *want* to overhear, they’d probably just turn off the noise machines.

  37. Not A Manager*

    @OP – You’re going to be forced out at some point. It’s better to leave now, with a strong track record, than to leave later when all of this dysfunction will make *you* look less competent. Every minute that you stay is another tick on the time bomb.

  38. Michaela Westen*

    Having read more than half the comments, I feel a need to suggest that for whatever time OP remains there she documents everything. As much as possible communicate by email and text. Type notes/memos to file after verbal conversations and be sure to include observations like Ashley going for a walk with her friend right after their meeting.
    The more documentation there is, the better off OP or her successor will be when this hits the fan. If there’s a lot, make an index or bookmarks or something like that so you can find things quickly, and make an email folder or save emails to a specific file folder.

    1. Michaela Westen*

      Also screenshots of the texts, emailed to yourself and printed as necessary.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      Also keep some copies in your personal email or somewhere you can get them if you’re fired.
      If that happens you might decide to move on instead of fighting it, but just in case you need them :)

  39. Just Saying...*

    Wow, just wow! OP has admitted that she “gossiped” to get the information. She’s just as bad as the two employees that she wants to fire. If anyone goes, it should be the OP.

    1. bonkerballs*

      I think what you mean to say is OP, a manager, conducted an investigation into the very poor behavior of an employee.

    2. tangerineRose*

      Just Saying…, Are you saying that asking around to try to find out who spread a lot of information that shouldn’t have been spread is worse than spreading the information? I don’t agree.

      1. Just Saying...*

        Let’s break it down. Patty (allegedly) told Sheila who told Donna who told Katlain who told OP. That sounds a lot like gossip to me. And if OP is trying to stop gossip about her loud ranting, then she should be taking Sheila, Donna, and Katlain down too. The OP has no proof that Patty did anything (gossip isn’t proof), yet she is vilifying her and is ready to fire her. Gossip isn’t proof and it could result in a wrongful termination suit. Especially when no-one else is targeted except Patty.

  40. MTinEurope*

    What if the culture is very toxic and her behavior is reflective of that? Of course one could leave but what kind of role do you take as a manager or also if you do not have managerial responsibilities? How do you break the cycle?

    Are there some resources that you would recommend about the practicals of culture…of course good leadership is important but what if there is not?

  41. RC Guy, for lack of a better nickname*

    What you said: “We’re a specialty practice that has the stronghold in the state. There are not near enough providers to take care of all of these folks.”
    This sounds like an opportunity. What would it take to start your own business? It sounds like the demand is there. If they aren’t meeting demand how much of a stranglehold can it be? You’re an experienced GM. You know your stuff. Think about it.
    (First time caller, long time listener, finally moved to comment.)

  42. Indie*

    Maybe you and Jenny should start ‘gossiping’ about the treasure you buried in the sewers. Or about how the plan is to keep the ‘unprofessionals’ (you dont even need to use names!) until ‘it’s more convenient’ ; Or you could talk at length about what professional behaviour is, since you know at least they will listen.

  43. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

    Do you have the authority to fire these people, OP? Because it seems to me that if you’ve had to go to the lengths of having special training on reducing gossip then they already knew they were on notice.

    I’d be inclined to fire both of them on the spot, Patty because she called Ashley over to listen to a private conversation, and Ashley because she not only failed to tell her supervisee that it wasn’t appropriate but also proceeded to ensure that the gossip was spread far and wide. And in Jenny’s shoes I’d be very tempted to walk out.

  44. Khlovia*

    Well, at least you have firmly established that it isn’t actually an Ashley problem after all, but a CEO-and-COO-like-to-roll-around-in-the-weeds-giggling-for-some-kinky-reason problem.

    I get your yearning to keep batting away at these foul balls. You rose from the ranks and at each stage you solved a problem or made an improvement, and it’s almost impossible for you to believe you’ve reached this impasse where you can no longer have any effect; but I think you’ve reached an impasse. Unless either CEO or COO gets an epiphany, they’re going to stymie you at every turn. It seems to me there was some taint intrinsic in the organization from the very beginning. It would be almost impossible for a single person to root it out at this stage.

    But possibly not for a governmental oversight agency. Document document document. As soon as you have a good job lined up, get your COO in a headlock and make her listen to your case. Try to get her to see that her current focus on the proposed expansion to the neglect of all else is going to result only in the taint spreading to the expanded version of your company. Then inform her that you have collected voluminous documentation, and you’re leaving in two weeks because she won’t let you do your job, but because you are still so emotionally invested, you’re going to hold off mailing it to the Feds for X months to give her time to do a thorough cleanse on her own.

    And then, I guess, CYA somehow so they don’t get a chance to arrange to blame you for everything.

    Meanwhile, I reiterate my suggestion that you colonize Patty’s office with filing cabinets, and any other office neighboring your own. Surely as GM you have that much authority! I was joking the first time, but I’m not any more. As for where to put Patty’s desk, just get creative. Wander around the building looking for a good spot; I’m sure you’ll find something.

Comments are closed.