how can I get my coworker to stop gossiping to me?

A reader writes:

I work in a small office of five people. One of my coworkers holds a manager position, and is sort of a supervisor for everyone. She was here before me and is above me technically. She is constantly bad-mouthing and gossiping to me about the other employees, from personal (sometimes very personal) information to performance issues/problems.

I really hate gossiping, especially in the workplace. I understand venting a little once in a while, but this is excessive. Besides, I do not trust this person at all; she’s had issues with everyone at some point, but especially me, and I can’t imagine what she says to others about me. I feel as though she is trying to get me to respond and say something negative about people. I try to shrug it off and change the subject, or defend the person while trying not to get on her bad side. It’s getting to the point where I need some different tactics to escape the conversation, without flat-out saying that I don’t wish to gossip. For at least the time being, I need to be civil with and try to stay on her good side. Any advice?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My assistant gives me too many gifts
  • I was hired to replace someone who doesn’t want to leave
  • I’m embarrassed by my coworker’s name
  • How can I ask an old manager who I’m out of touch with to be a reference?

{ 151 comments… read them below }

  1. TootsNYC

    With the question about the employee who sends personal gifts…

    I think a person could say, “I would like to ask you to stop sending them; I have to worry about how things appear to other people, and if my family continued to accept them, it could look as though I’m playing favorites.”

    1. Weekday Warrior

      Agree! Great wording. Posted my response below at same time. The boundary creep really worries me.

      1. TootsNYC

        I’m also reacting this way:

        When do the manager’s feelings get to matter?
        She’s uncomfortable with these gifts; don’t HER reactions matter? Isn’t it important for HER to also be happy?

        1. female peter gibbons

          The gifts are being sent to the letter writers’ HOME! That’s her home! That’s her private space. I think she’s well within her right to set those boundaries. That’s way over the line. I don’t even want my coworkers to know my address.

        2. Artemesia

          A good secretary or AA is hard to find. Making her feel like she has for years been committing an embarrassing faux pas is not a winning play for the future of the relationship. If the OP wants it to stop it has to be done very delicately. –The suggestion that while she and the kids have always been delighted with her thoughtfulness she is concerned about others feeling they might have to do the same or that it might signal favoritism seems like a possible way to go.

          1. JSPA

            Maybe mention that you overheard people talking about guidelines for gift giving, and the setting of work-life boundaries. That, much as you’ve appreciated it over the years, you get the sense that the organization might be looking to crack down on upward-flowing or personal gifts, even (or, especially!) when someone has been around so long and has been such a trusted part of their boss’s life that they’re effectively a friend of the family. Because she probably does think of herself as a friend of the family. And acknowledging this, should go a long way towards making the “please stop” request, OK.

            If she’s determined to give gifts, you might be able to ask her to pick a few charities of HER choice (assuming she doesn’t know, and can’t just google information on your own donation preferences) and see if you, the kids, and the employee could all donate to one of those charities. Or you can even say that, as the kids age, this is how you’re handling presents, more generally. (In the name of being less consumerist, or having more space, or letting the kids define their own styles, or whatever fits.)

            Mind you, some people are determined to see a Christmas or other annual bonus as a personal gift, and they gift in return as a sort of cultural obligation. That…may not be a breakable cycle, because one way gifts (in some cultures) are only for the truly destitute or incapable; everyone else makes at least a token exchange.

    2. Sabine the Very Mean

      Yes. I disagree with Alison that letting it go is a good option. I am very uncomfortable receiving gifts from people outside my intimate circle of friends and family. Even friends in that circle would get side-eye for a random gift for seemingly no reason. I also had a friend who I was actively trying to end things with. She bought increasingly expensive gits until I finally did end it. She did it to her boyfriends too. It just wafts of insecurity.

    3. MLB

      I agree, and TBH it’s inappropriate for a subordinate to send gifts to her manager and the manager’s kids all the time. It’s definitely crossing a line. And if it makes LW feel uncomfortable to accept them, she shouldn’t have to sweep those feelings under the rug so her subordinate doesn’t feel bad about it.

    4. Mbarr

      Agreed – if anything I think the manager would be doing the employee a favour – what if the employee feels obligated to continue doing this even after the manager is replaced?

  2. Bigintodogs

    #4 if your coworker isn’t embarrassed, you don’t need to be embarrassed for her. People will usually pretty quickly figure out that it’s a name from another language and move on. I have a friend whose last name is Ho (parents are from Vietnam), and people just notice it’s Asian and obviously doesn’t mean what it means in the US and move on.

    1. TootsNYC

      One of the biggest lessons my ultra-wise mother taught me was that we are NOT ALLOWED to be embarrassed by things OTHER people do.

      She brought this up in the context of siblings being embarrassed by their overly enthusiastic member (guess which one I was?), but it really stuck with me in many places.

      Her nameplate on her desk has absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s not about you.

        1. Nea

          The problem with I Love Lucy is that a lot of the humor isn’t about being embarrassed by Lucy’s character, it’s laughing at her outright humiliation. That’s different – and I can’t watch the show either.

          1. Sabine the Very Mean

            No, for me it is being embarrassed by her character! But I do hear what you’re saying.

          2. TootsNYC

            yeah, i see that as different. It’s OK to be uncomfortable because someone else is being embarrassed or humiliated; that’s a form of sympathy.

            It’s when you yourself are embarrassed by something that someone else is doing, and that they think is fine.

    2. Marginal Marge

      I would point out it’s different going the other way. If you had an embarrassing name in another language and you moved to that country, you would change it/use a nickname, because you wouldn’t want to offend. People moving to ‘western’ countries don’t have to change.

      (I say this as an expat of 3+ decades.)

      1. Lyra Silvertongue

        I’m not sure what you mean by that, could you explain? As far as I’m aware, people moving to western countries end up having to change their names all the time. I know people from many different parts of the world, but mostly Asia and the Middle East, who adopted an ‘English’ name out of convenience or a desire to avoid prejudice or even just to avoid the regular annoyance of no one knowing how to say your name.

    3. londonedit

      I have a friend whose last name is Hoare. Pronounced exactly as you’d expect. Can’t pretend it was fun for them at school, but it’s not a massively uncommon surname here. So it’s not just names from other languages that can be somewhat embarrassing! ‘Prat’ is a British term for someone who’s a bit of an idiot, yet Pratt is also a fairly common surname. People might have a bit of a giggle initially, but I think most people would get over it fairly quickly.

      1. JSPA

        Prat literally means “buttocks.” As in a prat-fall, and when you’re saying someone’s a prat, you’re saying they’re an ass. If someone old enough to be employed is still falling over themselves with giggles when they see “Long Duk Dong” on a nameplate, that’s on them. And if they’re offended? Likewise. Actual nuns manage to handle the concept that names in one language can be written like rude words in another. Surely the rest of us can get there, too.

        Names feature in legal documents and in paysheets; the default, in the workplace, should be that a nameplate displays a person’s name (unless they have strong feelings on the matter themselves, and want to navigate the extra trouble involved in going by something other than their actual name).

      2. Lynn Whitehat

        I had a friend in high school with the last name of Condom. Cuban-American. Even in 9th grade, people got over it pretty quickly.

      3. Aaron

        I have cousins whose ancestor changed his last name when he came over from Holland. It sounds okay, but written down, it looks like a rude word.

  3. Weekday Warrior

    Re #1. I respectfully disagree. An assistant sending gifts to children at home is really blurring work boundaries. I think this needs to be nipped, kindly because OP thinks the intention is good but nipped all the same.

    1. HS Teacher

      I agree with you. OP should shut that down. What happens if OP needs to terminate this employee and the employee brings up these gifts? It’s just a bad idea.

      1. pancakes

        So what if she brought them up? There’s no suggestion that she thinks she’s buying herself permanent employment, but even if she did, that isn’t how it works.

  4. Engineer Girl

    #2 – I wonder if the bookkeeper is terrified of retiring now that it is imminent. You might want to talk to her about her plans for the future. If she has little to none then she may be facing a gaping abyss.
    Encourage her to look at classes, travel, other activities. It may be enough of a carrot to get her to move.
    You’d want to do this in addition to Alison’s advice BTW. It’s still on the owner to make the changes.

      1. Chump with a degree

        The book keeper who has been making all financial decisions and wonb’t leave is a big old red flag to me. Time for an outside audit.

        1. AnonEMoose

          I’m glad I’m not the only one with a suspicious mind. Honestly, even if she leaves, I’d insist on an audit before touching those books.

          1. Quickbeam

            My father’s work involve insuring companies against white collar fraud. The Bookkeeper Who Will Not Retire was a classic embezzling gambit. If they left, their little diversion schemes would be found out.

        2. ThankYouRoman

          Yeah…as an accountant who’s done everything for years, it’s all written down extensively. So I’m concerned 25years of financial decisions are locked in her mind. What a nightmare if she gets abducted by aliens or falls into a volcano one day.

        3. Bear Rambles On

          I immediately saw a giant, waving red flag on this one. This is one of the things they tell you to look for when considering fraud – an employee who refuses to delegate tasks or will not take vacation (or retire). If someone has complete control over the books, it gives them the opportunity to commit fraud. By never delegating their tasks, they can continue to hide the fraud.
          Someone else needs to look at those books and now!

    1. fposte

      I think that’s okay for the bookkeeper’s boss, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a very junior, very new co-worker.

    2. Artemesia

      There is also the possibility that the bookkeeper has had her hand in the till or otherwise has something she wants to keep control of. I know of one professional association where this happened for years when trusted employee with poor oversight ran quietly amuck. And I know a small business where a family friend embezzled and nearly brought them to ruin and was able to hide it for quite a while as she did the books. I am always concerned about financial people who won’t let go of the secrets and weak managers who let them be this way.

    3. pancakes

      I don’t think that’s at all necessary or appropriate. Even if she doesn’t have anyone else in her life to talk to about “facing a gaping abyss,” her successor at work isn’t the right person for that. And it seems extremely unlikely that she’s unaware she could travel or take classes or whatnot if she retired. The idea that it simply hasn’t occurred to her to have interests other than work is patronizing, too.

  5. TootsNYC

    With the question about asking a manager to be a reference after a big gap:

    This is so normal!

    I feel that managers owe it to the entire business culture to be willing to give references.

    Speaking only for myself as a manager, that willingness is part of what I promise you when I offer you a job. If you do a good job while you work for me, then ever after–your entire life, actually–I am willing to say good things about you.
    In a way, I consider it to be part of your compensation. You earned it; I need to deliver, whenever that is.

    I wouldn’t blink twice if someone who worked for me eight years ago said, “I need to look for work, and I wondered if you’d be a reference.” I might say, “I hope they think I’m still relevant, since it’s been eight years,” but often that does still mean something. (Of course, I give really good, detailed references.)

    Another way I think about it is, this isn’t a personal favor; it’s a professional one. Those have longer lead times.

    1. Artemesia

      When the person responds it is also very helpful to remind them of the work you did. ‘I was particularly proud of the project we did together on new lizard categorization that got an honorable mention at the conference. And I think the work I did developing the data base to make it easier to target our marketing efforts will be very helpful to me in the job I am applying for.’ People who think well of you, still forget what you actually did for them and references that are particular are more powerful then generalities.

    2. Coldfeet

      I also provide a copy of my current resume, so they get an understanding of what I’m saying about that job, and what I’ve done since they were my manager.

      1. TootsNYC

        I also always ask them to let me know if they’re getting close for a specific job, and especially if they’ve interviewed, so I can fill in any gaps they fear they’ve left, and so I can tailor my recommendation to highlight stuff that’s particularly applicable.

  6. Amber Rose

    My last office was like that. There were 5 of us, and the owner badmouthed everyone to everyone else. I got to the point where I was so paranoid, the sound of the radio on in another room would bother me because it sounded too much like whispering.

    If you can leave, if there’s any chance, maybe consider it? Even if the job is otherwise good, that kind of crap wears on you in ways you may not even realize.

    1. HS Teacher

      People who talk shit to you will also talk shit about you. I learned it the hard way in my first office job.

      1. Asenath

        Oh, yes. 100%. You need to politely cut them off, never give them ammunition (although the worst examples of the type will make up gossip if they don’t know anything), and never ever forget that they’re saying the same sorts of things about you to someone else. I generally claim complete ignorance. “You work a lot with Jane, don’t you? Isn’t she rude and snippy when you ask her a question?” “What? Oh, no, not at all. I really need to get X finished – the deadline is Friday.”

  7. StressedButOkay

    OP#4, there’s an unfortunate history of people being forced to use a nickname in situations they don’t want to that is based 100% in bigotry. You really do not want to get viewed in that light.

    It’s her name, it’s the one she wants on the name plate. It’s simply not your place to try to get her to change it, no matter the circumstances.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean

        And make it a point to say her full name accurately and happily. Do introductions of the full team at meetings with new faces. Do not shy away from saying her name because of the societal pressure you feel to conform.

        1. Guacamole Bob

          Don’t just jump to using the full name without asking. Some people who have names that native English speakers often have trouble pronouncing actively prefer a nickname to hearing their given full names butchered. In my org, someone in this person’s position might choose to have their full name on their name plate because it helps people find them in the email system, but they still want to be called their chosen nickname. But it depends on the languages, cultures, and people involved. It’s more common among my Chinese colleagues to pick a totally unrelated American name, and more common among my Indian colleagues go by a shortened version of their given first names.

          And plenty of those with common white American names would put a full name on a name plate but still go by a nickname. The name plates in my orgs are full of Michaels who go by Mike, Daniels who go by Dan, etc.

          But taking the name plate as a good moment to ask “Hey, I noticed you have FullName on your name plate. Would you like us to switch from calling you Nickname?” would be a nice gesture.

    1. Aveline

      The ONLY possible exception to this is a severe racial slur.

      If it’s merely sexual, people need to just grow up and realize that we are in a multicultural world.

    2. kittymommy

      Yep. If she chose the name on the nameplate then the LW doesn’t get to be “embarrassed” by it (I don’t even understand why someone would be embarrassed by their own name, much less someone else’s) and most certainly doesn’t get to have it changed. WTF?

    3. Psyche

      It makes me wonder whether she actually does prefer the nickname or just felt pressured to go by a nickname.

    4. School Inclusion Specialist

      Yes, which is why instead of being dismayed she has a nameplate with her given name, reframe it in your head as being proud of her that she is not giving in to bigoted norms.

      Also maybe ask her if she prefers the nickname or her given name. Then make sure you say her name correctly.

      1. Marginal Marge

        But if it’s in reverse, then absolutely the “white” person must use a nickname. Seen it many times.

    5. Ygrek

      Thai people tend to have nicknames they use with family and friends, but for official purposes, they almost always use their full name. So even though this person may go by a nickname, all official documentation (including nameplates) would display the formal given name. Asking her to change the nameplate to her nickname wouldn’t necessarily be offensive, just ignorant of Thai norms. [Source: Had a close Thai friend at university, and once put his nickname on our project title, he laughed and told me he would prefer his full name be displayed, said the nickname is only for informal purposes.]

    1. Observer

      That’s another one that I’d love an update on, but wouldn’t expect it. The commenters had quite a bit to say on the matter.

      I don’t blame them, but still…

  8. spoon

    Ugh, I have an awkward twist in the name one. There is a guy at work whose name when spelled out looks innocuous, but he pronounces it like a very bad curse word. I, and many of the Americans in our office, can’t bring ourselves to pronounce it correctly, so we emphasize the wrong syllable. I know it’s not okay to change someone’s name, but it’s so hard to bring myself to call someone such a dirty and degrading thing.

    1. Another Commenter

      There was a teacher at my high school like this. Not sure, but if I taught high schoolers and my name was pronounced the same as a slur for a male body part…I might just use the phonetic pronunciation for work purposes.

      1. many bells down

        Hah. I had a high school teacher named Mr. Dick. OH how we delighted in saying his name as much as possible. “Yes Mr. Dick. No, Mr. Dick. Right away, Mr. DICK!”

        1. Ms Cappuccino

          Must be hard to be called Dick.
          My cousin is a Fanny, a very nice name in France. But when she spent one year in the US as a student she had a very hard time…

          1. Weekday Warrior

            My (English) family name is a bit funny in English but really elegant in French. Loved my time in Quebec and France where people would compliment me on the name!

        2. ThankYouRoman

          My mind went directly to everyone who goes by Dick. But a last name, oh dear that’s doubling down.

        3. Stormfeather

          Hah, yes, our elementary school music teacher was Mrs. Dick. And of course there were rumors going around about her and her husband’s real first names. (I have no idea what they actually were.)

          But yeah, it’s all up to the person whose name it is. Maybe they’d want to go by something else just to save on the annoyance of other people being awkward about it, but if they don’t, suck it up and actually use the name they prefer. Eesh. At least with Mrs. Dick we had the excuse of actually being about 7 or 8 years old.

        4. Anon for today

          Yeah, we had a teacher called Mr Dick and his first initial was A, which means his name was A Dick. To make things worse, his first name (not sure if this is true or someone made it up to be funny) was apparently Archibald, which someone with a sense of humour changed to Itchy Bald so his full nickname was pretty funny….

    2. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish

      I went to college with a guy whose last name was Fuck, pronounced “fook.” I know names are names, and it clearly doesn’t mean the same thing in his home country, but that one’s got to be darned near impossible to live with in the US.

    3. Ali G

      Ugh. At OldJob there was an auditor that visited once a year from overseas. The spelling of his name was fine, but the pronunciation of it was a racial slur (the second syllable of the word for “trash panda”). It was awkward.

        1. Anon today

          When I worked in customer services I spoke to this customer with the surname Kunt. I pronounced it ‘Koont’ and just hoped that I was saying it correctly!

      1. Jen S. 2.0

        In college I was interviewing with grad students to work as a student assistant on research projects, and I just could not join the project led by a Ms. [second syllable of trash panda], even though she was very nice, and invited me on board, and her research was interesting.

        Just … I couldn’t have that on my reference letters. **shudder**

    4. Recent Anon Lurker

      When I was in high school my dad worked with an engineer from Germany whose last name was spelled “schieteeter” who insisted on being called by his last name (and didn’t understand why that made everybody but my dad uncomfortable). Guy also yelled at the top of his lungs at my younger brother when he did the typical 11 yo boy snicker at the name (yes, I asked him why as a 40-something man he needed to yell at a kid in fifth grade, that was my brother after all). You pronounced the name the way it looks, yes it means what it sounds like it means.

      Oh, and the guy worked in waste water treatment plant design (as did my dad).

      1. Recent Anon Lurker

        Edit to add: this happened the first time we met the guy, in an office full of other engineers (mostly chemical engineers, but a few were civil engineers). We had stopped by my dad’s office to drop off something he had forgotten but needed with my mom.

      2. RUKiddingMe

        “…the guy worked in waste water treatment…”

        I am in my 50s and I don’t know how well I could hold it together tbh.

        1. Recent Anon Lurker

          Yeah, he was unusual. My brother and I did our best to avoid him after that. This guy had no sense of humor and a personality like Lore from Star Trek.

          There were plenty of different names in that engineering firm so most of the employees went by first names. That guy was the only person other than the owner who went by Mr. Lastname – he hated being called by his first name (claimed that Dieter was a sissy name).

    5. Louise

      please don’t do that. It’s actually more degrading and dehumanizing to refuse to call someone by their actual name.

      1. Recent Anon Lurker

        Louise,
        I can’t speak for Spoon, but it could be like what most of the people who worked with my dad felt about his co-worker’s name. They called him what he wanted to be called, but felt guilty and like they were doing something wrong because they had been taught as kids that you are not supposed to say certain words, and some habits of childhood die really hard.

    6. pancakes

      If my coworkers insisted on pronouncing my name differently than I do, I’d be very irritated and almost certainly feel very alienated, too. Every time you do that you’re essentially telling him that your own squeamishness matters more to you than simply saying his name correctly. It’s pretty aggressively self-regarding.

    1. Slartibartfast

      This one reminds me of the viral Facebook post about your Sith name being Darth + first name spelled backwards, and a person named Suna replying “I hate this game”.

      My maiden name is a food, and I got teased for it when I was a kid. I looked so forward to getting married and being able to change it to something else, anything else. Fell in love with a guy whose last name was also a food. Instead of a dinner, I’m now a dessert. C’est la vie.

  9. Boo Hoo

    Ya no adult will think twice about the name. Well, they will actually think exactly only twice. First they will think “does that say Long Duck Dong”? Then they will think “oh, a foreign name, oh well”. No further thought will be put into it really.

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      My spouse worked with a really lovely guy named Phuc Dong for years. 99% of the people there were able to cope with this just fine, and the 1% that couldn’t looked like total jackasses when they started making “porn name” jokes or deliberately mispronouncing his first name.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar

        My 62-year-old BIL thinks he’s being witty and clever when he jokes about someone’s name or gives them a nickname, and just drives it into the ground. Imagine hours of ‘Sheena! My Queen-a!’ or ‘Hey there, Scary LarryBarryTerryHarryMary!’ for someone named Jerry. Family events, holiday open houses with colleagues from work, doesn’t matter.

        I admit I enjoy the frosty stares he gets, but he doesn’t seem to notice. No, I don’t like my BIL much but I will give him credit. I haven’t heard him make porn names out of anyone’s name, but that could be a matter of time.

        1. Ellex

          At a prior job, which was super toxic in so other ways, a new hire whose parents hailed from Thailand and really didn’t have a name that sounded unfortunate in English at all, got a lot of clearly deliberate mispronunciations, lot of mispronunciations from people who just couldn’t be bothered to get it right, and some jokes that were in extremely poor taste, as well as being a considerable stretch to make work.

          But playing with names can be fun and inclusive – at my last job, we somehow came up with a game that involved greetings involving coworker’s names: “What do you know, Joe?” “How do you do, Lou?” It was a fun challenge for everyone, and everyone wanted their own personalized greeting. When I came up with “What’s your epiphany, Tiffany?” I was declared the “winner” of the game.

          1. pony tailed wonder

            As long as you never sing the Name Game song with people named Chuck or Mitch, you should be good.

            1. Ginny Weasley

              I work at a school and our music teacher was doing fun camp songs with the kids one day. She was singing the Willaby Wallaby song that goes “Willaby Wallaby “W-rhyme”, an elephant sat on “name.” Willaby Wallaby Woo, an elephant sat on you!” (So mine would be “Willaby Wallaby Winny, an elephant sat on Ginny.”) Anyway, all was going fine, until she picked the girl named Genie.

  10. Nea

    Someone…
    …is embarrassed…
    …by someone else’s name plate.

    Spot on advice as always, Alison – and well done, because my brain is shorting out at the whole situation.

    (A friend of mine was in the military, and due to a combination of rank and non-Western surname found themselves spending a day escorting Major Ho. Knowing full well the hell that would rain down on them from above for any hint of disrespectful amusement, they repeated it in the mirror the night before until it became just syllables.)

    1. Miss Pantalones en Fuego

      Yeah, I hope OP practiced getting over their embarrassment, because most people will not care.

      I went to school with a kid named Doy back when that was the preferred way of saying “duh”, and though he was teased a bit at first it rapidly lost any humour. Likewise kids with the surname Ho, Mean, etc.

    2. many bells down

      I was watching a TV show the other day and one of the characters was a Major, on a military base. Last name: Coward. Major Coward. I could not stop giggling, but hey he was a fictional character.

    3. Ms Cappuccino

      I don’t know if it is because English isn’t my first language but I don’t see anything funny in the name Major Ho. Does it mean something funny?

      1. Nea

        In American slang, ho is short for “whore” and “major” is used as an intensifier, as in “he’s not just a pain, he’s a major pain.”

        In short, a perfectly normal Asian name and a perfectly normal military rank combine in slang to a sexual insult.

  11. Amber Rose

    The name thing reminds me of the mess caused by the personal license plate of a dude who’s last name is Grabher, which caused the government to revoke his plate due to it also sounding like a reference to… well, it should be obvious. But he’s proud of his name and his heritage, and has found this all extremely insulting, to the point of taking it to court.

    People from other cultures have names that sound like weird things in your culture. You may very well have a name that sounds like something unfortunate in someone else’s culture. Would you feel good about giving up your name because of that?

    It’s not cool.

    1. Gigi

      My name in Chinese is the equivalent of ‘peepee’….as what you’d say to a child to describe the male body part. Half of my nephew’s family speaks Chinese (as does he). Sure we giggled about it at first but it was never a big deal.

    2. Trouble

      That man is from Nova Scotia in Canada and his name is of German origin. Let him have his number plate! He didn’t change his name after Trump said the thing, he had the plate for like 20 years. This whole thing made me so ashamed of my Atlantic Canadianness.

  12. Indie

    OP1, you’re quite within your rights to say ‘Oh I don’t gossip at work’ or ‘That’s a little bit too personal for work’ with a bland smile – if she’s only technically above you and is a well known hate machine who already badmouths everyone including you – what have you got to lose?

    The other option is indirectly giving the constant message that you’re not the gossipy audience she’s looking for: “Oh I dont know anything about Wakeen except for his great work and cheery morning hellos, I dont pay attention to people’s personal stuff’ or cast repeated and longing glances toward your work while she’s talking without saying anything other than ‘Uh huh’ or ‘Oh I don’t know’ or ‘You don’t say’. I would probably make a game of how little encouragement I could give her, and beat it each time.

    The twist in the trick is to be pleasant and collegial to her (oh hey, great scarf!) when she is not gossiping. Catch her in the morning before she’s opened her mouth with a drive by pleasantry. Its natural to avoid her the way she behaves currently, but drive home the message thats it’s not personally about her, it’s the gossip. The behaviour is boring/a turn off, not the person.

    1. Beatrice

      I had this exact situation a few years ago, and this is how I handled it, too.

      In addition to what Allison suggests, when my coworker complained about someone else’s work (in other words, complaints that would be appropriate if they were less frequent and directed at the right person – not me), I started responding with, “what did Jane say, when you talked to her about it?” The answer, of course, was always that she hadn’t talked to Jane about it “yet”, but that answer was uncomfortable enough for her to give, that she stopped talking to me about that stuff.

      I had another situation where another department was very inconvenienced by one of our coworkers being absent for a serious medical issue, and she loudly complained about his absence, gossiped/lied about his illness, and downplayed the seriousness of his condition in front of them, making it sound like he was just home slacking off. I got pretty curt cutting her off that time, and reported it to her manager afterward.

    2. pony tailed wonder

      You could also say “How strange, Wakeen never says anything bad about you”, and then pause and wait to see if they get it.

  13. ThankYouRoman

    I’m worried for any business owner who has a bookkeeper so ingrained into the place who hasn’t written extensive procedure docs over the decades.

    It’s not only an issue due to embezzlement fears but I’ve had to clean up these messes, it strikes fear into my heart that they’re bringing in someone who has to be taught from scratch.

    They are setting up for a disaster if she unexpectedly becomes unavailable before the reigns are pried out of her hands. This can cripple a small business after many years. I would leave in your case. That’s too much to chew.

  14. LGC

    I kind of want LW4’s coworker to write in about how she’s embarrassed by her coworker’s shame. I hope she put up a huge neon sign behind her desk with her name in 12-inch tall font.

  15. BRR

    #4 No, there is no way to ask her to change the name on her name plate since it displays her name. I’m not sure how you’re embarrassed when visitors look at her name plate. If the visitors are interacting with you and glance over, I think this is one of those scenarios where others will take your lead. I can’t say you need to stop being embarrassed by her name but you need to not act embarrassed by her.

      1. BRR

        That part was only because I try to avoid telling people how they should feel. But I definitely want to say she needs to stop being embarrassed.

        1. Recent Anon Lurker

          BRR,

          I agree that you can control actions so that people aren’t aware of your feelings, but controlling feelings can be much harder.
          I wrote above about a guy my dad worked with that had a name that made people around him uncomfortable. They always pronounced his name the way he wanted them to, and called him what he wanted to be called, but some of them still felt personally uncomfortable calling someone Mr. “schieteeter”. One of the secretaries told me after my encounter with the guy that saying his name made her afraid that her grandma was going to whip out the lye soap and was her mouth out (this woman was in her 50s at that point and grandma was long dead). But they always, always called him what he wanted and pronounced his name the way he asked them to.

  16. Properlike

    Re: bookkeeper – not only am I concerned about the one who won’t retire, I’m concerned about an owner who thinks bringing one completely inexperienced into the role when he doesn’t know what his current one is doing. Sounds like he’s trying to save money. Thrre’s Going to be a mess left in this situation and the OP is not going to have the experience to clean it up. RUN from this.

  17. Tammy

    Re #4: If you know anything about the history of colonialism (exhibit A: people who immigrated to the United States being forced at Ellis Island to change their names; exhibit B: how we’ve treated pretty much every indigenous tribe), you’ll know that there’s huge cultural importance attached to people’s names. Asking someone to change their name to make it more palatable to you is oppressive, and many people (rightly, IMO) view it as an attack on their culture and their personhood. If someone chooses to change their name, or to go by a nickname, that’s their right. But there’re essentially no circumstances (in my view) where asking someone else to change their name to assauage your feelings is appropriate.

    I have a friend who’s from another culture (Midlde Eastern) and who has a name that looks very much like a common-ish American name. When I was first introduced, I asked her “do you pronounce that syllable in the usual American way, or are those letters rolled together? It’s important to me that I say it correctly, so I wanted to check.” She told me that in all the years she’s lived in the United States, I was one of the very few people who asked her that. It made me so sad.

    Names are important. People deserve the dignity of their own names.

    1. fposte

      Though it’s worth remembering that there’s a category of overdoing it the other way; as we’ve talked about on this issue previously, there are people (and I in my youth was one of them) who overpush the “correct” issue with non-English names to an offensive degree. The American pronunciation is not the same thing as getting the name wrong, same is it’s not wrong for a French person to say my name with a rolled R, and lot of people prefer nicknames, while others prefer to use their chosen English name.

      1. Tammy

        Right, absolutely. Which is why you should listen to, and respect, how this person wants to be addressed. If they object to their full name, instead of their nickname, being on their nameplate, they can raise that. It’s absolutely possible to be too pushy the other way…but respecting someone’s identity enough to make an effort to call people by their name is a kindness. The trick, I think, is to do it in a way that is about the other person — “you matter to me enough for me to make the effort to call you by your name and to say that name right”. When you do it in a way that makes it about you – “look at meeeeee and how conspicuously I’m making an effort here”, it crosses the line into what I’ve heard called “cookie-seeking behavior”, which IS offensive. The way we behave when we’re legit trying to be respectful and the way we behave when we’re seeking “ally cookies” are not at all the same, and it’s usually not hard to distinguish them.

        1. fposte

          Yes, agreed. Just accept what the person gives you, namewise, and do your best to replicate and remember it.

      2. Arctic

        I absolutely think you should try to pronounce someone’s name the way they want it pronounced, generally. Not just say ‘well that’s how I say it.” Jorge is pronounced different in Argentina than it is in Brazil. And just refusing to acknowledge that because it’s how Americans say it is not fair.

      3. sfigato

        I have friends/neighbors/colleagues who are from many different countries, many with names that are hard for English speakers to pronounce. Southeast Asian names can be really tricky, for example, or even German names for that matter. I just do my best. I spent time overseas and have an English name that is tricky for non-English speakers, so I am sympathetic to how annoying it is to have your name mispronounced, but I also think that it is what it is. I’m unlikely to become proficient in punjabi, farsi, thai, kmei, burmese, arabic, french, cantonese, mandarin, japanese, german, and finnish in this lifetime.

        1. many bells down

          There’s another volunteer at the museum whose name I have such trouble with. It’s not even really that difficult, and I know HOW to say it, but somehow when it comes out of my mouth it’s never quite right. Like, I can hear it in my head, but somewhere along the way to my mouth something goes wrong.
          I feel like such an ass every time.

        2. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis

          And add to that any of the languages which include ! which I believe – and I’m fully prepared to be slapped down and corrected for this – is pronouced tchk, as in a clicking tongue, and almost impossible for Western mouths to get right.

          1. SarahTheEntwife

            There are several different clicks, depending on the language :-) Most people can pronounce them just fine, but putting them in among other sounds in a word takes a lot of practice if you’re not used to it.

      4. Smarty Boots

        Ugh, yes. Some years ago we had a secretary in the office with an Indian name that was a little hard for English speakers to get right at first (both pronouncing the syllables and getting the stress on the correct syllable). She stated on her first day that we should call her (shorter version of her name ). Everybody did. And then one colleague got huffy with all of us at a meeting, accusing everyone of being racist for not using the full name. Sigh.

    2. Ann Furthermore

      I took a software training class once with a bunch of people from the local office of a large federal agency. While chatting during the break on the first day, one of them asked me where I worked. When I told them, they said that one of their contractors had worked at my company too. I remembered him, and asked them to send along my greetings to him. He was from India, and his name was Rahesh. While chatting with them, I said, “During that project, we had a Rajesh and a Ramesh on the team too. I can’t tell you how many times I sent an email or an IM to the wrong person.” The guy I was talking to said, “Oh yeah, we have that problem too. We just call them all Mike.” And then laughed uproariously like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. I was so appalled, and I’m pretty sure it showed on my face because none of them talked to me for the rest of the week.

  18. HailRobonia

    I learned from my time in Taiwan that every name sounds offensive or in in some other language (there should be some term for this, like “Ho’s Law”). As an ESL teacher I often had to assign students English names and quickly learned that some English names sound like something obscene/silly/offensive in Mandarin or Taiwanese.

      1. alienor

        A lot of the time that’s a thing in foreign language classes, though I’m not sure why. I remember being told to choose a Spanish name to be called by in my high-school Spanish class and then a French name when I took French in college. I did get to choose, though, it wasn’t assigned to me.

      2. Slartibartfast

        We did that in Spanish class, the teacher said it was to help with pronunciation/immersion in the language. We got to choose, though, and it had to be a word that was traditionally a name. One kid wanted to be called Taco, she said that was out but you can be Paco.

        1. Elsajeni

          It can also be useful for learning a little more about naming and nicknaming practices — I had a Spanish teacher who used the list of choices to teach us common nicknames and the formal names they go with, which was interesting and useful.

  19. Anon Anon Anon

    #1 (The Gossipper) – If I can’t escape and I can’t get them to stop, I just play the mom / grandma / older sibling. I ask helpful questions to resolve the issue.

    “Did you see what Fergus is wearing?”
    “I didn’t notice. I have other things on my mind. Why is it bothering you?”

    “Becky’s annoying.”
    “I think she’s nice. But if you feel that way, you don’t have to talk to her.”

    If they push farther, I keep offering advice about getting along with people and managing their feelings while making excuses to get out of the conversation. Because sometimes when people do this, they make it hard to get away. “You’re no fun!”, “No, tell me what you really think!” and all of that. And yes, they usually are talking about you too and it’s all a big waste of everyone’s time and energy.

    1. Stuff and nonsense

      Not the OP, but just as a data point, I tried this, and the gossip doubled-down on bad treatment, directing it my way. So, yes, I agree, the gossip pretty much talks about everyone, and will definitely send a bunch your way if you won’t listen.

      1. Anon Anon Anon

        I’ve had that happen too. Anything you do to try and opt out of the game just brings on bad treatment.

  20. nnn

    For the LW who’s embarrassed by their co-worker’s name, one actionable thing you can do is, whenever your co-worker is relevant to your conversation with visitors verbally refer to your co-worker by name. That reinforces the fact that it’s a completely different word (and spares your visitors any potential awkwardness if they should have to refer to your co-worker by name verbally).

    And if the co-worker in question doesn’t naturally come up in conversation, then there’s no need to worry about their name. From the visitors’ point of view, the situation is “A person I have no dealings with has a name that kind of looks like another word in a different language if you change some letters.”

  21. Yet Even Another Alison

    For the #3 OP – Be very careful here. Depending on how much owner involvement there was in the bookkeeping process, there may not have been any oversight on how the present bookkeeper worked. For example, could the bookkeeper both sign and create checks? It is easy in accounting to divert assets when there is no separation of duties. If the current bookkeeper has not given you details on how he/she does the job it may be because there is something nefarious going on. Some may think I am being paranoid – and maybe I am – but #3 OP – if there is something “funny” going on, and there is this level of transparency, you may not uncover it initially. This is not something you want to be linked to – even on the periphery. If you decide to proceed, make sure that you create distinction between your work and the current bookkeeper’s work. Someone in another comment mentioned an outside audit – not a bad idea. That might be a good first step – after the current bookkeeper has no more involvement in the bookkeeping.

    1. ThankYouRoman

      Also it’s retail, there is a lot of cash transactions.

      Anyone familiar with small business accounting knows this is a slippery slope of nope.

      I do everything. But I’m transparent. I’ve worked for multiple business owners and EVERY SINGLE ONE has been stolen from. I still lose sleep over the last place that sucked on every level and how if I wasn’t rooted in my own ethics and morals could have skimmed thousands.

    2. Wicked Witch of the West

      In the late 1970s I was working as a staff accountant in a CPA firm. They picked up a new account which was assigned to me.
      No one could determine the last time the bank account had been balanced (as in several years). This was an account with +/- $4 million a month going through it. I started working backwards, and when I had six months worth that were off by the same amount the boss said to stop and take my number going forward.
      They got notice of an IRS audit for a specific year. We ended up with them auditing two years prior and three years forward, so a total of six years. The client ended up getting significant $ back from the IRS.
      Not every incompetent bookkeeper is dishonest, some are just incompetent. I think the task just grew and grew until she was way over her head.

  22. Flash Bristow

    For the gossiping, can you not take as light a tone of possible (without being truly offhand) and say something like:

    “… So?”
    “… right… you’re telling me this because…?”
    “… um… What does their business have to do with either of us?”
    “… sorry, I don’t get it. What’s your point here?”

    So turn it back into a question, throw some awkward back on them, then stand quietly waiting for the answer. Hopefully they will get the message that you’re not receptive to their gossip, and ideally that it isn’t cool to gossip at all.

  23. Asperger Hare

    I am quite glad that first question is there about the unwanted gossip, because I immediately worried it was about me. It was a nice wake-up call! Thank you. I’m going to try to be more positive at work.

    1. Queen of the File

      I’ve been there! It was liberating to notice my own behaviour and be able to change it. Good for you and good luck!

  24. Essess

    OMG….. My coworker, John, actually put his first name on his nameplate. Isn’t he ashamed that people will think of toilets when they see it??? And my worker, Rob, doesn’t realize people will think he’s a thief. And don’t get me started about how inappropriate my office mate Dick should feel for using his name in public.

    See how silly that sounds to get upset about??

      1. Recent Anon Lurker

        Yup – there was a lady in one of my college classes first name Candi last name Barre. Nobody gave her any trouble about it after the first time they heard it though.

  25. Faff

    Gossip Bingo: everyone makes up a fib about a coworker and the first to hear the lot back from the gossip wins the kitty.

  26. anontoday

    #1 – wow for a moment there I thought one of my colleagues wrote this because we have the exact same situation in my team! Our team lead constantly gossips about people in our team, colleagues in our office and in other locations too. This includes sensitive information shared with her in confidence (medical problems, relationship issues) and when there is nothing to gossip about, she will make something up. She’s an expert at spreading lies with a kernel of truth in them which makes them more believable and more damaging.

    In my case the gossiper got hostile when I tried the positive comments approach and the not engaging in the conversation approach and retaliated against me by withholding a promotion that had been promised to me.

    I feel that there has to be a different strategy for when the gossip is above you in the hierarchy and also when the scale of gossip has gone all the way to cruel and malicious. I wish I knew what that strategy was. I have considered reporting it to the grandboss but I’m scared this will lead to even more retaliation.

    1. Polka Dot Bird

      I think Alison’s advice would be: sometimes you can’t fix it, so you should focus on getting out.

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