my employee gossiped about a conversation she eavesdropped on

A reader writes:

I am the general manager of a large company. Recently I had a closed-door meeting in my office with our HR manager, Jenny, discussing the issues of the week, including disciplining a difficult employee and succession planning for Jenny’s unannounced new role in the company.

When we exited the office, we noticed that an employee, Patty, was quietly working late in the office next to us, and her manager Ashley (who I manage) was in there. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I found out later that Ashley had moved into Patty’s office specifically to 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. 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 gossip problem.

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.

I answer this question 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.

{ 78 comments… read them below }

    1. Lacey*

      Seriously! That’s pretty wild behavior.

      And yet, I have worked for an employer with SUCH bad communication from management – with multiple pleas & promises to fix it and no results – that I can absolutely see some of the managers I worked with stooping to this and believing it was justified.

      We also, as you might imagine, had a terrible gossip problem.

      1. Totally Minnie*

        I think when a company has such poor communication, gossip is guaranteed to happen. When people don’t know what’s going on or what to expect, they’re going to latch on to any source of information they see.

        I can’t say whether that’s the case in OP’s office, but it’s been true in the places I’ve worked where the gossip mill was running at full strength.

        1. MassMatt*

          I don’t think “gossip” quite captures the problem here, it connotes the “who’s dating whom” sort of chitchat and this is a much more serious breach of confidentiality, professionalism, and judgment. But I can’t think of a better term.

          In any case, IME this kind of talk and speculation is common in places where transparency is poor and info isn’t shared, but also among people who are paranoid, or just don’t have enough actual work to do.

          I would definitely fire the manager involved, and the subordinate would be on a PIP at least, and told she is skating on very thin ice. This is the kind of behavior that employers resort to having security walk people out of the office in order to avoid.

    2. NerdyKris*

      There might not be much, the LW stated in the comments of the original post that they had no firing ability, and the COO who did refused to fire her and to “Channel your inner Elsa and let it go”.

      Just a completely toxic environment.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        As a note, LW did clarify that the “channel your inner Elsa” part was dramatic license and her COO only asked her to let it go.

        But yes, a family company where the CEO and COO refuse to delegate or allow any managers to discipline their subordinates in a reasonable timeframe (including for *drinking on the job* and *stealing drug samples*) is a dumpster fire. We all hope LW got out quickly.

    1. Chi*

      Bingo. I am not a manager but my first thought was, “Fire them!” Truly unethical behavior from both of them. They would have to go to set an example that this won’t be tolerated. No employee could expect privacy in that environment. That’s a problem.

    2. MigraineMonth*

      I was going to come down on “fire the manager and watch Patty carefully”, but if Patty invited her manager into her office specifically to eavesdrop… yeah, have a conversation to try to figure out what else is going on with the company, then fire them both.

      1. ScruffyInternHerder*

        Definitely fire the manager.

        I’m off to go re-read before I say anything about report-Patty.

        1. Observer*

          After re-reading, I say fire both.

          But REALLY, the OP needed to leave.

          I hope that they left and never looked back.

          1. Trawna*

            The OP was the general manager…. kind of their job to nip this behaviour in the bud. Under the circumstances, firing both eavesdroppers would be the way to go.

        1. AnotherOne*

          yes. Patty definitely is making some poor decisions but when you have a bad manager, you are taking your cues from them. So just firing someone because they are mimicking the behavior of the bad manager without first trying to fix the problems doesn’t feel like the right move.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            I agree with this. Patty needs to understand she’s on a tight leash (backed up by a formal PIP if necessary) but it seems a trifle unfair to blame the underlings for taking cues from management.

            Plus, on the practical side, if you fire everybody for her level of transgression who are you going to have left. It sounds like the rot is pretty deep. Fire Ashley, let that be a wake up call, and then see who remains a problem. Repeat as needed.

          2. Chi*

            I think everyone should know they shouldn’t gossip about what they overheard in a private HR meeting. It wasn’t intended for either of them and they both knew it. Neither of them are trustworthy. If it was only the HR employee moving to a new position that wasn’t announced publicly, maybe a PIP would be warranted. But disciplining an employee? No matter how problematic that person had an expectation of privacy. Would Patty want that to happen to her?

            No matter what the manager did, Patty knew better too.

            1. Kevin Sours*

              The rules people follow are the ones that are modelled and enforced by leadership. Saying “this is not okay” as a hypothetical doesn’t do anything if you don’t back that up when it happens for real. Instead of backing that up, leadership is actively encouraging bad behavior.

              Patty should have known better, but there are reasons why she didn’t. And I guarantee there are a lot of Patty’s at that organization. Are you going to fire them all?

              Unless Patty is more senior than I get the impression she is, firing her isn’t going to accomplish much that firing Ashley won’t in terms of changing the culture. And her behavior is very much a product of culture.

              1. Kevin Sours*

                I suppose I should add that it goes without saying that there needs to be a very pointed conversation with Patty on professional norms and discretion. And the approach I advocate depends a great deal on her understanding the situation and responding appropriately. She’s out of chances going into that conversation and all I’d want to hear is “I’m sorry I’ll do better” and then immediately see “doing better”. Anything short of that and I change my mind.

              2. Chi*

                Yes, anyone gossiping to the extent that they were should all be fired. Part of the reason the place is so bad is because people like that went unchecked far too long. From reading the original post, it looks like that place was a dumpster fire and I hope OP got out. I would not want to work with Patty or Ashley and I wouldn’t trust anyone there. You are correct about the culture there.

                1. Kevin Sours*

                  Congratulations. Now you are severely understaffed at the same time you have a leadership vacuum.

                  When toxic behavior is being modeled and normalized by leadership and becomes that pervasive you need to focus on culture and not individuals. Start with the people who are taking part when they should be stopping it. Replace them with people who will model appropriate behavior. Honestly a lot of people behaving badly will change their behavior when you make it clear it’s no longer acceptable.

                  Is Patty one of those? I have no idea. But firing her before finding out isn’t going to help you change the culture. And it can hinder you if firing her makes it harder to fire some people you find out aren’t going to change their behavior.

          3. Lizzianna*

            I think it really depends on the conversation with Patty and Ashley.

            I do think there are times your manager is so dysfunctional and they order or strongly imply you should do certain things, that you lose all sense of perspective and situation like seeing your manager get fired and getting put on a PIP can shock you back into reality.

            So if it comes out that Patty was uncomfortable but Ashley had found out that you could hear OP’s conversations and told Patty to tell her when conversations were happening, that’s one situation. Another is if Patty took initiative to insert herself into the eavesdropping scheme or initiating it herself. But I don’t know, I would have a really hard time trusting Patty after that, so it may be an untenable situation for her to stay.

            And OP needs to look into some white noise machines or something else to block sound if a conversation in her office is audible enough that details of it can be gossiped about.

        2. Velma*

          I’m a mid-level manager. I would take steps to fire the manager who reports to me, and have a very serious conversation with Patty, possibly leading to a PIP. And I would move Patty into a cubicle or other low-status/public desk where she is far from leadership conversations and I can keep an eye on her at will.

          And then I would start working on the obvious cultural problems in this business–hard to tell from the letter what is driving this culture of gossip, but it is common in low-information businesses (like Twitter, at present!). So what needs to be done to improve morale and the flow of information, so that people don’t feel the need to skulk around in order to understand leadership actions and priorities? That’s what the OP needs to sort out.

    3. Anne Wentworth*

      Same. I’m honestly surprised by the detail Alison put into the response; deliberately eavesdropping on an HR conversation and then spreading it around the office is so unethical, and shows such poor judgment, that anything less than firing sounds like you’re condoning it. If I worked in that office, keeping Patty & Ashley around would seriously impact my morale. I wouldn’t trust management at all.

      Speaking of which, why were they having such a sensitive meeting in a room where their conversation could be overheard that clearly from next door? Without ensuring the occupant of that office had left? I’m surprised Alison didn’t even touch that.

      1. Antilles*

        It’s pretty commonplace to hold meetings (with the door shut) in your own office – especially if you don’t have tons of spare offices. I’ve had offices next to my boss in three different companies and in all of them I’d occasionally overhear stuff even with the door closed. And nobody would come and kick me out of my own office to have discussions next door because of course they wouldn’t.
        It’s just that every company I’ve worked at had the very reasonable expectation that I (and others) would be able to handle overhead confidential information like a paid professional adult rather than a gossiping middle schooler.

        1. Lizzianna*

          Yeah, it wouldn’t occur to me that a conversation in my office with the door closed wasn’t confidential.

          If I were in a situation where I could hear a clearly confidential conversation, I would find a tactful way to let the office occupant know, and I would pretend that anything I overheard before that didn’t happen. And I expect the people I share office space with to act with the same level of professionalism.

          Now that OP knows that her office isn’t as sound-proof as she thought, she should act accordingly, but I don’t think it’s her fault that a closed-door conversation was overheard and gossiped about.

    4. Avid Reader*

      Absolutely, unless there is a compelling reason for them to behave this way and frankly, I can’t imagine one, they should have both be walked out in front of everyone.

    5. Giant Kitty*

      I agree. This crossed an ethical line that can’t be uncrossed. I would not be able to trust that this behavior would stop, just become more circumspect and harder to root out.

    6. Bess*

      Theoretically it feels like a fireable offense, especially for a manager, but I would in practice probably go the route of a grave conversation, with a PIP for the manager and possibly also for the direct report; firing if it happened again. Honestly my view of them would probably not recover and I’d never consider advancing them, unless they truly had a genuine turnaround and learned from their mistake. I haven’t seen someone who would do something like this really change, but professional norms are learned over time and you never know.

      But firing would really depend on the context, and if there were other performance issues at hand. If the manager has access to other sensitive information you might need to modify some job duties, at least. Which is not to say they wouldn’t deserve

  1. Michelle Smith*

    Not going to lie, this is pretty shocking behavior from a manager. I would love an update on this too if OP still reads AAM. I hope Ashley was contrite and took steps to make this right.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      Ha ha, not even close. According to comments on the original post, Ashley denied everything and started attacking Jenny. When OP talked with the COO, she asked OP to just let it go.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        Wow, so the cultural problem is supported at the C-suite level. Not surprising that it’s happening, then.

  2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    The original letter had a lot more details that make it more egregious, however, on the gossipy office problem…it’s been my experience that this happens when the employees don’t feel there is any transparency from the top and they feel their jobs or employer are in a constant state of insecurity. Lack of clear communication and support from the top means employees will latch onto ANY information. So instead of “the beatings will continue until morale improves” type of management, address the underlying issues.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Yeah but this is HR stuff. No matter the transparency you do NOT listen in on HR, let alone gossip about it.

      A company may not be as transparent as you like, but that doesn’t make it right to gossip. Especially about HR.

      This SPECTACULAR lack of judgment is a firing offense. There was already a problem with Ashley and gossip. She clearly did not learn from it. If her report says “come listen to what is going on in this private conversation” the correct response is “No. You shouldn’t listen either. Gossip is not allowed in this company.” Not, I’ll be right there.

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        Sure, it usually is a fireable offense, but as Alison in the original post acknowledged “People share work-related information that they come across,” and “I suspect that you have serious cultural problems in this office in general.” To me, that’s where the focus needs to be, not this one incident as bad as it is. Just having a “no gossiping” policy, or firing people for it, won’t solve the problem.

        For what it’s worth, I apparently have a different view on gossip — it’s false information and speculation passed off as fact in order to cause drama or embarrassment — rather than real information that I know and share with others because they have a vested interest in being informed. Telling coworkers I saw the boss at Olive Garden with a person who isn’t a spouse and therefore they must be having an affair would be gossip; telling coworkers the company has already filed for bankruptcy but isn’t disclosing wouldn’t be.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Gossip can also be factually true but still gossip if the people talking about it have no need to know the information. I’m a teacher; me telling another teacher that student X’s parents are divorcing isn’t gossip if we both teach X and this info will help us support the student. Me telling my fellow teacher that the administration has put the school librarian on a PIP is gossip, whether or not it’s true – there’s nothing about this information that would help us do our jobs better.

          1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

            Which is exactly what “because they have a vested interest in being informed” means

            1. MigraineMonth*

              Yes, but you said that gossip was “false information and speculation passed off as fact in order to cause drama or embarrassment”.

              Most people’s definition of gossip includes true information spread to people without an appropriate interest in order to cause drama or embarrassment as well.

        2. Critical Rolls*

          I disagree that this fell in the category of information that others have “a vested interest in being informed” that supersedes the default of confidentiality around HR matters. The conversation included disciplinary action toward an employee, and no ethical person should eavesdrop on that, never mind spread it around the office. There’s a three-pronged test kids are taught these days: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? It is easy to get things wrong when you eavesdrop, so what they told the whole office could easily have failed on all three counts. Just awful.

    2. Louisiana Purchase*

      Yes. Ashley may not be the source of the Us vs Them mentality. OP might be running things in a way that has led Ashley, and other people, given the systemic gossip problems, to an Us vs. Them mentality.

    3. Louisiana Purchase*

      You nailed it. From a response from OP on the original post:

      “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.”

      Ashley was still wrong, but beating on Ashley without fixing the root cause means the overall gossip problem won’t be fixed.

      1. to varying degrees*

        Also from the OP in the original comment thread:
        “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.”

      2. Observer*

        True. Firing Ashley – or at least putting her on REAL notice (ie being clear that her job actually IS on the line) would be part of the necessary culture change.

        To be honest, if you read everything in the original letter and the OP’s updates in the (Cat Supervisor and Cat Supervisor OP) it’s seems pretty clear that the OP has no way to actually change the culture, because it’s baked into the top leadership.

    4. MigraineMonth*

      If anyone else was looking for it, the title of the original post is “my employees eavesdropped on my private conversation and gossiped about it”.

    5. Rachel*

      Do you have the link to the original letter? I was looking for it in related posts but didn’t obviously see it.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          With Alison on her well-deserved vacation, no one is releasing links from commenting purgatory, so I can’t share the direct link.

          FYI, the OP comments as both “Cat Supervisor*” and “Cat Supervisor (OP)*”

  3. Bernice Clifton*

    Step 1 is confirming that Patty did invite Ashley to her office specifically to listen to the conversation. (If they will admit it.) If that isn’t what happened, it’s a great example for them about the dangers of gossiping because stories can evolve over telling and make the actors look like they behaved worse than they did.

  4. Dawn*

    There are like 60 comments from the OP on the original post, and I can’t possibly share all of the updates here, but the tl;dr is that the whole office had serious “dysfunctional family” vibes and while there was no update from OP on actually getting a new job, the commentariat convinced her that it was time to get out because she wasn’t going to be able to fire or even really discipline anybody for this.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      Even if I couldn’t fire anyone I wouldn’t be able to help give the manager the scolding of her life about the gossipy, unprofessional example she’s setting. I’d say that her department is such a laughing stock, that they openly invite her to be unprofessional with them. Beforehand, I’d obviously tip Patty off that she might want to listen in.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        For those who don’t want to read all of the comments, I think the three best from the OP are:

        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.

        In response to someone asking “why are you going to have a second conversation with Ashley instead of firing her?”:

        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.

        And finally,

        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. :)

        So I hope the OP was able to find a new job at a functional organization.

        1. Dawn*

          I think we have to add this one because it really puts the dysfunction into perspective:

          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.

  5. ABCYaBYE*

    Oof. This is A LOT. I’ll absolutely second (third?) the desire for an update on this.

    The fact that things CAN be heard through walls doesn’t mean that they SHOULD be heard. The door was closed, OP was expecting privacy in the conversation. I’ve heard conversations in hotels that I wasn’t intended to hear and just turned my TV up. There should be a level of discretion in situations like this, and clearly that discretion was not exercised. Whether Ashley should be terminated would, in my mind, depend on her responses to the statements Alison suggested. But I certainly wouldn’t take an immediate dismissal off the table.

    As for Patty, I’d probably suggest a direct conversation with her, as well. And I’d absolutely move her to an office or workspace that puts her farther away from any temptation to eavesdrop.

    1. soontoberetired*

      Worked in several buildings where the walls were thin, and everyone knew it and went to more isolated spots to talk confidential stuff. Then we moved into a building where the managers rooms were built in front of the bathrooms. If you were in the bathroom, you could here everything. One manager didn’t care, but she was also a person who would put calls on a speaker phone and keep her office door open. We all brought in head phones to listen to music.

    2. el l*

      Yeah, and there has to be limits to, “Talk confidentially elsewhere, the walls are thin.”

      You should be able to have a normal-but-necessarily-confidential conversation and keep it confidential. As long as you’re observing common sense rules like “Don’t shout,” or “Keep the door closed.”

      If that’s not possible in the office, that’s a bigger problem than any one overheard conversation.

    3. GoLightly*

      We have thin walls here, but all of the walls are made the same so there’s really nowhere else to go. There’s just an understanding that you shouldn’t eavesdrop, so people will put headphones in or something similar if needed. I personally go out to my car if I need to call my doctor’s office or something, but I think people should be allowed to take work calls from their offices without worrying that their staff would pull something like this. Ashley and Patty are out of line.

  6. el l*

    Off the cuff: If this is truly a first offense and Patty and Ashley are otherwise good employees – it’s worth a stern talking to and possibly written up. You know, “This was a necessarily private conversation and we all behaved as such. This is a violation of trust – would you want your private conversations actively listened to and spread around the office? Don’t do this again, you’ve been warned.”

    But if this has been a pattern of behavior, then fire them. Because, again, sometimes it’s necessary (as with HR matters) for a certain amount of privacy to be observed. If people are going out of their way to get that info and spread it, things can’t remain confidential and trust will be broken.

    (I gather there were OP further details etc but don’t know what they are)

  7. ferrina*

    Weirdly, my first thought was on the office structure- how thin are the walls that the conversation can be heard next door? Is there a shared air vent? Obvious solution: play Ramstein with the speakers next to the air vent any time you have a confidential conversation.

    1. MagicEyes*

      They must have been trying hard to listen. They obviously heard the whole entire conversation. Until I got to the end of the post, I thought the door was open, but nope, it was a “closed-door” meeting.

    2. 1001 Snails in a Lady Suit*

      Right? While of course it’s important to discipline as the gossip is inappropriate, if 2 employees can hear every word of your conversation by simply sitting in the room next door — maybe you shouldn’t be having confidential convos in that room?

      1. tessa*

        Or maybe Patty and Ashley can do what adults do: show basic manners by putting on some headphones. Good manners aren’t complicated.

    3. Sookie*

      I work in a 1940s government building and you can hear every word from the director’s office when the door is closed. Since we don’t have many options for other meeting spaces, we got a white noise machine for inside the directors office and a larger one for our cubicle farm. It’s been surprisingly effective.

    4. TechWorker*

      Most of our offices are fairly soundproof but a couple are really not… I just make sure if I have anything personnel-y to talk about I choose an office without people around it. And talk quietly if necessary.

  8. MagicEyes*

    It sounds like Ashley and Patty were taking notes so they wouldn’t forget any of the juicy details. What a horribly toxic workplace!

  9. KellifromCanada*

    I would definitely fire Ashley. I’d either fire or suspend Patty. If I didn’t fire Patty, I’d move her to another office where she’d be less likely to overhear anything important. And I’d add sound insulation to my office and the offices of others who might be having sensitive discussions (like Jenny).

  10. Tesuji*

    Honestly, I’m side-eying HR more than Ashley/Patty here, assuming that the latter didn’t have to do anything unusual to eavesdrop.

    I feel like the HR manager not doing whatever is necessary to ensure that conversations within her office aren’t easily heard by people in adjacent offices shows a level of poor judgement similar to Ashley/Patty’s, but I expect even more out of someone in that position.

    If you’re essentially having private conversations in public, that feels like you shouldn’t expect them to stay private. Since ‘keeping things private’ is pretty core to HR, that feels like a serious misstep.

  11. Sookie*

    This is terrible behavior, of course. But I’ve seen it as a response to organizations that can be capricious and don’t communicate information- like those places where one day Becky just isn’t there anymore and the party line is “We don’t talk about Becky” and then other people start wondering if they’re next. So, definitely address the gossip! But look at the fact that you’ve had to have a meeting about it already and try to see if there are any cultural issues that are causing people to resort to gossip rather than feeling they can openly discuss things that come up.

  12. Bess*

    Oh man, two of my former coworkers would do this. One selected a desk particularly because of a shared wall with our direct manager (so he heard nearly every meeting conducted in that office), and another would park outside tons of closed-door meetings to try to figure out what was happening…even super unrelated and innocuous meetings, essentially because she was uncomfortable when anyone was working on something high-visibility without her, and she wanted maximum information on everyone’s projects at all times. At least they weren’t managers (at the time).

    So wildly unprofessional and toxic. They at least did not start the gossip chains, though, I think because they didn’t want anyone to catch on to how they were getting their info.

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