Q: Ever since we hired “John,” we’ve had live soap opera in our company. John was the first to apply for a hard-to-fill job and he had solid technical credentials. Since we were in a hurry, we didn’t think to ask him how he found out about the job before we’d even posted it on Indeed.com.
John gave convincing answers for why he wanted to move to Anchorage. He said he loved to hunt and fish and let us know he’d recently concluded a messy divorce and no longer had ties back in Chicago. As the HR manager, I conducted a brief reference check. His former supervisor said he was good technically. When I pushed further, he said, “Oh, he’s a good enough guy.”
Soon after he started work, “Deborah” in accounting let the cat out of the bag. She and John had met on match.com six weeks earlier. She said he moved to Anchorage to pursue their budding relationship. When I learned this, I advised her, and John, to keep their relationship out of the office. Initially they did.
Within two months, John also developed what he calls “just a friendship” with “Lanie,” our cute receptionist. Their obvious flirtation ticks off Deborah.
Deborah’s coworkers feel sorry for her. They also can’t help talking about John and Lanie, because the vibe is obvious. One after another of Deborah’s coworkers come to John’s supervisor or into my office and talk about the situation. A couple of them have asked me “what do you plan to do about it?”
I’ve let the supervisor know that we can exercise employment at will and eliminate the problem; however, he doesn’t want to lose John. Any ideas?
A: You need to turn the television off when employees start tuning into a coworker soap opera. You’ve asked John and Lanie to act professionally, now ask the rest of the team, including Deborah, to do so. When the line between work and personal life blurs for employees, managers need to say “enough.”
Because many employees spend almost as many waking hours at work as at home, they may begin treating their co-workers as their work family and take an excess interest in each other’s lives. Given that multiple employees expect you to take an active role in the drama, they appear to label you “mom.”
Your job – when you overhear employees discussing Deborah, Lanie and John, ask them to get back to work. Let them know that it doesn’t support Deborah to fixate on the situation.
End new at-work soap opera episodes. Meet with John, and let him know that while you value his credentials, his actions appear to be fueling widespread gossip. Ask that he not interact with Lanie in any manner other than professional while at work. Meet with Lanie and let her know that you want to ensure she’s not feeling sexually harassed in any way.
If she insists “no,” let her know that if she’s involved in any way romantically with John on or off the job, she is not to demonstrate it with her words or actions.
Next, the John, Deborah and Lanie soap opera may represent the tip of a gossip iceberg. Many of our clients have benefited from providing anti-gossip training, teaching employees how gossip can create a toxic work environment and how to exit gossip encounters.
Finally, never settle for a brief reference check. His supervisor’s “Oh, he’s a good enough guy” raises a red flag and signaled you to delve further rather than to end the interview.