Office Gossip and the Hooksett Four
What had been a local brouhaha is becoming a national story, as the Hooksett (New Hampshire) Four are taking their show on the road with an appearance on Good Morning America. If you haven't yet seen them, the women who comprise the Hooksett Four - now former town employees - have supposedly been fired for spreading rumors about their boss, the (married) Town Administrator, and his relationship with another (also married) town employee. It seems that a lot of speculating started going around when "the other woman" got a raise and promotion. (It is also claimed that one of the Hooksett Four used an expletive to refer to her boss. Now if that becomes a firing offense, they'll need to widen the doors at the unemployment offices around the country.)
The Boston Globe was all over this story yesterday.
[T]he firings of the four women -- long time employees who had earned stellar performance reviews -- have unleashed a wave of disbelief and anger among many residents.
Critics of the town have boiled their argument down to one question: Is there an employee anywhere who isn't guilty of gossiping about co workers?
In defending the move to fire the women,
...a lawyer for the town, said at a public hearing last week that the rumor spread about [the Town Administrator] was serious, with potential to damage his marriage and career, and was not "some little gossip, like 'oh, she dyes her hair.' "
Further, a town report on the matter stated that the specific tongue-waggings that led to the firings were just a small part of a miserable workplace in which "gossip, whispering, and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of Town business."
I have no problem believing that the Hooksett Four were malicious gossips who got tripped up by their own tongues. On the other hand, they may well be the victims of a witch hunt initiated by a boss who just didn't like them very much. And, of course, both could be true.
What's also true is that people do gossip at work.
I'll sure admit to it, but I also have to say that damned little of the gossip I hear or engage in at work has to do with anyone's personal life. Why speculate about things that are none of your business when there is such a rich stew of work-related idiocy to jaw about? I've always found that the work related foibles of managers and rank-in-file workers (especially those of the managers) were sufficiently dramatic, comic, and intriguing to satisfy the chattering classes.
It was always great fun to comment on the latest nonsense pronouncement from on high (and there was always some nonsesen pronouncement from on high); speculate about who would win and who would lose in the upcoming re-org (and there was always an upcoming re-org); and laugh about some knuckleheaded move someone in a senior position had just made (and there was always a knuckleheaded move to laugh about.)
Did they really just announce that we were reversing course on the new strategy that was laid out last month with such great fanfare? Do you think that Dick with end up reporting to Ann, even though they hate each other? Did Phil really say that we would be moving forward with all the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut? (Huh?) Did Paul really throw a drink in Chet's face at the dinner after the management meeting? Did Lindsay really get nabbed at the fax machine sending the company listing off to a headhunter?
I mean, who needs personal stuff to rag about? Personnel's personal lives, well, they're personal. Who cares?
Occasional personal life gossip happened, but it was never the main event.
At one time, I worked for a small, recently acquired division of a larger company where, rumor had it, most of the senior managers were screwing around with junior employees. This rumor fed our belief that we, with our innocent boy-meets-girl office romances, were morally superior to the evil acquiring force. And when we were integrated with Company Big, the number of second marriages between senior managers and folks they'd met at work seemed to confirm the screwing around rumors. But who cared? Once you got to know people, they all seemed very nice. Stuff happens to marriages. End of story.
At another small company, we were all sort of aware of an infatuation between two (married) employees, and we became really aware of it the day that the guy's wife showed up at work and started screaming at the woman in question. (Soon to follow: two divorces and one re-marriage.)
And there was the time a colleague was involved in a disastrous long-distance and quite exploitive relationship (he was being completely used). Ed decided to confide in a few of us about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his relationship with Tina, right down to showing us the ring he was going to put on her finger on the cruise he was taking her on. We had been cautioning him all along that he was taking things too fast, and during cruise week, we had a few lunch confabs in which we speculated about how the cruise was going.
On the following Monday, Ed called one of us to say that he'd be in late, since he had to go to the jewelers to return the ring. And that was the last we heard of Tina (although I'm sure we spoke among ourselves about her a few more times).
But for the most part, my career has been devoid of the personal gossip and innuendo. As I said, there's plenty enough to talk about at work without getting personal.
Still, I think that the Hooksett Town Council went about the firings all wrong. It the Hooksett Four were poisoning the workplace, they should have been put on notice and counseled that their behavior had to change. It might not have worked, and I'm sure it would be quite hard to define the distinction between damaging gossip and office chit-chat. Not to mention how difficult it is to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, which could well have been the result of calling these folks on their malign gossip. The town would, however, have been better off if they had this sort of documentation (rather than file-folders full of glowing reviews). And they wouldn't be in the absurd position of having to outlaw all conversation that is not specifically work-related. Good luck with that effort!
Of course, if I were the Town Administrator and the other party, and had been the victim of damaging and hurtful rumor and innuendo, I would be pretty angry. I'm guessing that they never imagined that the whole thing would explode into a national story, and what had been a tempest in the Hooksett teapot would become the subject of water-cooler gossip in offices across the country. Not to mention fuel for the blogosphere....