A while back I wrote about a brouhaha up in New Hampshire in which four long time town workers (all women) were fired for gossiping about the Town Manager. Last week, the town council finally got around to making their first public statement on the firings, and they placed themselves squarely in the camp of the aggrieved town manager.
For those who missed the story the first time around, here's a bit from an article by Greta Cuyler which appeared in the June 6th Manchester Union Leader.
On April 11, the nine-member town council voted to fire the four women after reviewing a factfinder's report that detailed that at least one employee had called Town Administrator David Jodoin "a little f_______" and all discussed rumors of a possible affair between Jodoin and a subordinate employee.
Although the former employees claim they neither initiated nor spread rumors of an affair, the council disagrees.
"This was malicious slander, not idle gossip," said Town Council Chairman George Longfellow.
Another of the councilors, Jim Gorton, weighed in on the issue. Gorton was not exactly borrowing a line for New Hampshire's great orator Daniel Webster when he said:
"My opinion was, 'Don't let the door hit you ... on the way out."
Cuyler's article drew a number of comments, the majority of which seem to come down on the side of the Hooksett 4. It looks like the town of Hooksett is still roiling in this controversy.
Meanwhile, my earlier H-4 post drew a few comments from people who claimed that they were victims of malicious comments - including one from a woman who was a prior victim of the gang of four.
It's hard not to sympathize with someone who's been the victim a vicious gossips. (And, God knows, based on the pictures I've seen of the Hooksett Four they certainly look the part.) I can imagine that lives can be made hell - just putting up with wagging tongues, raised eyebrows, rolled eyes, closed doors, walk-by sniggering; not to mention the sleepless nights and heartache caused by damage to the victim's reputation.
But it's also hard not to see that firing four employees with unblemished records for gossiping may have been a really stupid thing to do. (Even if we ask ourselve whether those records were unblemished because people were scared of the Hooksett 4, or were they genuinely competent, decent employees?)
The sum total of what this has accomplished seems to be:
- Giving nationwide traction to a small town, Peyton Place-like rumor.
- Making the Town Manager look like someone how is completely inept when it comes to managing.
- Putting the town of Hooksett 4 at risk for coming out on the losing end of a big, fat, lawsuit.
Not in a million years is anyone going to make gossip go away. Not to mention that it's very impossible to draw the line between run-of-the-mill "Did you hear that Rob popped the question"; weasel-word eye-rolling comments like, "Something's up between those two...."; and out and out malicious gossip of the "John and Mary worked late again last night. Mark my words, those two are going hot and heavy and we'll end up seeing at least one divorce come out of this."
(I also believe that some people (mostly women, I'm afraid) just can't stand it when a man and a woman become close friends in the workplace. Since they've never had real friendships with men, they don't seem to believe that it's possible. In their eyes, a man and a woman who hang out in each other's offices, have lunch together, and generally buddy around, must have something else going on. Instead, it's just a phenomenon that I've come to think of as having an office spouse. Some people just dont get it or like it. I wouldn't be surprised to find that there's something of this at the foundation of the Hooksett 4 situation.)
It still comes down to trying to figure out where the dividing line lies. What's the partition between gossip and scandal? Does it make any difference if what you're talking about turns out to be true or not? Like the judge said about pornography, when it comes to malicious gossip, I know it when I see it. (In this case, here it.)
From a management perspective, the story is all about managerial competence - or in this case, managerial incompetence.
So, how could the Town Manager have a done a better job with this situation?
Well, it's way too late for my best advice, but obviously if the tongue-wagging had been an issue that was poisoning the office (and there's no doubt in my mind that this could well have been the case), then the Town Manager and/or HR should have called the gossips in and given them a warning, and started building the case for getting rid of them. The problem with this approach is that it's so hard to define what's harmful gossip - especially when so much can be done with dotted line commentary, raised eyebrows, eye rolling, and tone. Still, if there was too much personnel chatter going on in the workplace, the Town Manager could certainly have taken some steps to tone it down.
Better yet, he could have gone to one of the alpha-gossips and enlisted her on his side. Maybe he should have just told her, "Look, you may not even be aware of it, but there's some talk going around about me and A. It's obviously untrue, but I don't know how to put a stop to it? You're pretty tuned in here. Any ideas?"
Sure, this one could backfire, and the alpha-gossip could have gone and broadcast a 'where there's smoke there's fire' alert. But my guess is that the Town Manager would have co-opted the gossip, made an ally, and shut the b.s. down.' It would have been worth a try.
Too late for any of these little remedies.
The Town Manager has spoken. Now the Town Council has spoken. Time for the Hooksett Four to a bit more speaking.
My guess their first words will be "See you in court."