Managing Rumors – 101

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One of the hardest things for managers to do is manage rumors. When was the last time someone approached you to share a rumor that made you feel uncomfortable and threatened the ebb and flow of your business? Even if you are a member of a strong corporate culture where health and wellness is advocated and supported, concerning rumors will pop up randomly to test your managerial acumen. What do you do as a manager when someone brings a rumor to your attention? Below is my 4-Step method of managing rumors.

“I heard that Melissa was hung over at yesterday’s meeting.”

“I think Jennifer is using funds from the incentive plan to buy gifts for herself.”

“Someone said Ted smelled like weed when he got to work.”

1 – Listen

This seems obvious, but what isn’t so obvious is the idea that listening involves patience. Patience is key when presented with a rumor, as the application of patience can negate the temptation to overreact. The worst thing you can do is take action in the form of a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes the rumor will elicit an emotional reaction from oneself. Who wouldn’t feel a sense of anger if you felt like an employee or teammate you trusted violated that trust and placed your team or department in a compromising position with your internal and external clients? When someone brings a rumor to your desk, ask questions to learn as much as you can about the situation. Specifically:

  • Who is the source of the rumor, and is the source/messenger credible?
  • What could that source’s political/personal agenda be?
  • Are there clear details around this rumor, or witnesses to the behavior?
  • Set the expectation that you will address it, and gain a commitment to keep it private.

“The Office” captures rumors at their worst!

2 – Investigate

Once you have the rumor reported and you have had the opportunity to ask questions about the source, potential agendas, and meaningful details you must gently and quietly validate or invalidate the rumor. A tactful approach is key as the simple mentioning of a rumor, true or not, can fan the flames and unintentionally validate it without evidence within the environment. Try to steer your investigation towards peers that you can trust to “discuss and forget.” What you want to do is find answers to the following concerns:

  • Is there enough information to act on the rumor?
  • Does the available information allow you to effectively discuss it with the subject?
  • Is there enough information and/or witnesses documented to take employment action (termination, counseling, etc.)?
  • If true, does the subject’s action put anyone’s safety at risk or compromise the pursuit of individual and team goals?
  • Review the subject’s individual performance to find any correlation with the timing of the report and results, and seek out erratic fluctuations with results or behaviors (attendance, etc.).
  • What does the source of the rumor have to gain, if anything, from the mere existence of the rumor?

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3 – Communicate

If you are able to collect a lot of data and there are enough witnesses to determine that specifically clear policies have been broken and the organization’s safety has been placed at risk, “Step-4” (below) doesn’t matter because you have the ability to terminate. But rumors don’t often come with the luxury of validation. We seek high and low for more information, often in vein. Hence the essence of a rumor. Most of the time you won’t be able to collect any additional information about the rumor during phase 1 and 2 of my 4-step process.

What do we do? The healthiest relationships revolve around honesty and communication. If there were a potentially damaging rumor about YOU, wouldn’t you want a trusted peer to share its existence with you? I would. Find a private place to sit down and introduce the concern by preceding that “I don’t see any evidence to suggest that what I have heard is true, but I want to be fair and communicate what I heard the other day. Someone approached me and shared a rumor that you…” The goal of this interaction is:

  • Provide an opportunity for the subject to explain, if necessary or possible, the existence of the rumor. This interaction could prompt a confession (which is healthy for everyone), or it could provoke a sense of rage and discrimination (which we cannot prevent, but we must accept the task of managing this as part of our role as leaders). Be prepared.
  • Open the door for future communication.
  • Present the situation honestly by admitting you investigated and found no evidence, or share the evidence you have found for open discussion.
  • Remind everyone of the policies in place to govern safety and performance.
  • Privately log the communication.
  • Scare someone straight, in case the rumor is true but cannot be proved.

4 – Observe

We have planted the seed that something might or might not be happening, and now we sit back and observe behaviors. The examples of rumors I provided above (theft, alcohol abuse, drug abuse) are behaviors that typically don’t occur once and then go away. These behaviors are often exhibited consistently over time, and you should expect to see evidence to validate the rumors if they were in fact true but difficult to corroborate. When these rumors become reality down the road you will have already documented an interaction regarding awareness of the potential issue, and you will have already set the expectation that the behavior described in rumor, true or not, is undesired.

If the rumors were ultimately unfounded you will have to gauge what impact has developed as a byproduct of sharing the rumor with the subject. Is the subject resentful? Is there a cloud of mistrust hovering over their desk? Have they changed the way they interact with teammates and clients? Some people will understand that you are doing your job as a manager and you have to address discerning reports. Others will hold a grudge and assume you are “out to get them.” You cannot control how people feel. You can only influence those feelings to varying degrees. Accept that once you have put your best foot forward, if they still hold resentment, then the subject must develop the ability to understand roles and perspectives outside of their own scope of view. This is difficult to do, and some people really struggle to do it. Maybe that will be my next blog subject?

2 thoughts on “Managing Rumors – 101

  1. Jules Ung

    As someone who’s been on both sides of the coin (both the recipient of as well as the subject of rumors), this article provides a clear path for navigating the high seas of gossip to positive outcomes with pro-active measures 🙂 Thanks Michael Gambuto for your insights and sound advice!

    • The rumors I have had to manage required I do something to acknowledge the threat to team harmony. Even if the rumors were unfounded, I had to show faith and trust in the reporting entity. It’s a slippery slope for sure, but one thing holds true. Gently managing rumors is done to ensure everyone is cared for and safe.

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