Office Chatter Gets a Colleague in Trouble. Now What?

Posted May 11, 2018 8:48 p.m. EDT

Q: I recently had a casual conversation with a co-worker about her upcoming vacation trip to Asia. I asked her if her flight was leaving at midnight, as such flights originating in our city often do. She said yes, and we talked more about where she would be staying and who was traveling with her. (She did not mention what night she was leaving.)

The next day, I told some others at the office that I was excited about our co-worker’s trip, and mentioned the midnight flight in passing. There was an assistant manager in this group, who promptly asked me to “write up” the conversation I’d had with my co-worker. It turns out she had called in sick that day — the day before her vacation technically began — and the assistant manager surmised that this was to accommodate the unusual flight schedule.

That’s probably right. But I was shocked because this was a casual conversation between me and a co-worker, and now I’m supposed to send an email about it so this manager can forward it to human resources. I find this unethical and against my personal values.

At the same time, it seems like insubordination if I don’t do it. Our management team frequently engages in retribution or retaliation. But I think it should have handled this itself without putting me in a difficult spot with another staff member. — RENEE

A: Given management’s likely attitude here, your colleague didn’t handle this particularly well. Calling in sick the day before a vacation starts is not a cunning maneuver, and seems likely to raise a suspicious manager’s eyebrow no matter what the details.

I don’t really see why your company needs to involve you in whatever action it might pursue. It seems to me that this assistant manager could just write an email to human resources saying, “Here’s what another employee just told me.”

Probably the thinking is that enlisting you somehow makes a more convincing case. But this is shortsighted: It essentially pits employees against each other involuntarily, potentially adding needless tension to the workplace. It also, ultimately, discourages communication if you’re never sure what offhand remark might plunge you into somebody else’s drama.

So it’s too bad you’ve been dragged into this — and I understand you may feel guilty about perhaps getting a colleague in trouble by mistake. But it’s not your fault.

Your best way out is to go minimal. Make the requested email terse: Your colleague told you about her vacation; you mostly discussed her plans at her destination, and in passing she indicated a certain flight time, although not a specific day. (Really, for all you know, she really was sick that day, and wasn’t flying until later. I don’t think you should get into speculating about that, but be clear about what you know and what you don’t.)

I think it would be fair to give your fellow employee a heads-up as soon after her return as you can. Just say what happened, and that you feel bad about it. Don’t speculate about implications or veer into passing judgment on management. Remember that you really don’t have all the facts. Who knows how this incident might relate to other issues your bosses may have with this colleague?

Don’t be hard on yourself. Your goal at this point is to extricate yourself from a situation you never sought in the first place.

Peer Review: Headphone Rules

Dear Workologist: Regarding your recent response to the reader bothered by a new hire’s headphone habits: Seriously? You suggest working out a way to get her attention?

How about “You work for me; you do your job — not listen to podcasts!”? The line of communication that should remain open is between the employee and his or her paycheck. This was really questionable advice. — WILLIAM R., NEW YORK

A: Simply pulling rank and issuing orders is always an option — and certainly a popular management technique. But it’s not always productive in the long run.

Consider the response from a different reader, who wondered if the manager in question should spend a little time trying to determine why this worker is installing a sonic barrier between herself and colleagues, whose gossip, gum-smacking or grunts may be a counterproductive distraction. “If the manager wants to learn more,” this person wrote, “I suggest that he/she sit in this employee’s cubicle for a day.”

Of course, empathy for the headphone wearer doesn’t solve any communication issues that may be occurring. But I like the spirit of this suggestion as a first step.

I agree that, ultimately, the boss should put into effect whatever office policies are necessary to make sure work gets done. But the challenge of management isn’t simply getting people to obey your rules. It’s making sure your rules address relevant problems without creating new ones — such as embittering workers who might decide to seek a paycheck from a different, and more thoughtful, source.