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Employees Should Mind Their Own Business

One of my clients, a manager in a health-care billing firm, recently came to me with a problem. Her employees constantly come into her office to voice complaints about their coworkers. Here are a few examples:
  • "Sheila was 10 minutes late again."
  •  "Dorothy is violating the dress code. Her midriff is showing."
  • "Sam is using his personal days for vacation."
  • "Why do I always have to fix Jim's mistakes? It's not fair!"
  • "Jan took two bagels from the snack room and there were none left for me."

The Problem
When employees complain about each other, it lowers morale and productivity. Once this type of petty complaining starts, it's difficult to stop. Mary complains about Jim. Jim complains about Mary. So Mary complains more about Jim. This behavior results in a huge waste of time and energy. It is immature behavior that needs to be stopped.

Are all employees busybodies? Why is this behavior so common in organizations? I believe there are several reasons:

  1. Employees resent work rules. Rules are no doubt necessary, but employees can regard them as a burden that restricts their freedom. They take out their resentment by complaining about each other.

  2. Some employees are brownnosers. They think that by reporting on others, they will look good and they will ingratiate themselves with their boss.

  3. Other employees are just obsessed with rules and find it upsetting when others don't take them as seriously as they do.

  4.  Employees mistakenly believe that everyone should be treated exactly the same. They believe that no one should receive special privileges or be "above the law." Yet they each believe that exceptions should be made for them when needed.

What to Do
Employees need to focus on their work and on furthering the goals of the organization, not on the behavior of their co-workers; that's the job of supervisors and managers. Here are some strategies to stop the sniping:

  1. Don't get sucked in to this destructive dynamic. The worst thing you can do is validate busybodies by thanking them for being a tattletale and taking immediate action against the transgressor.
  2. Make it clear that complaining about other employees is inappropriate. Politely explain to the busybody that it is not necessary or appropriate for him to monitor or report on other employees unless there is a good work-related reason, that is, when someone's safety is at risk or illegal activity is taking place.

  3. Urge employees to deal with issues on their own. Instead of bringing trivial complaints to supervisors, encourage workers to address their concerns directly with their coworkers.

  4. Make it clear that employees will be treated fairly, but not equally. Do you treat your 17-year old son exactly the same way you treat your 12-year old daughter? Of course not! Each has different responsibilities is afforded different privileges. When employees complain, "It's not fair that Suzie gets to leave early to pick up her child from daycare," tell them that employees will be treated fairly but as unique individuals with specific capabilities and needs.

  5. Make it clear that exceptions will be made. Employees often complain when exceptions are made for others, but they are very appreciative when exceptions are made for them. Tell employees that management reserves the right to make exceptions they deem warranted for any employee, including the complaining employee. For example, good performers will be treated differently from poor performers, employees with extenuating family circumstances will be afforded special considerations if needed, and new employees will be given more slack than experienced employees.

  6. Throw out the rule books. Policy and procedure manuals as thick as the Manhattan yellow pages cause more problems than they solve. Employees learn to become Philadelphia lawyers, obsessed with trying to beat the rules. Instead, provide managers with general guidelines and give them the freedom and flexibility to treat people as responsible adults.

  7. Use your company’s performance appraisal system to your advantage. Rate employees on "teamwork." With this system, employees can be rated poorly if they constantly tattle on coworkers.

  8. Make it clear that gossip will not be tolerated. Recognizing how destructive this dynamic can be, one of my clients actually incorporated this rule into its official corporate values. Employees know they are held accountable for adherence to this organizational value.

  9. Be a role model. If managers avoid tattling and gossiping about employees (even among fellow managers), employees at all levels of the organization will mirror their behavior.

Employees should be discouraged from reporting company rule violations committed by other employees. That's the job of management. Tactfully and diplomatically tell the busybodies to mind their own business.

Gossip in the office can create friction beetween your employees. Learn how to create and keep positive relationships with all of your workers with this AMA webinar.