I was delivering paperwork to my Accounts Payable Clerk when she shocked me with a comment. “Did you know that there is something going on between one of your department heads and one of his female employees?”
After I collected myself, I began to ask questions as to what she believed she knew, what she had actually seen or heard, and what prompted her to tell me about her suspicions. I listened intently making mental notes. When she was done, I thanked her and asked her to not repeat what she believed to others until I had time to properly investigate these rumors.
Whether he admitted anything or not, I would outline to him his responsibility as a department head to not engage in any type of behavior that would compromise his position as a leader in this organization.
My next stop was Human Resources to speak to the director. She and I went behind closed doors and I explained to her what I had just been told. When I was done, she told me that she also had heard rumors but no one she had spoken with had any hard proof of improper behavior on the part of the two employees so she did not mention it to me. I told her I was really concerned since I was aware that the female being implicated in the inappropriate behavior was married and that her husband also worked for us. Should the rumors reach his ears, we were going to have a big problem. After some discussion, I told her that I would arrange to meet with the department head and confront him with the rumors. Whether he admitted anything or not, I would outline to him his responsibility as a department head to not engage in any type of behavior that would compromise his position as a leader in this organization.
I arranged to meet the department head in a conference room that was away from the main work area so we could have some privacy. I closed the door, asked him to sit down, and I outlined the rumors that were circulating about one of his female employees and him. He exploded.
“How can you say that! I am a married man! What if my wife were to get wind of this – do you know what would happen to my marriage?!” He went on for quite some time and as I listened, my thought was, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
When he was done, I calmly addressed him, “I am making no accusations. I am telling you that rumors that can hurt both you and your employee are circulating. As a department head, you have an obligation to treat each of your employees equally and with dignity. I know we all work with our teams and try to build friendships. However, in the process, we must ensure that our friendship does not create a false impression that one employee is receiving special treatment or attention. When that happens, it will cause people with too much time on their hands to start rumors. So, I am giving you this courtesy and telling you that something in the manner in which you are treating this employee has caused people to think something inappropriate is happening. So, evaluate yourself and correct your behavior. If the rumors are not true, then this evaluation will help you correct your leadership style and the rumors will stop. If the rumor is true, then you know that the behavior must stop because you have not fooled anyone and you are placing yourself and your employee at risk. That is my advice to you. If you are smart, you will heed it.” With that, the meeting ended.
As a leader, you may have to face the same difficult situation where you are hearing rumors about one of your team members. If the rumors negatively impact the function of the organization, you must address the situation even if you no positive proof that any real inappropriate behavior is actually occurring. So, using the above example as a guide, here are some steps to help you:
- Schedule a time to talk to the employee alone. Ensure your meeting is in a place where you can speak freely without being heard by others. Whether the rumors are true or not, the employee does not need to be embarrassed in front of other team members.
- Be honest and tell the employee exactly what you have heard. However, when they ask – and they will ask – do not reveal the source of the rumors. Remind them that the fact rumors are spreading is the problem and not who is spreading them. Reassure your employee that those spreading rumors will be corrected. Then firmly return to the subject at hand.
- Allow the employee to tell their side of the story. If the employee admits the rumors are true, you will need to be prepared to take the appropriate action. Therefore, ensure you do your research as to the extent of action you may take before you call the meeting. If the employee states that the rumors are not true, then you need to do as I did in the above example and outline the corrective action that must be taken to stop the rumors.
- Return to the person or persons who brought the rumors to your attention and thank them for the respect they showed you by bringing the problem to your attention. Remind them to never repeat rumors because they hurt morale and to always bring them to you so you can take the appropriate action to correct the situation. In the above example, I thanked the employee for telling me what she suspected. I let the Human Resource Director know that she should have approached me immediately when she had heard the whispers rather than waiting for me to come to her. I also advised both of them that should they hear anyone talking about this situation again, they should advise them that it has already been addressed and for the sake of the organization, it is best that they do not spread hurtful rumors.
- Finally, return to work as normal. You cannot allow rumors to dictate your treatment of your employees. Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and as part of the team. The sooner your team sees that your trust in the employee has not diminished, the sooner healing will begin.
But be prepared. Every denial may not be truthful. About a month later, I was called to the front office with the Human Resource Director. The husband of the female employee was in the office demanding the firing of my department head because he was engaged in an affair with his wife. He had brought with him his wife’s cell phone that contained text messages that clearly demonstrated that these two individuals had crossed the line and that their relationship was much more than professional. The CEO told him to take the rest of the day off and that we would handle the situation. When the husband left, he looked at me and said, “Fire him.”
Remember in step three above I told to you that you needed to be prepared to take the appropriate action should the employee admit that the rumors were true? Well, I had done my research and discovered a problem.
When I first started my position in the upper level of management in this organization, I had reviewed the employee handbook and noticed that there was no written policy on fraternization between department heads and employees. I brought this to the attention of the Human Resource Director and the CEO. Both told me that such a written policy was not necessary because it had never happened and would not happen. So, legally, we could not fire him because we had no grounds to do so based upon our written policies. When I brought this to the attention of the CEO he was not very happy. He called our legal team and discussed the situation. I knew when he slammed down the phone that our lawyer had confirmed what I had told him. I felt bad that in the end, I had to defend my department head after he had lied to me and not heeded my advice. But, as a leader, I had to live up to my personal moral creed to always do what is right.
We reassigned the female employee to another department that was not in the same building as her existing department. She retained her current salary even though she was in a position that normally did not pay this amount of money. The department head was demoted to the lowest position in his department and his pay was adjusted accordingly because we felt he bore the most responsibility since he should never have allowed this to happen. I was not long before he found another job and left our organization. And this time, our employee manual was updated so that should this ever happen again, the consequences were clearly stated and the supervisory employee would be dismissed for their behavior.
If you are going to be an exemplary leader, then you must be ready to face difficult employee problems and rumors with fairness, competence, and in the end, do what is right – even if it hurts.