My boss talks to other employees about employees. Is this an accepted practice? He claims to be quite educated in new management styles. However, I do not feel as though I should know that he is thinking about firing his secretary, also known as my coworker.
Rather Not Know
Dear Rather Not Know,
Perhaps like me you recall the era when information was the currency of fabulousness. How much energy and time used to go into hiding and discovering secrets? How many Saturday and Sunday mornings has my dog Dickie spent sniffing around the back doors of my little Beverly Hills neighborhood?
And then we substituted the World Wide Web for the Berlin Wall and turned the rules of information upside-down. Now neighbors freely release skeletons from their closets and lovers from their guest houses. At work, bosses feel close enough to their employees to share readily the information crucial for getting the job done - even the names of customers and the dates of product releases. Scandalous.
Although yesterday's formal boss-employee relationship has in many companies given way to more open forms of communication, not all news is good news in the workplace. Hearing sensitive or personal information about your coworkers puts you in an unenviable position. Ethical decisions can wear a conscience down. Should you hoard the information? Pass it along to the grapevine? Hint to your coworker that it's always a good idea to keep one's resume current? They call it "dirt" for a reason.
The Thought Leaders who developed the "new management styles" did not intend to create a culture of impropriety. It's one thing for a manager to be a pal, and it's another thing entirely to earn and keep the respect of his or her staff. If your boss believes he must confide in you to win your confidence, he no doubt feels unfabulous. And if he's telling you about his secretary, chances are he's telling his secretary about you.
The next time he starts to Go There, try gently steering the conversation Somewhere Else. I always prefer to return the topic to Me. If subtle redirection fails, excuse yourself and return to work. If he is introspective enough, he may take the hint.
Otherwise, there's still one more step before escalating to the human resources department: be direct. The next time he shares sensitive information, tell him how uncomfortable his news makes you feel. Speak in a normal, unemotional conversational tone and close with a fabulous smile.