How to Deal
Addressing Rumors: Let Your Work Speak for Itself
Friday, July 11, 2008; 12:00 PM
I work for a PR agency and my main client is a Fortune 500 company. Last week, someone left an anonymous voicemail for me saying that one of the internal PR people at my client was spreading "vicious and hurtful" rumors about me and my company. The person who was named regularly trashes her company to reporters and tells them she hates her job, so it's quite conceivable that she's also saying unprofessional things about me. Do you have any advice on if I should let this go, confront the person at my client, or inform her supervisors?
It is maddening to think that someone out there is smearing your professional reputation. Your instinct, naturally, is to take action to make it stop. But before you do or say a thing, it would be wise to analyze the range of potential outcomes.
Let's suppose that you confront the gossip. If this individual disparages her company and her job to reporters, then it is doubtful that she has much of a sense of shame about her actions. She will either deny what she has been doing or try to minimize and rationalize her actions. The purpose of approaching her is not to embarrass her into stopping, but basically to let her know that you are aware of the problem and leave her wondering what you might be willing to do to correct it.
You should tell her about the anonymous voicemail you received, and tell her that you wanted to let her know about it because you find it so hard to believe that she would ever say such things about you and your company. Then suggest to her that maybe someone took her constructive feedback out of context and ask her if there is something that your company could be doing to better its relationship with the client. Allowing her to save face in this way might help to take some of the wind out of her sails.
Now let's suppose you make an overture to the gossip's supervisors regarding her behavior. Your efforts might be met with gratitude. After all, I am sure your client does not want to be disparaged any more than you. Then again, you might find that your client is in deep denial about this person's behavior or that, although cognizant of the problem, they simply do not appreciate your officious meddling into their personnel matters. Worse still, they might think that you are exaggerating or making things up. Based upon the strength of your relationship with your client and what you know about your client's culture and the personalities of the gossip's supervisors, ask yourself honestly whether your message would be believed and valued.
Also consider what the gossip might do if she receives a reprimand from her supervisors. If you have already talked to her, she is likely to assume that you were the source of the tip, which will only stoke her destructive behavior. Initially, I think that you should talk to the gossip or to her supervisors, but not to both. If you talk to the gossip and she persists in her behavior, only then you should escalate the matter to her supervisors.
Meanwhile, don't let this become too much of a distraction from your work. The best way to safeguard your reputation with your client is to do a good job. Whatever rumors might be circulating about you, your work will ultimately speak for itself.
Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, July 22 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live. Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.