It’s not about having the $500,000 credit line at Tiffany’s, or having your $43 million divorce news splashed across the tabloids. And it’s certainly not about the CEO of the year being busted in a child prostitution sting.
But what do you do – as I coached a startup CEO yesterday – when something personal visibly impacts your job performance?
While the situation for my exec coaching client was medical – the prescribed experimental medicines they’re taking have the unfortunate side effect of causing intermittent forgetfulness and high irritability – it could have been any number of personal “private” situations. Things like sick kids, spouse, parents, etc.
While publicly traded companies have a requirement to disclose “material” information that may related to key talent – a gray zone of what should be or may not be disclosed (see related post here ) – the standards don’t apply to privately held firms or generally folks not at the top. And US health privacy laws – known as HIPAA – provides generally strong protections about what can and should be shared.
And in the case of my client, their belief was private was private. Should not be shared. Would not be shared. Does not want to be shared – with the exception of already telling a couple of key board members.
So what’s the rub?
People talk. And they talk even more in a vacuum. Steve Jobs looks gaunt, and the buzz is he’s on his deathbed. Aretha Franklin goes in for unspecificed surgery, and the public – including me – fall for the rumor that she’s dying.
When people observe behavior in the workplace that’s unusual, they pretty naturally start thinking about a possible cause. Is this the real person that’s coming out (guess that exec coaching isn’t so helpful)? Are we about to shutdown or be sold (why else would someone act that way)? I haven’t seen him with his kids lately (maybe the spouse took them away and they’re getting divorced)?
All rumors – all untrue. And all, unfortunately fuel for water cooler or Twitter gossip, and a drag on performance.
It is nobody’s business. But it’s your business to keep your folks focused and performing.
So what can you do?
While hindsight (the stuff of Monday morning quarterbacks) is great, context setting in advance is even better. Set the framework for some of the predictable stuff that happens before it happens and you’ll both have an effective tool to deal with these types of issues, and significantly decrease gossip.
Here are three examples.
- Somebody is no longer employed at the firm – gossip is whether they quit or more likely got fired. In advance you could provide this context: People from time to time leave the firm for a variety of reasons. We don’t share the news publicly because it’s a matter between the person and the firm. We hope if people are leaving they give us – and their colleagues – as much reasonable notice as possible. If someone gets fired, it’s for they types of things listed in the employee guidebook and if it involves performance, it can involve multiple performance conversations.
- Someone is acting oddly or in and out of work a lot – gossip is no one in management notices or cares, and the person is just getting away behaving badly. In advance you could provide this context: We take performance seriously and want folks to behave and perform in a way that works for all of us. Sometimes personal situations – such as medical issues or family concerns arise – mean that coming to work regularly gets interrupted or that the side effects of medications causes some change in behavior and performance. You should assume that we’re on top of it, and that things are being handled. The particular situation is a private matter for the employee and we want to honor that privacy. It’s their business to share or choose not to share what’s going on – not yours or ours.
- Dark suited visitors keep coming to the firm – gossip is that the company’s being sold. In advance you could say: From time to time we talk to people about a variety of things including investment, partnerships, acquiring someone or being acquired. Many times nothing – nada – comes from these conversations. Frequently the conversations have restrictions – mutual non-disclosure agreements – on what we can talk about or say. You should assume that we’ll have those visitors from time to time, and that we’ll get you accurate information as soon as possible. We don’t comment on rumors. We do provide facts when it’s appropriate.
Cut to the chase?
Providing context in advance on a periodic basis tamps down rumors, decreases speculation, and increases privacy – including your own – as appropriate. But create a vacuum – no context – and all sorts of weird rumors start up and take a life of their own.
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.