Office politics make me want to vomit.
November 10, 2010 9:47 AM   Subscribe

A coworker with whom I only occasionally interact gave another coworker a very ambiguous yet relatively serious performance-related warning to give to me as a "heads up." To my self-knowledge, the accusation in question did not occur, but, if in the off-chance it did, I would want to know more details so I could avoid somehow fucking-up-while-having-no-realization-of-doing-so in the future. I'm not sure how to proceed.

This morning, a coworker (code-name "Jim") came into our large shared office room to (ostensibly) pass along a serious warning. Another individual at our workplace with whom I rarely work (code-name "Mark") told Jim in confidence that I had fucked up while dealing with a patient/subject. (For some context, Jim and Mark are "bros" who hang regularly outside the workplace.) We work with patients/subjects with serious psychological issues, and the gist of the infraction was that I evidently asked questions that were inappropriately probing with regard to their condition. This was all given to me in a very grave, serious tone, the feeling of "I can't believe you fucked up like this, and I am saving your ass."

Mark had apparently wanted Jim to tell me this, so that it didn't need to go any superiors within our workplace. When I consulted my memory, I could recall the patient, but couldn't recall any conduct along these lines, and asked for more information or context as to this apparent problem. Jim wasn't able to proffer any actual details with regard to what had allegedly occurred, and, curiously enough, also told me that under no circumstances was I to ask Mark for any further clarification or to tell Mark. Jim did not really budge upon further questioning (under the very honest protest from me that I could not remember and wanted to shape up if there was a legitimate problem), nor upon expressing confusion toward the contradiction he had in his own story (i.e. this was supposed to be a warning to me, but he could not know that this warning was given). "Just don't do it again," were Jim's final words.

The fact that Mark did not actually inform me about their concerns despite ample opportunity to do so (this patient came in about three and a half weeks ago!) makes me feel that Jim's narrative as presented is probably spurious. It seems possible my closer coworker tacked on the altruism (i.e. "a warning to you") to the narrative of what was otherwise gossip, which is why Jim does not want this getting back to Mark. But, who the hell knows?

I'm not sure what my correct stance is in this situation. I pride myself on my competence. I tend to be a very cautious and self-critical person—I actually have a problem with ruminating over my mistakes and flaws, and am hypersensitive in the moment to my capacities—which is why I'm surprised to hear that something apparently this serious took place without even the slightest anxiety on my part. (Though the seriousness of the event itself is obscured by lack of detail; like chiding an amnesiac "you know what you did!") Furthermore, I actually know people with the condition in question, and know full well what are and are not safe topics of discussion. The one piece of identifying information (apart from specific patient) I was able to extract from Jim with regard to the alleged exchange renders the exchange impossible, as I was preparing equipment for the procedure at the time it allegedly occurred. It doesn't seem to add up. I am tempted to call bullshit, but don't want to leave this dormant if I'm messing up.

"I don't like my co-worker for personal reasons" is one thing; while anxiety-provoking, it isn't globally serious if I'm not best friends with (this/these) particular co-worker(s). "I think my co-worker is a fuck-up and am going to spread rumors to my bros in the office" is another—that's potentially affecting my employment. If there is a problem, I don't want to whitewash over it; I want to rectify it, and improve for the future—if I am being in some way thoughtless, I want to be conscious and change these slips that apparently don't even register in my memory. If there isn't a problem, I want to make clear that I will not tolerate gossip about my professionalism. And, I'd also like to make clear to people that if they have a legitimate problem with how I do my job, they should talk to me about it rather than play messenger boy with their office bros.

What are some reasonable things for me to consider doing? Even though the surface justification was that this was done as a favor to avoid involving my superior, I wouldn't be averse _to_ involving my superior. We have a very good working relationship and I have presented no problems in the past, and I trust he would deal with the situation fairly, especially if there in fact was a problem. As it stands, I'm just really anxious that something bizarre and unexpected is going to come out of the woodwork to blindside me.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a good relationship with your superior? If you feel the need you can always talk to him or her.

Otherwise, tell Jim that if Mark has something to say to you he can come to you himself and say it. Otherwise disregard.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:12 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go back to Jim and tell him that if Mark has any serious problems with your work he should approach you directly instead of sending warnings with messengers. Then go to your supervisor and tell him what has transpired, including this last piece that you have addressed it with Jim. Tell your supervisor that you don't need him to do anything at this point, you just want him to know about the situation for "You heard it from me first" reasons, in case anything else develops. People who play these stupid games don't get to say "Don't tell anyone else about this."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:13 AM on November 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

A very reasonable thing for you to consider doing is finding another job. Your workplace environment is sick, and you're tying yourself in knots trying to make sense of a sick power play.

I used to live in a gossip mill. It wasn't until I got out that I realized how sick the situation was, and that life doesn't have to be like that.

Jim has bought into the gossip mill. I would bet you're right that Mark was engaging in malicious gossip, and Jim *should* have told Mark off for it, not passed the gossip on to you. Whether Jim is your friend or not (which is debatable), he's part of the gossip culture.

My first reaction to the short version was "of course tell your superior," but, at this point, you *do not* have a performance issue of your own to bring up; you have a compliant about a malicious gossip spreading untrue rumors about your professionalism.

I'd also like to know how the heck Mark knows the content of your conversations with a patient.
posted by endless_forms at 10:14 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to tell you whether you should drop it or follow up, but if you do continue on, I say involve your superior. Since you seem to be confident you didn't do anything wrong, and you have a good relationship with your supervisor, take it to them. It does seem like it would be smart to cut something like this off before it has a chance to get big.
posted by coupdefoudre at 10:15 AM on November 10, 2010

I kept thinking "I'd totally involve the superiors in this case, but I'm sure the OP will write at the end why they don't want to do that." But since you're tending towards that solution also, I'd completely agree.
Obviously bear in mind that this is very likely to make Mark and/or Jim pissed off at you, but from the sounds of it they're already not that keen on you and also don't work that closely to you?

An alternative would be to tell your superior in confidence, to get the reassurance from him that you did indeed not mess up. Then you can always respond to Jim next time the issue comes up "I am not aware of any wrongdoing, I have not heard anything through official channels, and unless you give me further details I am going to consider this a non-issue, please never mention it again". (I could personally see this as a potential set up for them to put pressure on you later, as in "you know that thing you did, we could still leak it to your superior", hence why it would be worth stressing this to them)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:16 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Contact your superior. We could enumerate the possibilities (Jim is making shit up to torment you, Mark is gossiping about you, you actually have a performance issue) but in each of those possibilities, talking to your superior is appropriate.
posted by Jpfed at 10:21 AM on November 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've had many, many problems with an overzealous coworker who seems to think that their job description includes policing everything I do. I went to my superior and (calmly) explained the situation, and my boss made it immediately clear that he approved of my work so far and had no problems. It also became clear that my coworker has zero respect for me. We're still working it out, but it is nice to know that my boss is firmly on my side, and respects me enough to give me a clear response.

So, in my experience, I think you should absolutely head to your boss about this. Give them a watered-down version: "Some people came to me with a warning about an interaction I had with a subject. I don't remember the interaction that clearly, but from what I remember, my interaction was appropriate and professional. The accusers won't give me any information as to exactly what I did wrong. I'm proud of the work I do. If you know anything about this, or could help me get to the bottom of this issue, that would be a big help. I'd like to improve my performance if it's necessary."

That's more or less how I worded my issue (someone else seems to think I'm not doing my job correctly, can you help me figure out whether or not it's true so I can better myself?), and no boss on the planet would be angry or annoyed at you coming to them with this.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:21 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

How would Mark know - was he in the room? Was anyone else in the room when it happened?
posted by mrs. taters at 10:22 AM on November 10, 2010

I can't speak for medical professionals, but here's how I got around gossip shit, "Thanks for thinking of me, but I really think you should report this to our superiors. If I were [SuperiorName], I'd want to know about someone engaging in such practices. I have no doubt that my name will be cleared, but it is important to discuss this in a transparent manner."

Obviously that's a bit stilted language, but after I made it very clear that if I was doing something that needed to go up the chain, move it up the fucking chain. Otherwise the good old boy network of who owes who, and didn't I cover your back last time turns the work place into a bad season of Dynasty.

More than likely there's manipulation going on and for whatever reason it is targeting you. Don't question why, or seek answers, it is what it is. Me? If it is as bad as it sounds I would absolutely want this and my response on file somewhere, not as an "I owe you" in Mark/John's back pocket. You absolutely don't want something else to come up and then Mark put a bug in someone's ear that this isn't the first time, if it is discussed in the open these things have a much less chance of happening.

Really, they're just trying to bring you into their bro circle of friends by blackmailing you: Don't tell on us, we didn't tell on you.
posted by geoff. at 10:24 AM on November 10, 2010 [12 favorites]

Is it possible that someone is pulling what I like to phrase "the soft scape goat"?

Essentially, a situation that I've had at a few jobs where a person was simultaneously scape goating me for something they or someone else did, while also "saving my ass." When it's happened to me, I was always talked to in a serious hush hush manner. The details of how exactly it was my fault or what I did were always vague and I was ALWAYS under strict instructions to discuss the matter with no one else and to just let sleeping dogs lie. Whenever I've gotten more information about what happened way down the line, essentially what had happened is that said co-worker had screwed up something I was somehow in someway involved with. It was their fault, but since the boss found them first and got the version of events from them they could easily change a few details, shift the blame and then sound like a team player to the boss by going, "I know whoaali really screwed up, but she's normally so good we should go easy on her. Let me talk to her and I'm sure I can get it resolved and then you don't even need to get involved."

I don't have any particularly good advice about how to handle it. You have to decide whether you want to escalate it to involve your supervisor. Of course you'll likely get some backlash from your coworkers and you run the risk that the next time they try and scapegoat you, they won't also be saving your ass at the same time, they'll just try and hang out to dry. Of course you can always fight back when they do this, but you really can't know in advance whether it'll be a situation where you'll have evidence to back you up or it will be a he said/she said situation.

One thing you can take away from this though is a healthy suspicious of your coworkers and to always cover your ass around them.
posted by whoaali at 10:25 AM on November 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

Yeah, talk to superiors. That seems the best way to proceed.
posted by koeselitz at 10:33 AM on November 10, 2010

Could the patient in question have spoken to someone else? And could the patient have fabricated/mistaken your questioning?
posted by Ideefixe at 10:37 AM on November 10, 2010

Go to Mark, and ask him to repeat what he told Jim. If he refuses, indicate that you are going to your superiors to report a workplace violation of some sort (not sure what applies in your workplace, but in a previous job it would fall under "harassment").
If Mark says "you did x y and z", ask how where he got this information from, and if first hand, find out what he thought he saw. If the info came from the patient who said it to a 3rd party and then came round to Mark, you're in "telephone game" land. If this is the case, nthg what others say: talk to your superior to find out what is being said and deal with it the best you can.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:11 AM on November 10, 2010

Short answer:
Meet with your supervisor immediately to very seriously address any performance or ethical issues you may be having, regardless of the way you were informed or the veracity of the complaint. Disclose every piece of information regarding the matter (patient, Jim, and Mark) ASAP.

Long Answer:
If you are in a medical/psychological profession and you care about your professional competency, go to your supervisors and bring it up. Be specific that Jim and Mark were concerned about your performance with patient X and you want to follow up and correct your mistake with any extra training or workshops that are available. Bring with you to the meeting with your boss all your documentation and logs dealing with patient X. Schedule this meeting as soon as possible because this is a very serious issue that deals with the safety and wellbeing of your clients. Go into the meeting assuming that you will need to review your past performance and improve your future performance, because you should always be doing that regardless of office politics. Remember you have both strengths and weaknesses and both should be taken into account during your professional development.

Continual education and personal assessment is a element of many professional ethics, and if you are all licenced professionals it is your obligation to take this performance criticism very seriously and act immediately to address the issue. This will require you to disregard Jim's request to keep the criticism secret, which is completely inappropriate. If you did violate professional ethics it is required of Jim and Mark to confront you professionally and to go to your supervisor and notify them as well - otherwise they are colluding and conspiring to cover up an incidence of malpractice and inhibiting your capability to assess and address professional shortcomings.

Because this deals with a client, it is not at the level of petty office politics and cannot be treated that way. If Jim or Mark confront you "I told you not to tell!" you will have to inform them that you have no choice, it was an issue of professional competency and there is more at state here than personal reputations. Your entire office is at risk if competency issues are not addressed with the utmost seriousness. If there is any question about what exactly happened that is a problem, insist on a review of your office's documentary and recording protocol because if there is a performance complain that has no records then that indicated that office paperwork procedures must be revised to ensure proper documentation of any wrong-doing.

If there is a performance issue that you need to resolve, this is a productive way to begin to correct any errors you may have made. If this is indeed petty office policking (honestly, that's what it sounds like) this is an effective way of showing how inappropriate such things are. It will show your supervisor and their supervisors that you take your performance very seriously, it shows you are responsible, and it sends a clear message to your coworkers that you are not to be fucked with. Jim or Mark may say that you are blowing things out of proportion, but you must tell them that performance concerns are incredibly big deals and must be addressed at every level.

disclosure: I am a social work student and balls-deep in NASW ethics and so this answer applies specifically to that field but can be good advise for any field
posted by fuq at 11:33 AM on November 10, 2010 [19 favorites]

Go to Mark, and ask him to repeat what he told Jim.

Keep in mind, that maybe Mark has nothing to do with this either. Maybe Jim is causing shit for him, too. Jim sounds like a pot-stirrer.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:34 AM on November 10, 2010

For the love of god, don't talk to Mark. Don't feed the troll. (Though I recognize that Jim might be the troll in this situation, not Mark.)

Talk to your superior.
posted by endless_forms at 11:58 AM on November 10, 2010

These are co-workers, right? Do they have any authority to be giving you "warnings" to begin with? If not, I would just forget it. Thank them for their opinion, and move on. If you find the commentary useful on reflection, great, but otherwise, the only complaints that concern you are from clients or superiors.
posted by mdn at 12:20 PM on November 10, 2010

If I could favorite fuq's comment a zillion times, I would. A client's privacy and treatment are involved. Ethical responsibilities are involved here: to protect the client's privacy, and to protect you against gossip that, whether malicious or well-meaning, affects a client's treatment.

If Mark and Jim are discussing something that happened with a client, is the alleged mishap documented in the client's case folder? If not, the incident either (a) didn't happen, (b) or is being covered up. You need to talk to your supervisor.
posted by catlet at 12:23 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

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