What kind of damage control can I do?
March 13, 2012 9:40 PM   Subscribe

I screwed up at work and talked badly, albeit truthfully, about a coworker. The person I spoke to told this coworker what I had said and I feel terrible. What steps I can take to make this right?

So, I was venting about a drama-ridden complex issue that involved myself and this coworker. I know it's no excuse, but I was really stressed and overwhelmed and this other person who I am friendly with showed up and blam- I dumped all this stuff on her.

A couple days later, I see the person who I blabbed about and she makes several indirect comments that tell me pretty clearly that the person I complained to told her everything I said. The 'confidant' is technically 'lower' than me and the person I was talking about is not my direct boss but at that level. And the main gist of my complaints were regarding what I see as a hidden agenda.

I feel badly, not only for talking about a coworker in this negative fashion but for burdening another person with it. Also, of course because this has made a tense situation a hundred times worse.

So far my only plan is to apologize to the person I blabbed to for being unprofessional. I don't know if I should address it further with the person I was talking about since she has taken the indirect route and I'm concerned that would just make it worse since I actually believe what I said. . .
posted by abirdinthehand to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A concise, professional, and honest apology to both, forgive yourself, and never mention it again.
posted by just sayin at 9:44 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

What I would do:

Apologize and explain that I was just venting about a situation. I would also admit that was I did was immature, but that it was a 'heat of the moment' kind of thing. Ask what you could do to move past the situation,
posted by 200burritos at 9:45 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would wait until the coworker in question brings it up again, and then ask her if she wants to clear the air. Then be as honest as propriety will allow, explaining your actions in the context of your surrounding stress. However, it's possible that the damage is done at this point and that she won't want to pursue it further. If that's the case, your relationship is likely damaged. It happens. Do your job, work on being better about this stuff in the future.

I don't think you need to apologize to the other coworker. People gossip, vent and complain. It's human nature in social and work situations like these. I've never had someone apologize to me for gossiping to me, and I would think it was extremely weird if someone did. Your mistake was gossiping to someone at work, who you didn't know well, and didn't know if she would keep your confidence. She didn't (in my mind, she owes you an apology for that, but whatever), and now you know not to confide in her in the future. Lesson learned.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:48 PM on March 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Agreed that owning it quickly, truthfully, and without subsequent drama is about as best you can do. 200burritos and just sayin have it.
posted by smirkette at 9:49 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with PhoBWanKenobi. I think offering an apology straightaway might come off a bit drama-y, and you don't owe an apology to the person you vented to. I wouldn't vent to that person in the future though.
posted by sweetkid at 9:55 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whoops! Chalk it up as a lesson learned and focus all of your energy now on being really good at your job. Next time, vent to people you don't work with.
posted by mleigh at 9:57 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do not apologize to the person you vented to. What you did was unprofessional and unwise, but tattling on you to the superior was also unprofessional. If your comments had direct bearing on the superiors performance or behavior, the person you blabbed to could have brought it up without mentioning you.

Take it as a lesson to be more discreet, professional and kind at work. Ranting is for when you get home.
posted by formless at 9:59 PM on March 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, you certainly don't owe the person to whom you gossiped an apology - quite the reverse, in fact. To take information that was clearly given in confidence and pass it on is pretty shitty. At least you now know that you can't trust that person at all, though.

If you can get up the courage, speak to the person you talked about and, without being dishonest or saying you didn't mean what you said, tell them that you were angry about a situation and were venting about that situation. Apologise for causing any offence and assure them it won't happen again. Then make sure it doesn't. There's really nothing more you can do at this stage and even that much may just make things worse, depending on the person's personality (they may prefer to pretend it didn't happen). Time heals most wounds ...
posted by dg at 10:02 PM on March 13, 2012

Office drama sucks but is so hard to stay out of! I totally agree that you do not owe the confidant an apology (quite the reverse). I'm on the fence about the subject of the venting. She has already addressed in, albeit indirectly and on a professional level, so maybe for her it's case closed. On the other hand, she may have been opening up the topic for you to 'fess up and apologize? Only you can know that. I'm inclined to say, Just move on and yeah, do better.
posted by thinkpiece at 4:14 AM on March 14, 2012

I would talk to your boss about it, as it could affect their ability to work with this other person if they are a peer, and it is sure to come up between them if they need to interact.. "Hey, your employee is an ass and talking smack about me..."

So, go to your boss first and ask them what to do.
posted by rich at 5:22 AM on March 14, 2012

You don't owe an apology to the person you "burdened," especially given that they promptly unburdned themselves onto the person you were talking about. I do think that at some point you may need to address this with the person who was the subject, though - or perhaps with your own boss. It's okay for you to continue to believe this person has a "hidden agenda" (well maybe not okay, but you don't have to suddenly be besties with her) but still apologise for your own unprofessional behavior, I mean. However, the situtation will probably continue to fester in one way or the other - just do your level best to not feed that fire any further.

And forgive yourself. We all make mistakes.
posted by sm1tten at 8:33 AM on March 14, 2012

Supposing you talked with A about B.

If you interact more often with A than with B, I'd recommend trying to find out from A a bit more about the A-B conversation. Did A tell B you were a rude and scandalous employee, or did you come up in conversation and A mentioned that you seemed a bit frustrated by the way B handled X? Are A and B normally friends/friendly enough that A would be looking out for B's best interests over yours, or is it more likely that A didn't tell the whole story, or didn't tell it in a worst-perspective kind of way?

Once you know exactly what you have to apologize for, you'll be a lot better prepared to do damage control with B. But no matter what the A-B conversation was, your best angle might be to apologize for the momentary lapse in judgement while minimizing how much vitriol you admit to. "You know, I was a bit frustrated by the way you handled X, and A was unfortunate enough to catch me while I was caught up in it. Just knowing that she may have thought I was really upset, makes me want to at least mention it to you even though it's not a big deal."
posted by aimedwander at 8:49 AM on March 14, 2012

And forgive yourself. We all make mistakes.

Yep, this is the most important thing. I once wrote a venting email and accidentally sent it to the person I was venting about. Holy shit. Bad form. I followed up immediately with a straightforward apology. Luckily the guy was a truly decent type who accepted my apology and we went on to work together amicably for years.

In your case, I think you could take a "least said, soonest mended" approach and just wait it out, or you could offer a brief apology to the person you vented about (definitely not the confidant). Only you know the situation and the personalities and can decide which approach will cause the least drama. Whichever you choose, don't beat yourself up.
posted by torticat at 8:55 AM on March 14, 2012

Wait a sec. Gossiping in the office isn't boorish and unprofessional behavior necessitating an apology?
posted by just sayin at 9:10 AM on March 14, 2012

Definitely the high road and indicative of maturity to apologise to the person who was gossiped to, and it helps reset their expectations about your willingness to confide in the future.

"[soandso], I must apologise for putting you in such an awkward position by venting about [bigshot]. Please know that won't ever happen again."
posted by batmonkey at 11:24 AM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, batmonkey, that's what I was (awkwardly) getting at.
posted by just sayin at 11:31 AM on March 14, 2012

Thanks for all the great advice- I apologized to the 'confidant' today, which has me feeling somewhat better- just being able to do something- she acted like it was nothing and didn't even hint at what obviously took place after we talked- but its to be expected I guess. . .

I am now considering how to approach the other person in question- if anyone is still following this, I'm trying to sort out what to say if when I apologize to her she attempts to address the content of what I said. Is there a way to avoid that? Should I go ahead and lay it out on the table?

I feel that addressing those issues can't really be productive. By definition having a hidden agenda means that you don't acknowledge it, so why would I attempt to discuss that? Or is it just a misunderstanding that can be resolved?

How can I maximize the possibility for resolution without making myself vulnerable?
posted by abirdinthehand at 3:11 PM on March 14, 2012

I think you can just say, "I apologise for being unprofessional and talking about you behind your back. But at this time I would prefer not to address the content of my issue." And leave it at that, for now. We have no way to know whether or when you should try to resolve this, because we don't know what the hidden agenda/issue is. But it's likely that if she didn't know you had a problem with her before, and it in any way affects workflow/relationships now, that it's not going to go away. It's not really resolved as long as you still have a problem with her, and she knows it, even if you're all acting like you don't. Maybe your company works okay that way, though.

I think it's interesting that you apologised to the person you gossiped to today but have yet to apologise to the person you gossiped about. I think it's no less unprofessional to spread gossip that you've heard, and I think it's kind of asinine to apologise second to the person who is most deserving of an apology. But obviously it's different strokes for different folks.
posted by sm1tten at 5:52 PM on March 14, 2012

The thing is, unfortunately, that you have made yourself vulnerable. The goal now should be to minimise the blowback.

Definitely apologise to the person you gossiped about ASAP. Order of Operations on this one should have been that person before the confidant, but, well, it is what it is at this point.

As for a script...sm1tten's got a good approach; you could soften your hesitancy to go beyond a simple apology for now by adjusting it a bit with something like, "[bigshot], I want to apologise for my unprofessional behaviour. That's not a productive way to handle business issues. It won't happen again. I will do better at resolving issues appropriately in the future." And then stop there and wait.

Thank her if she accepts your apology right off. You can't control her response to this. If she wants to confront you on the content, though, you can give yourself some room to compose a better response by saying something like, "I would like some time to consider [my concerns/the situation/etc.] more deeply, as I should have done in the first place, and address it with you at a later time." Then offer a timeframe. It shouldn't be more than three business days, ideally. Then really consider what you were bugged by, what the real business impact was, what the actual productive feedback should have been, and deliver that within the timeframe you told her. Verbally and face-to-face. And if you realise it was just a mess of conflicted personal feelings, you can come back to her and say you've realised it was completely an error on your part and will take responsibility for contributing more positively from here on out.

I would encourage you to consider telling your boss, since you've indicated this is their lateral peer. Taking ownership for your behaviour and the potential impact should ease their response. And maybe they would have good feedback for you on how to handle this now and in the future. Certainly, they would want to have a broad warning about potential conflict between their direct report and a colleague. Just don't get into all of the dramatic details - "I said something I shouldn't have, here's how I want to handle it, I won't be making this mistake again" should suffice.
posted by batmonkey at 6:34 PM on March 14, 2012

I apologized first to her because I ran into her and did not see the other person all day. It was just that the opportunity came about naturally and I didn't consider how that might look, although it did have the advantage of giving me a sense of where she was at.

So, I apologized to my other coworker today, I said a variation of what most of you suggested here- short and to the point.

She acted as though she had no idea what I was talking about. I was pretty mystified by this because she was clearly pissed off when we spoke before. So, I said 'oh, well soandso misunderstood something that I said to her regarding x and I thought she had repeated it to you, so I just wanted to clear the air.' And she said, ' don't worry about politics, don't worry about these insignificant things, everything is fine.' Just like that.

I'm positive that I did not misread her earlier statements, and assume that she is being magnanimous. I'm incredibly relieved, but also find that reaction somewhat strange. I had gotten to the point that I was actually kind of looking forward to genuinely making amends- as much as is possible in our situation. But perhaps this is the best outcome I could hope for.

Thanks again for all the advice!
posted by abirdinthehand at 4:54 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

heck, yeah, it is! right on.
posted by batmonkey at 7:01 AM on March 16, 2012

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