Reputational damage limitation in a small sector
August 10, 2019 1:34 AM   Subscribe

I have recently found out a volunteer on a project I manage has been spreading completely unfounded allegations about me bullying her and that I'm having an affair with one of my co-workers who also works with me on the project. It is a small sector, and our project is high profile in it. The volunteer has been making these allegations to other volunteers in our project and also to people elsewhere in the sector. I've got the full support of my managers and coworkers who know that this is all unfounded and we are actively working on a plan on how we will handle this internally. What I'm more concerned about is what this might be doing to my reputation elsewhere, and if there's anything I can do to mitigate that apart from continuing to be myself?

As these things often are this is a long and messy affair. We think this volunteer (let's call them Al) has mental health problems, although they've never formally confirmed that with us. Their behaviour has got more difficult over the last few months, causing a few safety incidents, and they had told us that they were not comfortable working with me. My managers were already planning to arrange a meeting with them to discuss their behaviour and come up with an action plan.

However, today another of our volunteers (Bea) put in writing a full report of the allegations that Al has been making about me, my manager's partner (who has no involvement in our project or our sector), and also about a couple of other volunteers. Until today we had no idea of the extent of the problem. The outcome will almost certainly be that we will stop Al volunteering with us. There are several other issues with their behaviour, we were mindful of their health issues, and initially wanted to support them to continue volunteering, but as this has all come to light, not just the unfounded serious allegations about me, but other people too, there's really no way we can let them continue.

In their report Bea also explained that they had been part of conversations with other volunteers and also external people in our sector, where it's clear they believe that I have been having an affair with my manager, and that I stole him away from Al (none of which is remotely true, my manager is happily in a long-term relationship with his partner). It seems that these are things that Al has been saying for some time, although we weren't aware of it. Many people seem to see through Al's accusations, but there's an undercurrent of "no smoke without fire".

I've worked with volunteers for a long time, this isn't the first time messes like this have happened (although it's not involved me quite so personally before) and I'm sure it won't be the last. On one level, I'm happy to roll with it, knowing that I've got the support of my organisation, and I have a great support network outside of work. What I am concerned about is what this has done/ will do to my reputation externally. It's a small sector, which has an often unhealthy culture of gossip and interrelationships. I'm newish in the sector, and in the last few years, I've been attempting to raise my profile and get known, speaking at conferences, taking part in networking, sitting on committees and so on. I've actively avoided getting involved in the gossip and the interrelationships.

Is there anything I can/should be doing apart from being my best self and hope that people see that Al is ill and there really is no foundation to any of it? I am planning on having a quiet word with close friends in the sector to let them know that if they hear anything, there is nothing to it. I am a young-presenting 40 year old female, and this is in the UK.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to note the legal routes as I understand them - not saying these are necessarily worth pursuing:

Spreading false allegations about you is legally considered slander when verbal, and libel when in writing, and in UK law both are civil matters, i.e. they're not a crime that would be investigated by the police, but rather something you would sue for damages over. That may not be worth the effort of pursuing, particularly if Al does not have much in the way of assets, but the threat of such action might nonetheless be useful.

The other angle to take is that Al's behaviour is harassment, which is a crime, and something you can take up with the police, as well as being a civil cause of action. It's possible to get a court order to restrain someone from continuing to harass you, which would then expose them to contempt charges if they failed to stop. I've no idea how realistic it might be to get one in this case. There is a Citizens Advice page about this that might be a useful start.
posted by automatronic at 8:33 AM on August 10, 2019

If you have some close friends in your work circle, tell them that you have unfortunately been the subject of untrue damaging gossip, that the foster will be counseled. Ask them to correct any rumors they hear. Do not give details about the gossip or the rumor. Do mention that it's distressing to you because it's untrue and unkind. Your manager may want to do the same.
posted by theora55 at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Be aware that many choices you could make in this situation will drag your manager into a strategy he may very much wish to not be a part of. Additionally, as the senior employee and the one with the partner, it is very possible he has more credibility here than you might. Were it me, I would consult with him and follow his lead.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2019

I think, given that there is not going to be any public confirmation of these alleged romantic entanglements and all of you are likely to keep on with your lives/partners in ways that make the allegations make no sense, you should stick to a quiet word to your closest allies and leave it at that.

It's so tempting to try to do something, but unless your entire management structure feels like they must issue some sort of statement* it's probably best to just proceed forward in a dignified manner.

*IF the allegations carry with them an implied violation of financial, safety, regulatory, or ethics laws or guidelines, it might be necessary to do this. It doesn't sound like that's your concern, though, so it doesn't seem like public comment is necessary.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

A few years ago someone in activist/left/arts circles spread a very ugly and totally untrue rumor about me. This person too had some mental health struggles which were not apparent on meeting them but became clearer and clearer the more you dealt with them. I was never sure whether the rumor grew more out of the difficulty assessing situations and paranoia that went along with the health issues or out of plain old being an asshole - on the one hand, I recognize that being an awful person isn't the result of mental illness, but on the other I don't want to foreclose the possibility that this person sincerely believed things that were not true.

It was very upsetting at the time, and a bit scary because it was such an ugly rumor. If it had been true, I would not have blamed people for feeling very differently about me.

The friend who told me about this said that they had not believed the rumor and indeed had told the person that it sounded extremely unlikely and asked if they could have misunderstood.

I have not encountered anyone who seems to have believed the rumor. The person burned a lot of bridges fairly quickly and lost pretty much all credibility, for one thing - it quickly became apparent to our circles that you could not believe this person. And for another, the thing they said was extremely out of character for me - I've got plenty of flaws but what they described really wasn't at all plausible given my personal history and character. Basically it all blew over with no damage to me that I have noticed.

My expectation is that while it may take a little time for the facts of Al's health to catch up to the rumor, the rumor will take care of itself.

The unfortunate truth is that if Al is floridly mentally ill, Al will be a subject of more gossip than anything Al may say. I think it's legit to mention this whole situation to a couple of close friends if you trust them not to go around stigmatizing Al, since there's a difference between saying "That isn't true, Al isn't well" if they hear the rumor and saying cruel and gross things about Al if they hear it.

I personally was pretty mad at the person who spread the rumor. I'm still mad given the [various identifying circumstances that I omit but that made it an especially shitty thing to do]. I try not to talk about being mad at this person because I recognize that they have a lot of struggles while I have a stable life (more or less, knock on wood). But I felt like it was very difficult to disentangle some of their problems in accurately understanding the world from their behavior, and while I'd certainly warn another person against making themselves vulnerable to this person, I would rather not have it turn into rumor-fest of "oh that person, they're so craaaaaaaaazy".
posted by Frowner at 10:45 AM on August 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

We think this volunteer (let's call them Al) has mental health problems, although they've never formally confirmed that with us.

It is in everyone's best interest to not try to diagnose people for mental health problems. If it gets out that you're speculating about this, and Al doesn't have mental health problems, it could be taken as you spreading misinformation in order to cover up something. And, in a broader way, this sort of speculation is terribly inappropriate and invasive. Not everyone who does dickish things is diagnosable, and not everyone who is diangosed does dickish things.
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:03 PM on August 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

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