If you ever watched “I Love Lucy” you’re familiar with the chatty habits of Lucy Ricardo, Ethel Mertz, their nosy friend Caroline Applebee. Or, to stick with classic sitcoms, on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Aunt Bea’s gossipy pal Clara Edwards is always eager to share what’s happening in Mayberry. Although these buttinskies are fictitious, they’re not unlike people you can find working every day in offices and workplaces around the world.
Now, these shows (unfairly) depict the resident gossip as being a know-it-all housewife, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Male or female, young or old, stay-at-home parent or senior manager, busybodies come in all shapes, sizes, industries and job titles. That’s part of their skill. Busybodies aren’t always easy to identify at first, and before you know it they’ve become your confidante who knows everything about you and the entire office. They can then make life unpleasant when they decide to use their knowledge to get their way or just to spread rumors.
Because busybodies don’t all look or act the same, we asked some experts on workplace interaction how to deal with them. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for busybodies, so here are four distinct ways to take control of the situation, keep the busybody at bay, and make your life a little less stressful as a result:
1. Negative association
“There are many different ways to handle a busybody, but one of my favorite ways to keep a busybody at bay is to ask for help.
For example: ‘Oh, Bob! Did you hear what was happening with the VP over in accounting?’
‘Good morning Suzie, I have not heard the latest gossip, but I am on deadline with this big project. Listen, since you have a few free minutes, could you give me hand by making copies of this packet?’
If Suzie begins to notice that every time she approaches you to gossip that you try to assign her work, she will (consciously or unconsciously) begin to avoid you. Problem solved.” – Jodi R. R. Smith, etiquette consultant for Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting
2. Polite confrontation
“Dealing with the office busybody is tricky business. Do it wrong and he or she will become your personal Ambassador of Doom, spreading rumor and gossip about you. I would say that these people are typically harmless and that, unless their nosiness gets out of hand, it’s best to ignore them. Either someone else will confront them or they will be marginalized in the office and hopefully see the error of their own ways.
If you feel you must confront them, do so cautiously. Never make accusations or become hostile. Simply say, ‘Rachel, when you have a moment, I want to run something by you.’ Then, when you are alone (in a quiet place, away from others), say, ‘I wanted to get your opinion on something. I have no idea if this is true, but I heard from various sources that you were sharing things about my personal life around the office. I wanted to come to you and ask you if what I heard has any merit.’
If the person responds with, ‘Who told you that?’, say ‘It doesn’t matter. I heard it from several people. What’s important is determining if there is any truth to it and so I’d like to discuss it with you. If I’m off-base here, let me know.’ Then let the person tell their side of the story. Don’t react with anger even if they do. Remain calm and in control at all times.
You must be tactful and proceed delicately, even if you are angry. Otherwise, the person could make your life miserable.” – Michael Brenner, founder and principal consultant of IdeAgency, an organization that teaches professional team building
“My observation is that an office busybody has mastered the art of being everyone’s friend and confidant. They are very social and sympathetic. This allows them to build a comfortable relationship where people will divulge secrets, share problems and complain about the office neighbor. The issue with this is that if they are the busybody, they only find value in all those great secrets when they can share those secrets. The payback the busybody gets stems from the idea that ‘knowledge is power’ and they are powerful since they know so much great trash. The problem with this person is that you can’t trust that they will guard your secrets, should you share some. There is no ‘cone of silence’ with a busybody because sooner or later you can expect them to broadcast your information.
The only way to handle a busybody is to not allow yourself to be lured into a sense of comfort or trust. You have to assume that if they spread secrets about other people, they will share what they know about you. Be friendly but don’t divulge anything you wouldn’t post on Facebook or talk openly about at a party. It’s ok to let this person know when they are busy downloading all their great gossip on you that you don’t feel comfortable hearing other people’s intimate details. They learn very quickly that they won’t learn things from you and that you will not reinforce their bad behavior.” – Dorothy Tannahill Moran, career coach at Next Chapter New Life
“Dealing with busybodies is always a challenge and I can say from my firsthand experience that it cannot be accomplished as fast as one would wish.
About a year ago I started noticing that one of our best customer support representatives is a real busybody. He was everywhere, [could not] keep information to himself and was becoming a real trouble to work with. On the other hand, he had excellent communication skills with the customers and all of them loved him. We could not afford to lose such a valuable asset as he was. So, I decided to do something about it.
Giving him his own office did not help as he was still visible everywhere in the office. A week-long vacation also did not help. And then I came up with an idea, I developed a special project for him to run, which literally took all of his work hours and some of his personal time. He was excited about it and did not have any more time to continue running around the office busybodying. The project proved to be quite beneficial to the company as well, so I decided to keep this practice and keep this particular constantly busy with various interesting projects.” – Erika Walker, human resources manager at BestEssayHelp, a résumé writing service
Have you had to deal with a workplace busybody? If you were successful, let us know what you did! (And if you weren’t successful, let us know, too, so we’ll know what NOT to do.)