People like to talk, and that's no secret. But nevertheless, we try to keep our secrets anyway, despite the sheer amount of inappropriate or otherwise none-of-your-business intel that gets circulated not just among friends but at our places of employment. And the amount of intel we're talking is all of it. Some of it about you, even.
You're bound to have your own stories in this arena. At one place I worked, the boss accidentally left a printout on the copier listing everyone's salary. Oops. At another place, we all came back from lunch to find a one-page summary of our life insurance coverage, which also matched our salaries, left face-up on everyone's desk. Oops again. I've had bosses who have freely told underlings why our colleagues were out of the office—surgery, hangovers—and I've worked with many a colleague who dished on another colleague's miscarriage, so-and-so's unhappy marriage, what's-his-face's affection for late night office visits involving porn.
Everyone at your job is up to something; everyone knows what that something is. We know you got a raise but that it will be distributed quarterly. We know you are having a thing with the guy in design. We know that you quit in a huff and then tried to get your job back but the boss was like, ha, nope. We know you were almost fired every week during the year 2008 to 2009 but somehow escaped that fate by knowing when to dodge out early. We know this because there is no such thing as a workplace free from a leak.
Recent research shows that often, and quite unsurprisingly, the first leaks involve support staff. Over at CNBC, Kelli Grant reports on a CareerBuilder.com survey of some 500 such workers, like custodians, administrative assistances, receptionists, security guards, and the like. Fifty three percent were accidentally privy to intel about upcoming layoffs, salaries, office affairs, and other assorted juicy goods. Some 10 percent surveyed had dirt that could get someone axed.
Another 10 percent said they'd seen something incriminating in the trash or around the office. To highlight just a few: Stolen event tickets, a letter from the boss' mistress, an employee's tax return, a picture of a partially dressed coworker and a pregnancy test.
From a USA Today report on the same survey, we learn that other found items included a boss's ex-wife's bank account statement, a diamond ring, breast job info, and an employee's response to a personal's ad. Some 18 percent overheard lying to the boss, while 11 percent overheard plans to set up another coworker to fail.
Better angels of our nature, indeed.
Back at CNBC, Grant speaks to a career advisor who clarifies that these delicious tidbits which make us all look like horrible jackals are not being collected maliciously against us.
"Absolutely [support staff] are not out to get you," said Michael Erwin, senior career advisor at CareerBuilder. "They are stumbling across these conversations in the hallway, or finding that paper at the copier." The issue is more that busy employees can get careless, he said: Who hasn't printed something but then forgotten to grab it at the printer? Or had a water-cooler gripe session about the boss?
I'm sure that in some cases, some people keep their heads down and stay out of the fray, but most of us know things whether we want to or not, and of course you need to know some stuff to get ahead. And you don't have to be support staff to realize and accept that at work—or even outside of work over beers talking about work—pretty much everything is leaked.
Karen Friedman, a business communications coach, tells Grant:
"There's no such thing as privacy at work. Inquiring minds always want to know."
Friedman then offers advice that is breathtakingly direct:
"If you have private information that you don't want other people to know, there are two things you need to do," she said. "One, zip it—just shut up, honestly."
Just. Shut. Up. Honestly!
Really, how much do you love that a business communications coach said that? I'm going to say I love it a lot.
"Don't leave things lying around," said Friedman. Your desk is not a secure space. Just like you (hopefully) wouldn't leave your ATM card or a list of account passwords out in full view, don't think it's OK to leave sensitive documents or other personal items unsecured. Shred anything sensitive before it hits the trash or recycling bin.
Another CNBC source, networking expert Susan RoAne, says to maybe consider taking that pregnancy test at home, away from the gaping hole of vulnerability that is the office restroom trash can. (That's all well and good if you are the sort of person who could get through a day working on spreadsheets while wondering if you're knocked up. Let me know if you exist.)
What this is all really about is the office grapevine: a looming threat to management, a crucial necessity to the lowly worker, and a source of endless fun for employees everywhere. Not telling those lowly workers about key changes and goals where they are putting in a solid 40-hour work week is also what makes the grapevine grow into the snarling monster beast it wants to be.
A piece from 2012 at Forbes by Holly Green explains that workplaces do it to themselves:
Poor communication is the best grapevine fertilizer
When you communicate with people consistently and frequently, they won't depend on the grapevine. But if you leave them in the dark on important information and individuals believe they can obtain fairly reliable facts from sources other than management, your grapevine will inevitably grow. And employees who spend time trying to find out what's going on generally don't produce at the highest level.
Rapid, accurate communication is especially important to younger employees who grew up with information at their fingertips. Accustomed to the instantaneous communication of the Internet, they feel left out when managers fail to answer their questions or get them up to speed on projects, changes, or organizational issues.
The informal grapevine can be just as much a liability as it is a way to climb up to the top. You need to know what the grapevine knows to cover your own ass, but knowing too much can work against you:
Grapevines give you insight into the participants' character
You can gain useful insights into how a grapevine works by watching the employees who feed into it. It's easy to identify the most enthusiastic participants because over time information can be traced back to them. Even if they are reasonably productive, avoid blindly trusting these workers and placing them in positions of influence.
Oh, but they already have a position of influence—it just isn't compensated by title or salary. Back in the CNBC piece, Grant talks to RoAne more about how important it is to straddle this sort of dichotomy:
"The smart person in the workplace is as nice to the people in support roles as they are to everyone else," said RoAne. Not only can that make colleagues less inclined to gossip about you, it can also keep you in the loop on must-know information. For example, you might get a head's up about those planned layoffs, she said.
As for higher-ups who want to manage the flow of information, most advice tends toward being more transparent, not less. At Forbes, Green writes that the more challenged, appreciated, accountable, and included people are in the mission of a workplace, the less they need the grapevine or want to feed it. All you have to do is make people feel important, and necessary, and they will work hard for you and not against you.
The thing to remember is, again, to shut up—always try to shut up more—but to also realize and accept that there is no pesticide strong enough to destroy the human need for gossip, intel, and embarrassingly sensitive information. After all, the Sony hacks were probably an inside job from a disgruntled former employee who knew far too much, and was considered far too little. Look how that turned out. No one is safe, so play nice.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.