41

Preface: I'm submitting this question for a friend.


I got myself into an awkward situation last week.

On Wednesday morning, while I was getting coffee, I had an impromptu conversation with Bob from the accounting department. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, we started discussing the impending layoffs that were expected to occur sometime in September. Bob made it clear to me that he was worried about losing his job. He put his concern in very plain terms, "I just bought a 2013 Mercedes Benz C-Class, and I can't imagine paying for that along with two private school tuitions if I lose my job."

I acknowledged Bob's concern, but then assured him that he had nothing to worry about. I said, "Bob - You have nothing to worry about. I had drinks with Jackie and Sue from HR at the pub last Thursday night. They told me about the cut list, and your name wasn't on it."

This put Bob's mind at ease. We sipped our coffees, took a walk around the block, and then went back to our desks and resumed work.

All was good in the world until the next day. Layoffs were announced and Bob lost his job. He immediately went over to my cube and screamed, "How could you do this to me?!? You told me that my job was safe!?!"

So now I have two problems:

  1. I have a guilty conscience. I led Bob to believe that his job was safe when in fact it was not.
  2. Other coworkers don't believe what I say anymore.

My questions:

  • Do I have any ongoing obligation to Bob?
  • What can I do to rehabilitate my reputation?
  • What if just I tell people that Sue from was the source of the false information?
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    Never spread office rumors, especially about layoffs and/or salary. – aglassman Sep 13 '13 at 17:49
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    Not to minimize Bob's very real distress, but it's unlikely that having the correct information (or at least not having incorrect information) a day in advance would have made any practical difference to him. He had already bought the Mercedes and signed up for the private school tuitions. – Keith Thompson Sep 13 '13 at 19:24
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    comments removed - Comments are used to help improve a post or seek clarification. Let's also remember to keep comments constructive and be nice. – jmort253 Sep 14 '13 at 15:51
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    Hey JimG, I see you've rolled back some edits instead of expanding on them. In general, it's better for everyone if we can improve on edits made instead of tossing them out completely. With that said, the "Now what" portion of the title is sort of broad. Is there something you can do about that to make the title clearer? Hope this helps! – jmort253 Sep 14 '13 at 15:52
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    Hi @jmort253. 1) In general, it's better for everyone if we can improve on edits made instead of tossing them out completely. I agree. But one member downvoted this question, voted to close it, edited it, then went to 'Chat' and actively campaigned for close votes. I wasn't convinced that he was trying to help, so I rolled back just one of his edits. 2) In general, most people make edits to improve the post. With that being said, I rolled back one edit that was grammatically incorrect and another one that removed a fundamental part of the question. // Thanks a lot, though! Appreciated! – Jim G. Sep 14 '13 at 23:07
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What should I do to rehabilitate my reputation?

First off, you should apologize to Bob.

Without intending to, you misled him and falsely raised his hopes. Something like "Bob, I'm truly sorry. I thought I knew the list and was just trying to be reassuring. Turns out I didn't know the real list and I should have kept quiet. I know this was painful to you, but that wasn't my intent at all."

Then, you should stop spreading rumors - particularly about important topics. Things change quickly in these sorts of situations, and clearly Sue's information didn't hold true in the end. There is a lesson in there for you.

Finally, you need to wait. As they say "Time heals all wounds". Bethlakshmi points out that you have violated office trust. She's right. If you change your behavior now, trust can regrow over time.

Should I tell people that Sue from was the source of the false information?

No.

Sue shouldn't have told you. But you shouldn't have told others. It doesn't matter where you heard it - you were the source of Bob's grief, not Sue.

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    +1 for taking responsibility for your actions and not passing the blame. Applies to every aspect of life, not just this one. – asteri Sep 14 '13 at 2:28
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    Love the answer. The only thing I'd add here - there's no instant process to redeem trust. By spreading information that should have stayed private, and speaking with authority you didn't have, you've violated office trust. That's what's hurting your reputation. The best you can do is stop the behavior, and wait for trust to re-grow. Once broken, trust is slower to rebuild so this will take a while. – bethlakshmi Sep 17 '13 at 12:38
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    Great answer, +1. Just one quibble: "you should stop spreading rumors ... when you aren't in the decision-making position." You shouldn't be spreading rumors when you are in the decision-making position, either. Spread decisions and information, instead. Nothing good comes from spreading rumors - ever. – Stephan Kolassa Mar 14 '14 at 20:25
  • Don't spread rumors, ever, worse with such sensitive subjects. – Pablo Sep 12 '16 at 14:49
  • "you were the source of Bob's grief" - actually, being laid off was the source of Bob's grief, which did not change one way or the other, though, understandably, it was a bit more of a gut-punch. – PoloHoleSet Aug 9 '17 at 14:16
43

There are some lessons to learn from this.

  1. In these circumstances, never, ever tell someone their job is safe unless you officially know it is. You just experienced the downside of getting it wrong, and its very bad.
  2. Jackie and Sue should absolutely not have been sharing names from the list with you unless you were supposed to know it. The fact that they were sharing it over drinks makes me think you weren't. If it is found out that they did this, they may be fired. Make that information known only if you are prepared for all the consequences. You may get repurcussions too for even being part of the conversation.
  3. Even ignoring the propriety of discussing future layoffs, why did you think that Jackie and Sue shared the entire list with you? It's more than likely that they might have omitted to tell you about someone who they knew you were close to. it's also possible they didn't know about Bob.

Your best way to deal with this right now is to apologize to Bob that you were told the information and believed it, and it turned out not to be true. Mention names only if you are prepared for the serious consequences of doing so.

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    Big +1 for "Make that information known only if you are prepared for all the consequences". Basically you're admitting, to people who have the power to fire you, that you divulged privileged information - YMMV, but where I've worked, that in itself constitutes gross misconduct. In any case, even if you knew the list was 100% final, someone's layoff status (and other such details of their employment) ought to be a matter for that person and their line manager, noone else. – Julia Hayward Sep 13 '13 at 15:38
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To be honest I think you just need to move on. There are two mistakes here:

  1. You took what Sue said at face value. I don't know what Sue's involvement in the decision process was, but in these situations negotiation goes on until the last minute. Possibly someone got negotiated into Bob's job as part of deal/favour/blackmail etc, so always be sceptical until you see the FINAL list;
  2. The bigger issue, you TOLD Bob before it was set. It's a major mistake to get involved (unless you're his line manager, but it's still a mistake to say anything before it's final).

I'm not surprised that you have the 2 problems, you need to learn from this and don't do it again.

Ratting out Sue will just undermine you further, and Bob needs some time to cool before you explain what a schmuk you were.

These processes are a secret for a reason, too much is at stake with people's lives to be cavalier unless you're the CEO with final vote.

  • How does it matter whether or not the list was final? The friend shouldn't have told Bob at all, end of story. – cst1992 Sep 13 '16 at 6:14
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Layoff information is always confidential. It is never under any circumstances to be shared before the layoff. People who share that information unoffically are generally fired. And they should be. Look at the disaster you caused by sharing it.

If you tell people that Sue was the source of the information, you will likely get her fired. I happen to think she should be, but you probably don't want to be the person who is reponsible for senior management finding out.

Depending on who knows you told Bob about the layoffs, you may well be targeted for the next round as someone who can't be trusted with priviledged information.

It sounds like the office in general knows. So to recover from a major mistake like this will take time and you will need to be super careful about any information you give to people. In fact you need to basically stop giving out unofficial information at all. You need to make sure that you give no one any false hopes, you need to make sure you give no one any bad information of any kind. You need to double and triple check before you say anything.

As others have said, you owe an apology to Bob. But that won't help you rebuild your reputation with your coworkers who are staying. The only way you can do that is over time and by not sharing anything that you have no business sharing. The impact of this will lessen over time. But be aware that it takes a long time of being trustworthy before you can regain trust.

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    If I was Sue I would deny providing any information(my word against yours and you did not have any good information obviously)... so it comes back to the OP spreading rumors that he has insider information, now who should be fired? – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 13 '13 at 18:45
  • +0 This answer paints a picture of the worst-case scenario consequences, which is ok, but it doesn't really help the OP decide what to do next. – Kevin Sep 13 '13 at 22:00
  • @Kevin - The advice is there. People who share this type of information are normally fired. He should learn from his mistake and hope it doesn't happen to him. – Donald Sep 16 '13 at 12:44
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There is no way he took any action in a single day (such as going out and buying a car or transferring his children into private schools.) He didn't ramp up his spending confident in his job, or do anything else in such a short period of time. Therefore there are no consequences to your wrong information reaching him. (He felt surprised and upset for 10 minutes instead of 5?)

You simply apologize, repeat that what you told him was the truth (you'd seen the list, he wasn't on it) but was apparently not correct (you hadn't seen the final list as it turns out) and then resolve to keep your mouth shut in the future. Be glad you learned on a no-harm scenario instead of when someone might spend the two weeks before the layoff spending money they would soon not have. And it might not hurt also to resolve not to ask questions like that should the tables ever be turned, now that you know you can't actually take any action based on the answer.

  • +1: There is no way he took any action in a single day (such as going out and buying a car or transferring his children into private schools.) He didn't ramp up his spending confident in his job, or do anything else in such a short period of time. - Good points. – Jim G. Nov 13 '13 at 15:33
7

Do I have any ongoing obligation to Bob?

Only to apologize, as others have said.

What can I do to rehabilitate my reputation?

Nothing you can do immediately except to drop the issue and begin rebuilding trust through completely professional behavior, which means avoiding matters that don't directly involve you. You sound like encouragement is one of your 'gifts' -- same with me, and it can be very easy for us to go out on a limb to try to reassure people and help them feel better, especially when we're privy to information that might let us do that. That's what you did this time, with nothing but good intentions, and it ended up hurting both of you. Encouragement is only as good as its timing.

What if just I tell people that Sue from was the source of the false information?

You know better than that, I'm sure. Don't throw someone else under the bus and make the whole situation worse.

  • +1 Don't throw someone else under the bus and make the whole situation worse. – Emilio Gort Jun 4 '14 at 18:52
5

Learn from your mistakes, your last mistake is your best teacher. - Abdul Kalam

My questions:

Do I have any ongoing obligation to Bob?

Yes you do!

Be honest, and be direct. Have confidence in yourself and have confidence in your apology. Keep eye contact and speak clearly - the last thing you want to do is stammer and look ashamed. More importantly, Specifically, concentrate on how he has been affected by your mistake, on how he is feeling, and on what he needs from you in order to move forward.

What can I do to rehabilitate my reputation?

Try not to do what you did ever again. If it happens more than once, apologizing may not be enough.

Much of the time in life a mistake is not always the result of one person. The other party may have some involvement in the mistake. Simply be the person to admit your wrongdoing, apologize, and move on. This is the best way to establish better relationships and move forward.

What if just I tell people that Sue from was the source of the false information?

No, it can even back-fire you further. Keep things simple and move on. It was you who informed to Bob not Sue.

3

You didn't give Bob any personal guarantee; only that you have information suggesting that his name might not be on the layoff list. Bob should have caught on that you're making it clear that the information was second hand, and that it was not current. You didn't see the list, but were told by Jackie and Sue that Bob is not on it; and even if that was accurate, the list was likely revised between Thursday night and layoff day.

You're not the one who put Bob on the layoff list; you were just as surprised.

As for you, you have to be more careful in the future about how you relay information. If it is second-hand and several days old, don't tell people that they should relax because they have nothing to worry about. Of course they still have something to worry about: namely that the info is second-hand and outdated!

Better yet, next time you go drinking with people, whatever was said at the bar stays at the bar. Layoff plans are confidential, don't you think?

What if just I tell people that Sue was the source of the false information?

Huh? You already told Bob that in the first place:

I said, "Bob - You have nothing to worry about. I had drinks with Jackie and Sue from HR at the pub last Thursday night. They told me about the cut list, and your name wasn't on it."

And how do you know the information was false? It may have been true at the time Sue relayed it. Perhaps as of that Thursday night, Bob really wasn't on the list. You also cannot blame Sue if you wheedled the information out of her on Bob's behalf.

It's a good idea to apologize to Bob anyway, but he also owes you an apology for turning on you. "How could you do this to me?" Do what? You're not the one who fired him, but he made it out to be that way. Look at it this way; Bob enjoyed one worry-free evening because he jumped to a conclusion. If you hadn't told him anything, he would have spent that day worrying, and the next day, he would have been canned all the same. As time passes, Bob will hopefully realize his mistakes: having put trust into hearsay, and turning on the messenger unjustly in an emotional moment.

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    Terrible answer, "It's hard to feel too sorry for Bob" because he won't be out on the streets? – Kyle Hale Sep 13 '13 at 23:23
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    Sorry Kaz, Happiness = Results - Expectations. If you raise expectations unjustly, you end up really impacting happiness. Because of that 'worry-free evening' the drop in to 'unemployed entirely' is that much more jarring. Had nothing been said, Bob wouldn't have to deal with hearsay at all. – jmac Sep 17 '13 at 7:48
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    @DJClayworth How does the answer show a lack of understanding for how Bob interpreted the conversation? The answer argues that it's Bob's problem. If I told you now that you have nothing to worry about, would you believe me? Why or why not? Fact is that Bob 1) believed in second hand heresay information, and 2) believed that the information would not change from one day to the next. And he turned on the messenger. My answer shows a lack of sympathy for how idiot Bob undertood the conversation, not a lack of factual understanding. – Kaz Nov 12 '13 at 21:06
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    @DJClayworth No, the logical conclusion is that if I tell you that "I heard it over a couple of drinks that such and such", I am only relaying hearsay and not "information". That hearsay may well have been accurate at the time it was heard, but may change; moreover, I'm only the messenger. Don't get your hopes up and then turn on me if they are dashed, like I'm the one who actually made the decisions and "did it to you". – Kaz Nov 13 '13 at 0:05
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    If the OP had said that, there wouldn't be a problem. But he didn't: he told Bob that "his job was safe" and "You have nothing to worry about". – DJClayworth Mar 15 '14 at 16:02
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May I suggest a Frank Underwood approach: Calmly, yet firmly, look Bob in the eyes and say: "Bob, let's go for a walk, shall we?"

Stand up and walk with him, while proceeding: "Now, Bob... I understand you're upset, just as anyone in your position would be. You trusted me, just as I trusted you with that piece of confidential information I shared yesterday morning. While it might have been true at the time, none of that matters now. What matters, Bob, is that while I did not get you fired, you, by your little public display next to my cubicle, might very well have done it to me.".

Then continue, imperturbably: "If that's the case, Bob, being out of a job will soon become the least of your concerns."

So, do you have any ongoing obligations to Bob? Why, yes you do; the obligation to show him that when it comes to things you do yourself, unlike his layoff, you carry things through as promised.

What could you do to rehabilitate your reputation? Teach Bob that when it comes to interacting with you, the right approach for him is to be discrete and appreciative of your good intentions and that when secrets you share with him are not kept, you're willing to reaffirm this reputation by any means necessary.

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    I think this guy's a troll. – DJClayworth Jul 15 '14 at 2:08
  • I'm not a troll, but I do present a confrontational perspective.Some people might choose to avoid the polite and politically-correct approaches and deal with matters on an entirely different level. It's not always recommended, but it may be powerful in certain situations. – luvieere Jul 15 '14 at 12:19
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    By 'confrontational perspective' you mean provide an answer which you know will make matters worse for the questioner, possibly landing them in serious trouble. Thank you, but we don't want that kind of answer here. The difference between that and 'troll' is purely semantics. – DJClayworth Jul 16 '14 at 19:46
  • @DJClayworth You are quite correct, such an approach does come with its risks, which are not for everyone to take. I trust people to make their own assessment based on their personal level of risk aversion and confrontational attitude. I mentioned the name of the character Frank Underwood as it embodies exactly the kind of person that would successfully take such risks, with proper precautions in place, of course, in the interest of getting ahead. As for your last statement, I presume you might have wanted to convey that in your opinion, the difference is purely syntactic, not semantic. – luvieere Jul 16 '14 at 22:46
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    Do not feed the trolls. – DJClayworth Jul 16 '14 at 23:28

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