Q&A: Workplace gossip, backstabbing, HR and social media

Dear Sofie,

A colleague has done something awful to me. I suffer from a medical condition that sometimes makes me feel dizzy and fatigued. I feel okay eight days out of ten. For a long time I’ve avoided posting anything about it on social media. Then I felt I had to share how I was feeling with my friends and I wrote a long post on my Facebook page and shared it privately. I know all the people I’m connected to on Facebook quite well and it was important to get it out.

On my Facebook I have five current work colleagues; it felt good to add them there; they are people I would eat lunch with at work and would ask for advice. Two days after I posted the update my manager called, she wanted a quick meeting. She showed me my post from Facebook printed out on paper and said that someone had left it for her on her desk.

My condition is not a big secret but I’m not keen to be treated differently at work because of it. I manage it in my way and if I’m feeling woozy I keep on doing my job as well as I can.

In the meeting my manager told me that our human resources (HR) team had also been sent a copy. It was posted in the internal mail. Now HR has told my manager they need to set up a formal meeting.

When I heard this I didn’t know what to say, the pain I felt inside me was huge. I’d been betrayed by one of my ‘friends’.

What I share on Facebook is my private business, it has nothing to do with my work and should not be shared with the whole world.

In the Facebook post I was also exaggerating slightly to demonstrate how I felt when I was unwell. It’s difficult to show and tell people how you are feeling when you suffer from an ongoing chronic condition and most people don’t get it at all.

If I find out who left the note for my manager and HR I will do something inappropriate. Right now I’m furious and have a lot of anger inside me.

What do you think I should do? Can HR call a meeting because of a post on Facebook? Where is my right to privacy in this matter?

Thank you, Laura.

Answer

Dear Laura,

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I don’t know where you live in the world, so I will give an open answer and not refer to the law of a particular country. Also, I’m not an HR specialist or a lawyer as you know, but more of a social media philosopher. My answer will reflect on the problem itself.

Social media and sharing your personal experiences online is a phenomenon that on a larger scale has been around for a bit over ten years, but we are still not clear how to relate to it. Some workplaces have social media policies and in them it is described what is private and what is not and how to handle certain situations. This situation is pretty unique.

The meeting with HR can either be one in which they try to help you or it may be one where they try to find your soft spot. It depends on how ‘people-friendly’ they are in your organisation.
Many countries state in law that you are not allowed to discriminate against anyone who has a disability. If you are disabled, your employer should help you to do your work, not make you feel like a nuisance.

First of all, you need to ask what the meeting is about. If you are a member of a union, you can call your rep for support and they can also attend the meeting. If you’re not a member of a union, you can ask a colleague or a friend to join you. They can also help to take notes for you. Before the meeting, learn about your rights and the law where you live.

How we look at privacy depends on the culture and country we live in. In some countries, people are very open about their private details, and in others they hold them back. This is then directly reflected on social media.

Your community in your social media networks would be a meaningless collection of names if you weren’t able to share what makes you sad, worried, happy and joyful. Life is not a robot that we can programme, it is confusing and complicated.

It is no wonder people are sharing less personal updates on Facebook now. Many may have had similar experiences to you and we tend to share more intimate details on WhatsApp and similar messaging services with a limited group of friends.

I know people who limp when they walk, but I don’t have to know their whole story. If they want to share, they will share.

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Some people suffer from cancer and don’t tell anyone about it. They try to keep living their lives as normally as possible during treatment and may talk about it later. How we deal with pain, medical issues and health is an individual choice.

It’s not uncommon for people who are perfectly healthy to be apathetic at work and do nothing to create a good working environment. We all have a personal responsibility in what we do, say and how we treat other people. Then there are those who are ill or feel poorly due to an ongoing condition and they still work and contribute with their energy, skills and knowledge.

Showing no concern about your work at all and not making any contribution at all is far worse than having a medical condition that may slow you down sometimes.

We can never trust for sure what a person says on social media. The post may be exaggerated to sound either better or worse.

Here are two different statuses on social media:

1) ‘I feel shit today, haven’t had a good night’s sleep for over a week 🙁 🙁 Plus on top of this, I have severe pain. It feels like I’ll never get anything done today.’

It can mean:

2) ‘Even though I suffer from insomnia at night I’m trying my best. I will keep going even though my pain is there all the time. I hope all the things on my list will get done.’

Which update will get most likes and empathy? Probably the first one. What people share on social media may be a fantasy and not real life and a serious company should never make a judgement based on a social media post only.

Another aspect of this is the health lottery. Some people are healthy all their lives and some are not. If you happen to belong to the part of the population that suffers from an illness, you should be treated with respect wherever you live in the world, whatever age you are and whatever your condition does to you.

Anyone can become seriously ill or start suffering from some weird syndrome; we have no idea what life will bring. Medical and mental health can also take many forms and we don’t have the same pain threshold, so who on the outside can judge a condition from a Facebook post?

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You don’t describe the company culture, but that also plays a significant role here. The non-outspoken rules about how to treat each other matter. What your colleague did is malicious behaviour and backstabbing never leads to better work morale.

We should, of course, aim to treat each other with respect every day. However, some people are unfortunately ‘morally disabled’ in their brain and soul and they like to gossip and backstab others. They thrive on drama and conflict. The person who did this to you thought they would get something out of it. Maybe higher status or more power?

For your sanity, it can be good to write down the story and how you feel about what happened. You may or may not find out who printed out your Facebook status and for a long time you’ll have no trust in any of your colleagues. Some social media users who have had similar experiences have since removed all their work colleagues from their social media network. It was important for them to be able to continue sharing about their health issues and to allow them to be able to do this their networks became smaller. You can change your settings and only share a Facebook update with a pre-chosen group.

When you have calmed down, one alternative is to sit down with your colleagues on a one-to-one basis for a chat and ask them if it was they who did it. You may be able to read from their reactions if they are the guilty party. Then you will know who your frenemy is, the enemy who pretended to be your friend.

Hopefully the HR meeting will lead to something good. It may be the case that they are legally obliged to help you if you are unwell.

To calm your mind, I recommend you update your CV and online CV. That can give you some confidence as well. If this turns into a nasty situation, there will be a new and better opportunity for you around the corner.

Good luck and stay strong!

Sofie

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Sofie Sandell