How to handle the office busybody

Doesn't he look like he's intent on something that is none of his business?
This curious cow has the look and posture as if he’s going out of his way to stick his nose into something that is none of his business!

Ever had a co-worker that was a busybody? You know, that annoying person who was always sticking her (or his) nose into other people’s business? Did you ever want to tell them to butt out?

There are better ways to handle the office busybody. And a recent visit with some interesting cows gave light to some methods — though not all of them desirable!

As part of a lovely and relaxing trip to Woodstock last weekend, my husband and I visited Billings Farm. It was a beautiful place with a longstanding and rich history of sustainable farming in Vermont. This operating dairy farm allows guests to be up-close and personal with many jersey cows of distinction. Bred here for more than 140 years, these award-winning animals have lots of care and attention; perhaps surprisingly though, the cows spend much of their day confined to their individual stalls, where they don’t really have a choice about minding their own business. At nights, they roam the fields, and as pictured here, some lucky ones get out during daylight hours. I can’t speak to what happens with the cows in the dark nighttime fields, but we found these wandering cows to be quite inquisitive around us. My husband ended up with a shirt full of wet cow goobers after an encounter of cow closeness! It was sort of like being slimed with something that you really didn’t want all over yourself, but very likely that the cow had good intentions, checking us out in his own special way.

cow nose_edited-1And that’s how it is with our co-workers. Sometimes we feel the office busybody has invaded our space, either mentally or physically. And without being rude, it can be difficult to express your frustration and to tell them to back off. If you have an individual who is prone to meddle, it is just natural for them to rile things up, often they aren’t even aware of the chaos they are instigating. But it is your responsibility as the manager to settle things back down.

Here are things you can do to handle the situation with grace:

    • Be a good role model. Make sure your own conversations are never gossip-oriented. You can talk about personal situations, but always in a professional way and don’t make any judgments.
    • Set expectations for no gossip in the office. Your ability to be a role model is key, but actually stating the policy is important, especially when you have individuals in the office that are prone to it.
    • Be clear and direct when someone has overstepped their boundaries. Redirect them to a more constructive approach by saying something like this: “I know you care, so taking about this behind the back of the person involved is helping no one.” But don’t leave them hanging without a resolution, see the next point!
    • Determine and communicate an action step that will move the situation forward. Squelching the rumor mill and idle talk is your critical first task; now figure out if there is another step that needs to be taken to deal with the situation itself. Remember these parts are separate. Stop the chatter first. Then work independently and with the parties necessary to deal with the root cause, if appropriate (it may be that doing nothing is best). Some options include talking directly to an employee, speaking with the employee’s manager, or suggesting a facilitated session with the right people. No one method will be perfect in every scenario. When in doubt, talk to someone you trust that has a successful track record of dealing with the issue.

In tough situations, you might be tempted to confine an employee to their desk, much like those cows are chained to their stalls! But you know that’s not the right approach. We have to allow freedom of movement, even speech, but we can — and must — require that all communication in our workplaces is respectful. It’s your responsibility as a manager to make sure that happens.

What do you do when the office busybody is taking over? Share your ideas here! I’ll love to hear from you!

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2 comments

  1. Margaret Nelson says:

    Hi Robin,
    The photo in today’s blog is perfect! I just had to read what you had to say about office busybodies and it was useful. Keep on giving us good, helpful information mixed with humor. Thank you!

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