I gossiped and now my coworker doesn’t trust me

A reader writes:

I have a question that I feel horrible about. I heard through the grapevine from one of the volunteers at the nonprofit I work for that a coworker of mine had checked into an inpatient mental facility. (The coworker had called in sick, but no one at work knew the full story). I reported it to our boss immediately because we’re good friends and we share things but also because I thought it was important that she know what was happening with coworker.

Well of course my boss couldn’t keep a secret and told a number of people in and outside the organization, many who were less discreet than me. My coworker found out that everyone knew when she returned, including that the original info came from me (I guess her friend – who was the volunteer I heard it from – ‘fessed up to her). It’s clear that she no longer trusts me. While it doesn’t affect our professional relationship, she no longer tells me about her personal life even when asked (she just says she’s “fine”) and has declined invites to coffee/Starbucks which used to be a daily outing for us as the two young single gals in the office. I feel like I’m being punished for my boss’s lack of discretion and I miss having a work friend. I’m worried this will damage our professional relationship and I feel like I shouldn’t be punished for reporting relevant information to my boss.

I’m being punished for doing the right thing here. Should i go to my boss and ask for mediation? We’re a small nonprofit and don’t have an HR department.

Well, here’s the thing: You’re not being punished for your boss’s lack of discretion. You’re being punished for your own.

I don’t want to come down hard on you for this because you said you feel horrible about it already. But the reality is that you shared something that wasn’t yours to share. That was your call to do it, but there are consequences attached to it, and one of those consequences is that your coworker no longer trusts you. And that’s her prerogative.

I hear you that you thought your boss should know what was happening, but that was between your coworker and your boss. If you hadn’t heard about it, your coworker would have handled it in her own way. And whether that way was the best way for her to handle it or not, it’s still her call. The fact that you felt like you were doing the right thing is a mitigating factor when it comes to judging intent, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are repercussions to decisions, and one of the repercussions here is that she doesn’t like what you did and doesn’t want to share her personal life with you (somewhat understandable, given the circumstances) or be work friends anymore.

Going to your boss and requesting mediation will make this worse. First, it’s not your boss’s place to get involved with this, because it’s not interfering with your work; it’s a friendship issue. Asking your boss to mediate that would basically be asking her to mediate a social situation, and you can’t do that. And second, your coworker just isn’t doing anything wrong here. She’s allowed to decide not to be close anymore.

Besides, even if all that weren’t true, your boss is the last person who should be inserting herself into this. Your boss “told a number of people in and outside the organization” about your coworker’s mental health crisis. That’s horrible. And it gives her zero standing to mediate here, even if that would otherwise be a good idea (which it wouldn’t be, for the reasons above).

If you want to try to fix this, don’t widen the circle of people who need to be involved (which is part of the original offense, after all). Talk to your coworker directly and apologize for sharing something that wasn’t yours to share and for almost certainly making her life harder by doing so. That might work or it might not, but it’s the right thing to do. From there, it’s up to your coworker to decide if she wants to resume the sort of relationship that you had previously.

Again, I don’t want to slam you for any of this, but maybe looking at it this way can change the way you’re viewing the whole situation.

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