Analyze This

Don't Breathe A Word

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

How does one handle rumors? As a manager, I’m sometimes entrusted with secret information – news that I later hear being spouted by employees, none of whom I’ve told. Once it’s out there, perhaps semi-accurately, what’s my obligation to tell my staff the truth? When everyone is nervous about layoffs or reorganizations, for instance, I feel uneasy about withholding what I know. – Anonymous, New York

For managers, secrets come with the territory. They’re a fact of corporate life, so you needn’t feel guilty about knowing what others don’t. Nor should you feel obligated to correct any whispered misperceptions, especially if that would betray the confidences you’re expected to keep.

Rumors, too, are part of the corporate fabric. In fact, despite our tendency to talk of them pejoratively, they’re a kind of viral communication system – and often remarkably accurate (or at least, as you say, semi-accurate). So it’s a good idea to pay close attention to them as a way of taking the pulse of your organization. Indeed, because people at the very top can be isolated by virtue of their roles, you might even let your own boss know about the hearsay and anxiety you’re picking up. The longer rumors go unchecked, the more they take on a life of their own.

I can relate to your temptation to set the record straight, especially when it comes to big changes that can affect people’s lives. As an adviser to CEOs, I have conversations about sensitive topics that can’t be discussed with anyone else. While the secrets have far-reaching implications and others may know that I’m privy to them, divulging the information – even to correct false rumors – would damage my ability to serve as a confidant.

YOU CARRY a similar burden as a manager. My advice: If someone asks you if a rumor – big or small – is true, be honest about the position you’re in. Try something along these lines: “I’ve been involved in those discussions, and I know it’s hard to stay focused with all this uncertainty. But I’m just not free to talk about it.” I think that’s better than lying about whether you know what’s going on. You probably wouldn’t be believed anyway, or your denial might just feed the rumor mill.

It’s understandable that those who aren’t in the know try to read between the lines of what you say and do. Accept this, monitor what you reveal, and empathize with those who wish they could get inside your head.