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Boss forbids all nonwork-related talk

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in Your Office Coach

Question: “The vice president of our department recently sent an email forbidding all conversation that is not directly related to work. If she finds someone in another person’s office, she says "What's going on here? I hope you’re talking about work!"  No other group has a rule like this. This woman has a longstanding reputation for being unreasonable. No one likes her except the CEO, but his opinion counts for a lot. We’ve thought about talking to the human resources manager. Is that a good idea?” — Afraid to Speak

Marie’s Answer: Your tyrannical VP would make an excellent prison guard, but she’s a horrible manager. Smart executives increase productivity by inspiring employees, not terrorizing them. And muzzling people is hardly inspirational. Here are some points to consider:

•    Resolving this problem requires support from the CEO, since he’s the only person who can overrule the VP. If he endorses her work-talk-only rule, then you’re doomed to suffer in silence. However, he may be completely unaware of the situation.

•    If you have a good HR manager, he should be able to help you address the issue. Any intelligent HR professional will know that this policy is idiotic and counterproductive.

•    To have the greatest impact, go as a group when you meet with HR. And don’t start ranting about the VP’s dreadful personality. Instead, describe how her harsh policies can hurt the business by damaging morale and increasing turnover.

•    After making your case to the HR manager, try to get agreement on some specific steps for tackling the problem. A sympathetic ear is nice, but action is what really counts.

For tips on becoming a more inspirational boss, see Six Secrets of Motivational Managers.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mohan M Prasad February 9, 2010 at 5:33 am

Well, this is quite unfortunate to have a VP operating like the typical Doubting Thomas. What’s worse is that she is in the good books of the CEO.

Given the situation, it will serve no end in taking to complaining or making representation to the seniors and HR. This can only aggravate the situation.

She would simple ask “are we saying that we should let people talk generally and freely on non work related matters during working hours? If yes, what should be the limit? and who will set this boundary? etc, on which nobody would have a straight answer.

I think it’s important to understand where she is coming from. May be she had a past experience which has left a deep rooted impression that gossiping is wrong and if left unchecked can lead to boss biting.

To my mind the best course of action would be to seek her time when she is informally inclined and have a open chat with her.

I think collectively you should assure her of not carrying stories about sensitive issues and people and why not – there can also be a commitment given to this effect like some moral code of conduct that makes her feel reassured and confident with her team members .

Collaborative efforts to come to a common understanding; same time empathizing with her on her stand should possibly lead to a compromise on light conversation between colleagues.

Breach of trust can be ‘The fatal error’.

Try, you never know you may succeed and also win her confidence which is very low as of now

Mohan M Prasad


Des February 4, 2010 at 7:59 am

After reading this, I can truly say that nothing surprises me. This is so unrealistic. I have to wonder how she got to be a VP. I guess she’s got a huge ego. Well, I suppose the employees could go to HR to complain. But based on what I’ve read, I bet she would try to retaliate against those who complained. I could see that as her mind set since she’s against people talking socially at work. I’d consider leaving that job. Good luck.


Terri February 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Personally I would talk to the CEO as a group and advise him of the situation. If it is not corrected or handled in a manner that would encourage healthy working environment I would go over his head and address it with the HR manager. I understand that work is to be for work, but a human being cannot be subjected to holding conversations about work ONLY throughout an entire work day and be a happy, healthy and productive employee. This is seesm to be a hostile work environment and how productive can an employee be in a place that treats them like children, prisoners or captives?


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