What to do if accused of wrongdoing at work

Rumours at the office can have a detrimental effect on your career

 It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Although it can be traced back to the late 1800s, today it aptly applies to the issue of verbal abuse and bullying that we are now encountering in the workplace. While the context of the phrase is honourable, I can tell you that when someone deliberately spreads a falsehood about you, it not only deals a heavy blow to one’s self confidence but it can damage your reputation and jeopardize friend and business relationships. When this happens, I assure you that the latest new phrase "fake news" will suddenly have a special meaning.

Unfortunately much of this so called fake news is underhanded and behind your back. It can be reported to a superior and/or a client without your knowledge and, of course, the conversation is always slanted to make the other person look good and make you look bad. As well, in most cases, you will rarely have an opportunity to defend yourself resulting in that all too common "he said/she said" credibility contest.

Still others don’t just engage in fake news, they deliberately engage in character assassination. The question is always why, why is this happening? What would propel someone, especially a colleague to engage in such unprofessional behaviour? More than likely, there are several underlying reasons with multiple answers, but in most cases, there is certainly no remorse on behalf of the perpetrator.

In fact, it is often related to the issue of career survival. The instigator is someone who is probably jealous of your success, they see you as being in their way and, therefore, they seek to damage your character as a means to meet their own career goals. These folks are also very good at playing the role of victim when they are actually the perpetrators of vicious untruths.

However, before you engage in angry retaliation, stop and think. Is it possible the individual has misinterpreted something and made an assumption? Remember, there is also an old adage that suggests making assumptions could lead to making an ass of yourself. Therefore, keep in mind that you will also be judged by how you behave under the pressure of this false accusation. So at all costs, avoid fighting fire with fire. If it appears that the issue could simply be a misunderstanding, then ask for a meeting with the individual and try to clear things up.

On the other hand, what do you do when a meeting is not possible and/or you know it would be fruitless? It’s hard to think of letting a negative message continue to circulate out there in the universe with no way to counteract it. At the same time, it is hard to defend yourself and fight the suspicion left behind. Unfortunately, situations like this also have another unique element to it. In other words, this is the time when you’ll really find out who your friends are. Some individuals whom you thought were friends will quickly vanish. They suddenly aren’t available for lunch and don’t return phone calls. However, at the same time, you’ll be surprised about the new-found friends who will often come to your aid.

Maintain your integrity and strengthen supportive relationships

So, it is important to keep your head high and maintain your integrity. I agree that while there is no way to erase the false news about yourself, there are additional steps you can take to strengthen those supportive relationships.

Avoid negative language — where possible, avoid using catastrophic language when thinking about and/or discussing the situation. Negative language breeds negative thoughts which will only add to your stress.

Compliment yourself — you have always been a confident person with strong skills and a good reputation. Did these traits simply disappear once you heard the fake news? No? So try not to beat yourself up. Stay positive even if you have to look in the mirror and say, "I’m good!"

Hold your head high — keep in mind that people will be watching how you behave. If you are acting shameful, then people will hesitate approaching you. Walk into the world with your head high… you have done nothing wrong. Believe in yourself.

Maintain composure — there is no way around it, you will feel a lot of stress and anxiety but be careful not to take this negativity out on your own family. Remember, they are not the enemy, they are your supporters.

Be forthright — when you encounter someone who specifically asks about the situation and/or comments on it, look the person in the eye and make the correction as best you can. Create a standard statement that sets the record straight without inviting the listener to ask more in-depth questions.

Be creative — take positive steps to clear your name by meeting with your inner circle and other supporters. Enlist these people as ambassadors who can defend you in the conversations they will surely encounter. Don’t focus on trying to conduct an aggressive communications campaign but simply ask these ambassadors to challenge anyone who repeats the false information.

Reach out — If you are in business, meet with your clients and ask for testimonials. Update your marketing brochure. Look for opportunities where you could be recognized for the highly qualified professional that you are. Volunteer to sit on an industry board and then take a leadership position. Use social media to get a positive message out there in any way that you can.

Report to superiors — if you are working in an organization, there will be protocols and processes that can help you to address your fake news issue. Take time to write down all the details and elements of the issue prior to reporting to your supervisor. If there is a witness, get their support. Review the complaint guidelines in the organization and follow them carefully.

Take further action — sometimes but hopefully on rare occasions, the "fake news" incident(s) may represent harassment, bullying and/or defamation of character, which in turn can significantly impact the ongoing success of your business and/or your career. If this is the case, consult with a lawyer to better understand your rights and what you can do about it.

In my view, having to deal with and/or trying to dispel fake news or gossip is one of the most difficult challenges someone can encounter. While the damage can be decisive and quick, repairing the damage to your career will take some time. However, keep your head high, put a smile on your face and continue to move forward. Know that one day, your perpetrator will trip up and get what they deserve.

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