A reader writes:
I work for a large company. My department is four teams of six people, each under a manager who reports to a vice president. I have been working here for 10 years and my annual reports are all good, but I’ve been itching to move up the chain.
A manager is retiring at the end of the year so a position is open and our company indicated they would prefer to promote from within. One of the other people who applied along with me, “Alice,” is okay at her job but excellent at soft skills. Always on time or early, good at small talk, generally a pleasant person on a team, and also dressed well and conventionally attractive. I know for a fact that my numbers and work product are better than hers. I am overweight, not interested in dressing for trends, mediocre looking, and do not always have a conversation piece at the ready.
Alice got the promotion. I was really let down because I felt I deserved it and I also felt this is indicative of our society in general. It feels like a bad coming-of-age movie where the awkward fat girl loses out to the thin prom queen. Another member of my team brought up Alice’s promotion and I said, “Well, I guess we all know how she got this promotion.”
I meant to imply that Alice was promoted for shallow reasons. My coworker thought I was implying Alice was having an affair with our vice president. My coworker evidently said this to someone else because the next thing I knew everybody was talking about Alice and the VP. I do not think Alice is having an affair with anybody, especially our VP who is a really good guy who I hope to work with in the future.
I don’t like Alice and I don’t think she deserves this promotion, but she also doesn’t deserve everybody thinking she slept her way into it. Is there anything I can do about it now?
Oh no. Yeah, you have to correct the record.
Please, please go back to the original coworker you spoke to and set her straight. You’re going to need to be blunt, because you can’t take the chance of your message being misinterpreted again. So: “I was horrified to realize that I made an unkind remark about Alice and you thought I was saying she got her promotion by sleeping with someone. That is absolutely 100% not what I meant — I meant she was promoted because her soft skills are so good, not anything unseemly. It sounds like my remark got misconstrued and spread around, and it could really harm her reputation. It’s important for me to set the record straight so she’s not unfairly maligned. Could you help me?”
I think you’ve got to go further that that too, though. If you’re aware of other people talking about it, say something similar to them yourselves — don’t rely on the first coworker handling it because (a) she may not and (b) even if she does, it sounds like it’s spread beyond the original person she told. Since this started with you — and given how harmful it could be — you’ve got to take responsibility for stamping it out with everyone you can.
I’m somewhat torn on whether you should say something to Alice herself, but leaning toward yes. I wish you didn’t have to, because it’s going to be awkward — but I think you do. If it had only spread to two or three people, you’d be more able to stamp it out directly with them. But if it’s spread further, Alice deserves to know it’s happening so she can decide for herself how to handle it. It also might help her make sense of things she sees that otherwise she wouldn’t have context for, and she might make different decisions if she has the info than if she doesn’t. Apologize profusely and tell her you’re doing everything you can to set it right, but I do think she needs to know.
For what it’s worth … you obviously know far more than me about the situation and it’s entirely possible that Alice didn’t deserve the promotion, but it’s also possible that she was a reasonable pick. You might be better at your current job than she is at hers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’d be worse than you at the next job up — which might require different skills, particularly soft skills (which tend to get more important as you move up). You see this a lot with people who are great at doing X and so they get promoted to managing people who do X — but managing is an entirely different skill than X and so some of them flounder. It works in reverse too: someone can be just okay at doing X but really great at the skills needed in the next job up. That doesn’t mean that’s what happened here, of course. It’s possible that this was an unfair promotion based on superficial reasons — that’s a really common thing that happens too — but it’s worth allowing for both possibilities in your thinking. And particularly now, given what’s happened and that the original remark was unkind no matter what it meant, it’s hard to argue against giving Alice some extra grace.