Someone was literally in tears at least once per day. People talked in hushed tones, unless behind closed doors with a trusted friend. Individual people went to management several times but it never got better. This place was so negative it made Eeyore look like an optimist. And I was the new HR person assigned to help out.

Management knew that things weren’t good, but when they looked into things, people were guarded and reserved – speaking only in broad themes and talking about how other people had tried to “fix” things but it went back to the old way after a few days.

Office drama is something we’ve all dealt with in some form or another – but this situation was off the charts.

We could have thrown up our hands and chalked it up to people behaving childish (they were), but the impacts were all too real and something had to change.

So, making no promises to leadership, I asked if I could look into things and get people to talk with me. In my years of HR, I’ve found that generally speaking, if you can get someone to feel comfortable with you and start talking, the story will start to tell itself. After you talk with a third person, a pattern starts to emerge and reasonable conclusions start coming into focus.

While it sounds simple, not everyone can do it. It requires you to create a safe space, generate trust with someone, and invite them into the problem. That’s the other key, people are excellent observers of what’s actually happening in their part of the office, and especially helpful when you ask them open ended questions such as “what do you think is going on” or “what would you do if you were management”? They often turn out to be incredibly objective and thoughtful in their responses.

So 10 interviews later we identified three sources of “bad energy” as it were. Notice, we didn’t find anyone doing anything specifically egregious, but collectively it was creating a mess that people felt powerless to fix:

  • The two young employees at the front desk, swearing, giggling and eating as patients came into the door. They didn’t think it was an issue, said they stopped when people walked in, but customers noticed and commented.
  • One of those same employees that didn’t get along with a co-worker, avoiding working with her due to “personal” issues. Nothing specific we could identify, but they were clearly not happy with each other.
  • The Project Coordinator that most office functions relied on – claimed to be overworked, underappreciated and misunderstood. She went to great lengths to share her qualifications, background and how long it would take to dig herself out.

So we devised a plan:

  • Separate the two employees that couldn’t get along. One was offered an opportunity (I know what you’re thinking, but it was voluntary) in a different office and since she’d had no problems before this, we felt it was worth the risk. She moved, loved it and turned out to be a stellar performer in her new location. Had she not taken the role, we were going to need to dig deeper on the co-worker conflict.
  • As for the giggling/swearing/eating duo, that issue went away due to the transfer. Had they remained, we were prepared to get creative by removing an inner office door near the front desk as part of a “remodeling.” You see they never acted like poorly behaved children when they could be seen and heard by patients in the lobby.
  • As for our Project Coordinator, we offered her some extra help for two weeks to get her caught up, and make the office layout changes she requested. After two days, she called in sick, and five days after that chose to resign. The extra help we hired has all the backlog caught up within another two days.

Altogether, the office drama evaporated and morale improved tremendously. The point being, that office drama can be tough to crack and that often the friction you find doesn’t fall into the neat space of writing someone up for violating a specific rule. Sometimes the key is to identify the source of that bad energy, shine a light on it and look for creative approaches to fade away that bad juju.

And you thought HR was boring…didn’t you?

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