What to do when you're subject to anonymous criticism at work

Don't get defensive -- instead, by downplaying these incidents, you'll reduce their impact

Dear Bob ...

Twice now, once in a casual conversation and recently during my annual review, my boss has trotted out anonymous negatives about me.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob takes on another form of office shenanigans in "How to respond to rumors in the workplace" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

While discussing why he couldn't reach me (company-provided cell phone was dead and he lost my home phone), he made the statement: "I've had several complaints from people that you are difficult to reach via phone. People leave messages and you never call them back."

My response to this: "I cannot defend myself against anonymous, generic accusations. If you can give me specifics I would be glad to see what was happening at that time -- I may have been handling a mission-critical situation and triaged the call to a 'do later' status."

During my recent annual review, he told me that the HR manager (and this, he said, is strictly confidential) noticed that when I first arrived here I was a little stand-offish and "unapproachable," but I have since improved. The incident did not impact my review, which was stellar, so I brushed it off.

The fact of the matter is that when I transferred here, the HR manager never gave me any orientation -- I had to find the break room and bathrooms for myself. Nobody ever told me we had an alarm system, so the first time I had to come in off-hours, I got to meet some of the city police officers -- up close and personal!

In general, how should these types of situations be handled?

- Unanonymous

Dear Unanonymous ...

You should handle them in as low-key a manner as possible. I don't have a lot to suggest to improve what you described, other than to suggest you avoid even the word "defend" and redirect the conversation the best you can to make it one between two people who've both been in that situation.

Your boss: "I've had several complaints from people that you are difficult to reach via phone. People leave messages and you never call them back."

You: "Really? Huh -- I wonder if they accidentally left them on someone else's voicemail. If you could give me the specifics I'd be happy to try to track down what happened. I'm surprised, though, because I make it a point to get back to people."

Your boss: "This is strictly confidential -- the HR manager told me that when you first started here you were a bit stand-offish."

You (laughing): "I don't know if I ever told you this story. Remember when I first started? I don't know exactly what happened, but for some reason, I never got an orientation. Then I had to come in after hours to handle an emergency. Call it an impromptu test of the alarm system nobody told me was here. In retrospect, it was pretty funny. At the time, I'm not sure the two police officers who showed up saw the humor in it.

"Anyway, just between the two of us the HR manager never gave me a chance to be stand-offish. Not a big deal. Thanks for letting me know he's saying it, though. I wonder what triggered the comment."

Your attitude throughout is that these aren't important enough to warrant anything beyond a bit of casual conversation, you aren't worried about them, and your boss shouldn't be worried about them either.

- Bob

This story, "What to do when you're subject to anonymous criticism at work," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis' Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.