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Do You Know What Your Colleagues Call You Behind Your Back?

September 3, 2009
by Gwen Darling
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Although I had held some type of job since the ninth grade (camp counselor, perfume sample giver outer, babysitter, fitting room “hoAfter I graduated from college, I toyed with the idea of going to law school (as did just about everyone else with an English degree and student loans, as I recall), so when the opportunity to work as a paralegal in a very large and prestigious law firm in DC presented itself, I jumped at the chance. w many?” attendant, medical transcriptionist, floral designer, cookbook proofreader), this was my first “real” job, and I was excited, and very, very, nervous. I was told to report for duty on Monday morning at 7:45, and that “Bebe” would be my “Orientation Advisor.”

Monday morning arrives, and I’m suited up and perspiring like crazy at 7:15 in a coffee shop across the street, after a sleepless night and completely overestimating how long it would take me to hop the bus in my pink hightop Reeboks and then catch the Metro to the Farragut North station, even though I had done a dry run twice the day before. I even invested in a Walkman (cassette) and listened to the soundtrack from “Working Girl” on my way into the city to pump myself up for my first day. I can laugh about this. Now.

So. I wait until 7:35, cross the street, sign in with the security guard (I felt very grown up), and up the elevator I go to the third floor to meet . . . Bebe. Bebe was everyone’s grandmother and a permanent fixture at the firm - the kind of woman who hugged everyone she met for the first time. Bebe called everyone, “Hon.” Didn’t matter if you were the Senior Partner, the janitor, or the scared out of your mind first day on the job paralegal – you were “Hon.” Bebe knew everyone in the 600+ employee law firm, and better yet, she seemed to know everything about what was going on behind those venerable doors.

Bebe fixed me a cup of coffee, insisted I eat a doughnut, and then handed me a firm directory and pen and said, “Come on, Hon, let’s go meet the crew, and I want you to take notes.” For the next three hours, Bebe wound me around cubicles, in and out of offices, and up and down stairwells, until I had been personally introduced to every single employee who was working that day – lawyers, paralegals, secretaries - everyone. It was completely overwhelming, and would have been a total blur, except for the fact that I was armed to take notes. But here’s where it got interesting. After the public introductions were made, “Mr. Cochran, I’d like you to meet Gwen, our newest paralegal. Gwen, Mr. Cochran heads up the Securities team,” Bebe would whisper her real introduction as we were leaving the office. “He’s such a pompous ass – write that down so you’ll remember.” At first I thought that she was kidding, but no, she was dead serious. And when she spotted incredulous look on my face she explained that she was “just saving me time.”

The colorful commentary continued. “She’s miserable in her marriage.” “He’s next to be fired.” “She’s impossible to get along with.” As the time went on and Bebe started running out of air, the descriptions shortened. “Bitch.” “Jerk.” “Idiot.” “Player.” “Hon - write that down.” Write that down I did, making a mental note of who to avoid at all costs.

Fast forward to several months later. I had had the opportunity to work with dozens of these pre-labeled employees, and decided to review my notes to see if I agreed with Bebe’s reputation review. In a few cases, I did. Yep, he’s an absolute idiot. No surprise there, she filed for a divorce. But for the most part, when treated with respect, the “bitches” and “jerks” turned out to be wonderful colleagues.

The moral to this story? I will readily acknowledge that sometimes the labels given to others are 100% accurate, consistent, and deserved. But often those labels are the result of someone simply having an “off” day, or even more often perhaps, the result of a simple difference of opinion between colleagues. Unchallenged, these labels can take on a life of their own, hindering team productivity and significantly damaging company morale. So the next time you have to deal with that “jerk in accounting” or the “uptight pinched chick in HR,” try to keep an open mind! And whatever you do, take the time to train those involved in your on-boarding efforts so you don’t end up with a Bebe story of your own. Hon.



Gwen, very interesting story...I also experienced similar situations in both large and small firms. But if you are that middle manager or exec, what's your advice on these questions?

Should you care what people call you behind your back?
Should you try to find out? If so, how best to find out? And if it's not a positive moniker, can and should you try to change it?

What do you think?


Thanks for your comments! Joe, we may have passed each other on the sidewalk way back when!

Frank, great questions. Should you care what people call you behind your back? In my opinion, that's depends on the source. If it's a "Bebe" type who's well-known as a gossip, or someone w/ a personal axe to grind, or just a PITA in general, I don't think much sleep needs to be lost over what they choose to call you/think about you.

However, if it's a valued team member whose respect for you is mission-critical, or you value their friendship, then I do think it's important to care. In my experience, good leaders are intuitive, and know when their colleagues feel something's amiss. Great leaders get to the bottom of it, by not being afraid to ask for honest feedback, handling constructive criticism well. Fantastic leaders then take that information to heart and implement change to improve, resulting in a strengthened team, and (hopefully) a halt to the sniping.

Of course, easier said than done. Accepting criticism well and admitting when you're wrong and/or need to improve is very tough stuff, and often comes easier with age. This is why I still hold out hope for my teenagers! :)

BTW, Frank - I really enjoyed your article in the September print issue - " It's All About Workflow." ( It gave me a much better feel for the differences between HIS/EMR/CPOE - thanks!


Gwen, good story. I agree with the moral and guidance on on-boarding efforts.

My wife was an associate in a law firm, across the street from Bebe's law firm, in Washington DC, at about the same time. Both Bebe's and my wife's firms had their cast of unconventional characters. I had a number of social opportunities to interact with them. I was not aware of their monikers, but they demonstrated unconventional behaviors.

My experience was the same as yours. With very rare exception, they turned out the be decent people, who were often kind and supportive. And they almost always have a lesson to share. A lesson that you'd miss if you focused on their eccentricity.

Good stuff Gwen. We can only wonder what her colleagues thought of "Bebe." I have a feeling she'd find some of her own words thrown right back.