Office Gossip

Shut Up!

I work with lots of partnership problems. The hardest part of my job is dealing with “loose lips”. There was an expression during the time of WW2 that “Loose lips sink ships”. The reasoning went like this: A sailor in a bar makes a comment that he is on the mighty USS Big Ship. His ship is going to meet up with another ship that his buddy is on, the USS FastShip and they are going together to whoop the enemy. The enemy had spies in the bars around ports for the purpose of gathering information like that. That casually dropped information could help the enemy identify the position of ships at sea.

In business, when a partnership dispute flares, I’ve heard partners make comments like “I’m going to start another business and put this one under!” or “I’m so sick of working with you I’d take anything to get out”. Those kinds of comments do nothing but damage your position. I caution all parties to SHUT UP during the period of resolution. Unless you have been in a role of trying to help people resolve a conflict, you don’t fully understand how damaging to the process a statement made in anger can be.

Another damaging comment has to do with revealing your strategy. I am always amazed that a partner who believes the other partner is stealing will often announce her intent to investigate and catch the thief. “I know what you’re up to and I’m going to sue you.” There goes your proof. Thanks for the heads up.

As a partner in a business, you have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the interest of the business.  That is law. Making threats to hurt a business in which you are a partner, could cost you your ownership rights if brought to court.

Another stupid thing to say is something like, “I’d take anything to just get out of this business.” While making a comment like that does not constitute a valid, sincere or binding offer to sell, it certainly won’t help your case if you do end up in court.

Lastly, let me remind you that the walls have ears. When partners are in dispute, they often say more to employees than they should. Employees feel caught in the middle and will often pass information along to the partner they believe will ultimately prevail. Never forget this. It’s not only immature to share your frustrations with employees, it will damage your position. When it comes up in court that you have poisoned the well, it will be hard to defend. Keep the employees out of your dispute if you want the maximum advantage in settlement. I cringe when trying to help a partnership and one of the key employees tells me, “Bob is always complaining about the business. You can really feel the tension.” Employees love drama and often over-state the obvious. But please be aware that they see a job at stake that they want to keep. Don’t add stress to their lives by sharing the details of your partnership problems.

If absolutely necessary to take your dispute to court, you have will have the advantage if you keep your mouth shut while your attorney prepares your case. I will say that if you are in negotiations with your partner, it is an unethical play to pop a legal action on them. Parties in negotiation are encouraged to talk and try to resolve problems. Parties represented by attorneys should shut up. I consider it deceitful to conduct negotiation while preparing a legal action.

In summary, when a partnership dispute breaks out, watch what you say.

Frankly, spouting off in a partnership dispute is dumb. It’s like saying to a robber, “wait here a minute while I get my gun and then I’ll show you!”

Don’t go all secretive and smug. Just apply some common sense and resist the urge to share all you know or feel. A business partnership is not like a personal relationship. Talking isn’t always a good thing. The talk needs to be planned and controlled. Like a controlled burn in a forest. Clear the deadwood and reduce the ground fuel but don’t simply throw a match into tinderbox conditions.

Also, when it is time to talk, things will go much smoother if attention doesn’t have to be devoted to fixing the damage of off-hand remarks.