Chismis – A Stain on the Filipino Office Culture?

The issue of chismis (or gossip) in the workplace is the issue that I found to be the most confronting when I was new to the Philippines, and it is still something that can get my blood boiling. Although this reaction is not triggered by ongoing problems caused by office chismis, but by thinking back to how unprepared I was to deal with such issues early on in my time here. As a result I went through periods of extreme caution, self doubt and a level of fear that all your hard work would be wasted due to the actions of a few who could embark on a campaign of character assassination just because they can. The feeling that faceless people could hold such power over you can make your stomach churn.

It will amaze you how creative people can be. If you believed all the stories that have done the rounds about me then I will have had steamy love affairs with multiple women in the office, including almost every girl who has been promoted. I was also gay for a little while there… Quite the contradiction! I have apparently been on secret overseas holidays with staff, swapped promotions for running personal errands on my behalf, had staff cleaning my apartment, decisions were supposedly based on my hatred for certain staff members. The list goes on, and these are only the ones that have involved me. I have heard some very cruel things about others in the office also.

What has always baffled me is why anyone would really care? I have no interest in what any of my staff do in their spare time. If they would like to cover themselves in peanut butter and have a team of ladyboys lick it off them then go for it! None of my business what they do in their spare time.

The first time that I ever had drinks with staff after I first arrived we were in a group of what would have been thirty people. By Monday apparently “everyone” was talking about me and one girl who sat opposite me for most of the night. Never mind the fact there was a whole table separating us. While this was unexpected, what rocked my confidence and brought a level of panic was that the news was delivered to me by another expat who had been in the country for a while and I mistakenly assumed was in tune with what was happening in the office. Here I was in the country for one week and my professional reputation was already in tatters. This was the first of many such stories that “everyone” had latched on to. It was not his fault though, he just didn’t understand how things really were and had been used as a mouthpiece by others with an agenda.

chismisThe word “everyone” is often used by those peddling these stories. By saying “everyone is talking about it” it attempts to give the story some credibility. If “everyone” is talking about it then it must be true!! Where there is smoke there is fire right? Wrong! It took time, but I came to learn that “everyone” usually meant just a few people. It may be “everyone” in a group that smokes together. Or it may be “everyone” in a two person lunch date. No matter what the story, and how juicy things get. The vast majority does not hear about it, and if they did wouldn’t care anyway. My best advice, do not get sucked in to the “everyone” claims. This alone makes it all much easier to deal with.

When “everyone” is narrowed down to just a few, it changes the whole dynamic. Will it affect your professional reputation amongst a group of people that actually matter to your business? More often than not the answer is no. It takes a certain type of person to cook up stories, involve themselves in ongoing speculation, and peddle this rubbish. Often they are not the most competent, ambitious or even likeable people. They associate mostly with people like them – which is why they think “everyone” cares. They don’t.

chismisIt took me a while to understand this as I had to figure it out for myself. Eventually I had to ask myself if any of this would stop me from doing my job as I saw fit? The answer was no. I just got on with my job and tried to do what was best for all of my staff. Whether they were involved in this nonsense or not, I still treated them all with respect. Most of them wouldn’t know that I was aware what they had been up to anyway. If they did, I would still like to surprise them by treating them like a decent person even if they were not. They would likely be quite shocked if I confronted them about these issues. I would not waste my time though as there is nothing to be gained. As far as I am concerned it is not my problem. It is their problem. It is a reflection of who they are, what they see as important and they are the ones that have to live with themselves.

If my stay in the Philippines was a short one then I would have left with a sour taste in my mouth when thinking about these issues. There are so many wonderful things about this country, and this would have left a stain on my impression of who I thought the Filipino people were. I am thankful that I had the time and the opportunity to change my view. I am especially grateful to all of those people who showed me that they were not on the bandwagon, and proved to be genuinely good people who judged you for who you are. Not what they hear. Some people were instrumental in changing my views on this, and they did so just by being themselves.

The chismis is still there. It will probably always be there in some capacity. What has changed is my perspective. It is easy to ignore once you understand where it is coming from. Having said that it is important to listen and manage your own actions to minimize the opportunities for those creative thinkers. Do not fan the flames by being reckless. If you are not careful there could be issues with your credibility, but this will only be if the actions people observe form you directly over time align with their expectations based on rumors. If you are a decent person then there will not be much to worry about.

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