Ask The Experts: My Coworker Is Unethical—Should I Tell On Him?

Do you have a moral obligation to tell your boss that your coworker is a total jerk?

We've all had annoying coworkers, and unfortunately most of the time you just have to deal with them. But what if the guy at the next desk who is driving you crazy is also doing something unethical? Are you obligated to tell your boss?

It's a tricky situation. Luckily Psychologist Art Markman is here to help us tackle it.

Hi,

I have an ethical dilemma. One of my coworkers is doing things that I know my boss would disapprove of.

We sit in a kind of open office/bull-pen, so everyone can hear everyone’s phone conversations and see everyone’s computer screens.

The coworker in question has done a lot of unethical stuff like job-hunting online and updating his resume, working on freelance work and talking to his outside clients, calling in sick then talking to his friends on the phone the next day about things that he did.

He has to know that we all know about it but he doesn’t seem to care. Suffice to say none of us like him and we’ve all noticed that he’s doing these things.

The frustrating thing is that our boss sits in an office down the hall and doesn’t see or hear any of it. Obviously he doesn’t get as much work done as he should but it seems like whenever our boss checks in with him about it, he puts a spin on things and acts like he’s so swamped.

He can be charismatic and our boss is so busy that she doesn’t seem to catch on.

Should I say something to our boss? Would ratting him out make me look bad?

Thanks for your advice,

Annoyed and Overworked


Dear Annoyed and Overworked:

I can see how frustrating this would be. You are hard at work and you see a colleague goofing off. In order to figure out what to do, though, it is important to think about a few questions.

What is the harm being done here?

One obvious kind of harm is that if your colleague is not pulling his weight, then elements of his job are falling on the shoulders of the rest of you.

A second problem is that people’s goals are contagious. If one person sits around the office doing things that are off-task and taking their personal business into the workplace, then they are promoting that kind of behavior in other people. So, even if this colleague is getting all of his work done, he is promoting an unhealthy office environment.

A third problem is that this colleague’s behavior is undermining the sense of teamwork within the company. You would like to work at a place where you think that everyone is pursuing a shared goal. Your colleague’s behavior screams out that it is every person for him/herself.

Do you live in a glass house?
When we see somebody else doing something they shouldn’t, we often assume that there is something wrong with them that makes them act unethically. It is important to pay attention to our own behavior, though. If we use company resources for personal business, we can often come up with a good reason why it had to be done at that time. It isn’t that we are unethical, but we had to bend the rules to deal with a situation that came up.

All this is to say that other people’s ethical lapses feel worse than our own.

In order to decide how to address the problems with your colleague, look at your own behavior and that of your other colleagues. Do you make personal phone calls at work? Do you sometimes do fake work—browsing the internet or checking social media when you should be doing something more productive? Have you ever made photo copies or ‘borrowed’ office supplies for something that was not work-related? Do your colleagues do that?

Bringing the petty of a colleague to the attention of your boss will cause increased scrutiny of everyone’s behavior. Is that really something you want?

Can you stage an intervention?
In your letter, you note that "none of us like him, and we’ve all noticed that he is doing these things." If there is a (nearly) universal agreement that your colleague needs to shape up, then it might be time for the group to take this colleague to lunch and chat with him about his work behavior.

In this conversation, it is important to make it clear what the problem is. That is why the first question I asked is so important. If he is not completing the work he needs to do, talk about that. If he is undermining the office culture, talk about that as well. Let him know that his behavior influences the office environment and that you would appreciate his cooperation.

Focus both on the strengths of his performance at work as well as the complaints you have. You are trying to create a collegial environment. You are trying to get your colleague to be more of a team player, so you need to make him feel like part of the team. You don’t want your discussion to deepen the rift that his behavior has created.

There are several reasons to start with this approach rather than going to your boss:

First, if you view yourself as a potential leader in the future, this is the kind of thing you need to learn to do. It is not always up to your boss to recognize and solve each problem. It is also important for you to find solutions to the problems you see in the workplace. After all, some day you may be the boss. By the time you reach that role, it is too late to learn to start solving problems.

Second, if your boss is as busy as you think she is, then she is going to end up having to create a procedural solution to the problem. She might give your colleague a warning, but it is not clear how effective that will be at changing your colleague’s behavior. She might start monitoring aspects of everyone’s performance, requiring more oversight and documentation of everyone’s work. That would just make everyone’s life more difficult.

You may feel uncomfortable initiating a conversation with your colleague. As easy as it is to complain about this colleague’s behavior at the water cooler, it can be hard to actually engage in a direct discussion. Find a mentor who you feel has good skills at addressing conflicts and talk with them about how they approach difficult situations. Learn from the successful people around you.

Finally, if you try to have this discussion and it fails, then you and the some of your team members can go to the boss to have a discussion. By engaging with your colleague first, though, you are demonstrating to your boss that you have taken initiative before running to her with a problem.



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