Should You Tattle on Your Colleague?

If you see a peer messing up, it can be hard to know what to do.

Should you call them on it? Act like you didn’t notice?  Tell your boss?

When you’re dialed into the purpose of your work and are deeply connected to the impact you have, mistakes, even small ones, can almost feel like a personal affront. Resist the urge to run screaming, and ask yourself a few questions:

1.   How time-sensitive is this? Does it need to be handled today, or can it wait until next week?

2.  Where is this on the scale of honest mistake to moral lapse in judgment? Some errors are pure accidents, like forgetting to print something, others, like stealing from the office, are moral lapses in judgment.

3.  What’s the impact? Does this problem mean your office will be without paperclips for a week or are you about to lose a huge customer account?

4.  How frequently is this happening? Is this a one-time error, or something that repeatedly happens?

5.  Lastly, has this been addressed before? Does it continue to happen despite attempts at rectifying the problem? Or has everyone ignored the behavior until now?

So, when should you tell your boss?

If it’s low stakes or an honest mistake, address it directly with the person. You need to get your boss involved when something is high on the impact scale or is a severe moral lapse in judgment.

It can also be helpful to bring your boss in on a situation after you’ve sincerely tried to reframe something as a peer, but haven’t seen a change. When you have this conversation with your boss, you should treat it as reporting, not a complaint session. In these conversations, stick to the facts, and don’t make it about you. Make it about the behavior.  You don’t need to include every little detail, just enough for your boss to get the picture.

Reiterate that your primary concern is the success of your team and your organization.  After the conversation, don’t keep badgering them about it, or ask if the person is going to get fired. Move on, and don’t let it have a chilling effect on the rest of the day.

But what about reframing the situation yourself, as a peer? Before ratting out a coworker, you can try to reframe smaller stakes situations by yourself.

For example, if you see a coworker making an honest mistake, just help them!  We all make mistakes, it’s important to look out for each other.

Other situations you can try to reframe as a peer are things like consistent poor behaviors, like being late or low impact mistakes, like forgetting to submit expense reports on time.  When you reframe a situation as a peer, try not to be accusatory. Sometimes we have annoying habits and don’t even realize it until someone points it out.

For example, instead of saying “It’s really annoying that you’re always late” say “I would really appreciate it if you could make a proactive effort to be on time.”

Grant people the space to grow, and help them as a peer.

Another time when you may intervene as a peer is in a very time-sensitive situation, where you simply don’t have time to get your boss involved.  If your coworker is sitting in a client meeting in last night’s stained sweatshirt providing the wrong information, it’s your job to fix it fast.  You can tell your boss later if you decide to.

Deciding what situations warrant the attention of your boss can be tricky.

If you’re ever in doubt if you should tell your boss, ask yourself, how would they feel if they discovered the information on their own, and then found out you knew?