To Tell Management or Keep it to Yourself

Elaine Varelas offers insight on how to deal with a negative coworker

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I have a colleague who I don’t get along with that well; he criticizes our organization and regularly tells team members that he’s looking for a “better” job (this started less than a year into his employment). His leaving wouldn’t really affect my day-to-day work, but I decided our manager needed to know about his plan to leave; understandably, she was concerned and confronted my coworker about it. Now my coworker is angry at me and so are some of our other team members, saying it wasn’t my place to reveal someone else’s information. Did I overstep my bounds?
A: On the job, people talk—they vent, they complain, they get excited, they express a range of emotions about work and personal lives and anything in between. People may not explicitly say “This is confidential,” but there is an unwritten understanding that information shared between colleagues shouldn’t be repeated or reported to management.

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For some reason, you felt that you did need to report this to management, and it isn’t really clear why. What was in it for you? His work—or lack of work—doesn’t affect you, so your first step should be to look at what you were hoping to see happen. When people report something a colleague said, there’s usually some incentive or gain that motivates them. Did you want to become the favored direct report? Does your colleague’s continual complaining bother you more than you realize? Whatever it is, focus on figuring out what you wanted to get out of it and what your motivation was.

Before you went to your manager, did you talk to your coworker directly? Did you voice your concerns to him first, explaining, perhaps, that you find it difficult to remain positive in the workplace amidst his constant complaining and denigration of the company? Did you encourage him to go to the manager to discuss the causes of his unhappiness first? If not, then yes, you have overstepped your bounds.

There’s an important lesson for you to learn here: Not everything that happens on the job has to be reported to management. Are there times you should go to your manager about something? Absolutely. If a colleague is affecting you and your ability to do your job or talking about hurting themselves or someone else, go to your manager. If it involves theft from the company or anything illegal or immoral, bring that to management, too. Is it just something that bugs you or is motivated by your personal dislike for someone? Keep it to yourself. I’d recommend that you apologize to your colleague and acknowledge that you should have spoken to him first.

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You may also want to apologize to your manager. She could look at you differently after this as well—and it might not be positively. You cannot know how your manager will react. She might view your information sharing positively and appreciate that she can count on you as her eyes and ears (although your team might not view that very positively). Or, she might view you in a negative light for betraying your coworker or bringing up an issue she might have already known.

A lot goes on in work environments, especially now that they are becoming more open—people talk, plans are made and changed, and we have to navigate all sorts of different relationships with our coworkers. Whether your colleagues are your best friends or people who get on your nerves, maintaining a level of trust is imperative to everyone’s success.

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