When Should You Tell Your Boss About a Coworker’s Inappropriate Office Behavior?

Dec 13, 2013 - Joe Matar

Since grade school, authority figures have embedded in our minds the key differences between tattling on someone and telling someone information they need to know. Little did we know these definitions would be essential terms that would carry over into the workplace.

What’s the difference?

  • Tattling: ratting out a coworker so you look better; always mentioning every single time they slack off or make a personal call at work.
  • Telling: expressing your discomfort or concern about when you witness something that could hurt the company's reputation.

Many employees believe telling makes others see you as having loose lips and being untrustworthy. But the truth is, with enough cause, people will support you and intervene to help you resolve the situation in order to protect the company.

Below are five ways to know when it's clear you should tell your boss:

1. When you're following professional standards

Most situations that involve unprofessional behavior in the workplace are cause for report. Your company spends time and money creating handbooks and professional policies to follow. Companies don’t take these violations lightly.

If your coworker spends a few minutes talking about last night’s football game instead of working at their desk, chances are it’s not worth bringing up to the boss. But if a serious policy has been broken, take action. (Click here to Tweet this thought.) When you report sexual harassment, for example, you’re protecting yourself, others and your company's reputation.

Put a stop to blatantly inappropriate behavior and know your boss will appreciate that you embraced their standards.

2. When you know the facts

When you’re considering reporting a coworker, make sure all of your allegations are valid and documented. Keep track of misbehaviors by writing down dates and details of the events. This way, you have an arsenal of evidence to support your claim. Don’t run screaming to your boss because you heard negative gossip about a coworker. Make sure you’ve witnessed the behavior firsthand.

Also be sure to ask yourself why you’re telling the boss. If it’s to teach someone a lesson for annoying you, it’s time to reconsider. Put aside your personal opinions and things that don’t pertain to the workplace. Remember, it's not the coworker's personality that’s brought to attention; it’s their actions.

3. When you're protecting the integrity of the company

If a coworker is doing something detrimental, it’s your job to protect the company and consider your responsibility to your clients. It’s one thing if a coworker is slacking off on their own time, but another if they’re having a negative impact on customers.

Let’s say you work at a commercial real estate business where you deal with customers and clients every day. You repeatedly hear a coworker being rude to clients over the phone, causing a loss in customers and sales. It doesn’t take much for someone to go online and start bashing the company. By not taking action to stop your coworker, you miss a chance to prevent your company’s reputation from taking a nosedive.

4. When you're keeping your work climate in control

Sometimes a coworker can have such a toxic relationship with other employees that the entire office gets drained of energy. By not reporting it, you’re enabling the person to continue their pattern of behavior, which can slow the work progress of the whole team.

Putting a stop to their unsavory behavior can alleviate tension and stress between coworkers. Perhaps you can encourage your boss to produce a survey on the climate of your workplace. They'll be thankful for feedback, too.

5. When you're saving yourself and others

A lot of people think reporting will come back to cause them extra stress. Though it can be tempting to push the situation aside to avoid conflict, confront the issue.

Patience and tolerance can only go so far when it comes to letting things go. If you keep your feelings pent up, the situation can get ugly fast. You don't want to look like the unprofessional one who's lost their temper.

Other advice

Coworkers who slack off or don't pull their weight aren’t always reason to tattle. You could always confront them calmly and give them constructive criticism.

Always seek clarification, and don’t play the blame game. Don’t approach your boss and dump a bunch of accusations. Instead, share your concerns and ask for advice on how to handle the situation. Chances are, your boss will take matters into their own hands.

Remain professional and listen well. Your boss will be grateful for a hint at what's going on outside of their door. Showing you trust them will also help you build a mutual respect between you and your boss.

At the end of the day, know why you’re reporting. You should feel guilt-free if you've focused on facts, not your personal opinion. After all, you're protecting the company, your fellow coworkers and yourself from a potentially hostile work environment.

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter and entrepreneur. He covers a variety of topics in his blog, Blogspike. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son. You can follow Scott at @SMHuntington.