A reader writes:
I work in a small office at a job I love, reporting to a boss who is fantastic. My one coworker, who has been friends with my boss for many years (they are neighbors), was hired a little over a year ago and I began here as a temp a few months later. Several months ago, I was offered a full-time position with more responsibility and a slightly higher salary than my coworker. I am not, however, her supervisor, which is fine with me.
On a normal workday when the three of us are in the office together, my coworker takes frequent personal calls, often loudly complains about tasks she dislikes, and asks for a lot of time off to do things with her family. Our boss generally speaks to her when this becomes unacceptable/unbearable. When our boss is out of town, however, my coworker finds this an opportune time to take advantage of the situation. She comes in late, takes/makes personal phone calls throughout the day, complains about how “stupid” much of our work is (ok, I agree that filing is boring, but it’s necessary), leaves to run errands, and then leaves early. It’s driving me crazy! I’ve told her in the past that I will not cover or lie for her, and that if our boss asked, I would have to tell the truth about her hours. This afternoon, when she left early again (after arriving late and then taking a two-hour lunch!), I stated that I think it would be nice to go home early, too, but our workday isn’t over yet. She encouraged me to leave with her and told me I was “too good” when I politely refused.
My quandary is this: our boss, who is very strict (and fair) about our work hours, would go through the roof if she knew about this more extreme behavior. Telling her, though, would make me a tattle-tale and certainly would strain my relationship with my co-worker. I think that the right thing to do is to confront my co-worker directly, but I don’t know how to do that without inciting a dramatic response. I’ve tried ignoring it, keeping my nose to my own business, but I’m really ticked off. I have a family and friends, too, but they respect my work boundaries, and when I’m being paid to work, that’s what I do. It’s not fair! Is there any way to obtain justice in a situation like this?
Personally, at this point, I’d probably skip trying to reason with the coworker and just go straight to your boss — because I don’t think talking to your coworker is going to solve anything. But if you want to try talking to her first, the next time she’s slacking off while your boss is out, say something like this: “Hey, I’m really uncomfortable with how things change here when Jane is out. We still have the same amount of work to do, she’s trusting us to do it, and I think she’d be furious if she found out that either of us is working less when she’s not here. I feel uncomfortable even knowing that you’re doing this, so I want to ask you to stop putting me in that position.”
But I doubt it’s going to change anything — your coworker has a fundamental character problem.
So your next step would be to talk to your boss — and you should talk to your boss, because knowing about your coworker’s behavior and not speaking up about it does to some extent make you complicit in it. If your boss eventually finds out about it, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be tarred with the same “things go to hell when the boss is gone” brush.
You said you’re worried about tattling. For the record: There really isn’t such a thing as “tattling” in the workplace. There are petty complaints, and there are significant ones. You of course want to avoid the petty complaints (“Bob chews too loudly,” “Kate is two minutes late every day,” etc.) … but when something has a real impact on the work, good managers want to know about that. It’s not tattling to bring a serious issue to your boss’s attention.
You said yourself that your boss would go through the roof if she knew about this. And that reaction wouldn’t be unreasonable, given what your coworker is doing. That’s a signal that you need to say something.
And sure, start with your coworker if you want to give her the chance to address it first. But if that doesn’t change things, then you need to talk to your boss pretty soon afterwards.