when an employee gives you info in confidence

A reader writes:

An employee tells you they observed another employee talking on a cell phone while supervising children (which is against company policy). How can you effectively address the situation when an employee asks you to to keep it confidential that it came from them, yet no one else saw it happen? It’s not likely that it would happen in front of a supervisor, and waiting for it to happen again puts the children at risk. What’s the best approach to address this with the employee who was on the telephone?

You have a couple of options when an employee tells you something in confidence in a situation like this.

In general, I believe that your bias should be toward respecting requests for confidentiality if at all possible. Otherwise, your employees will be less likely to come to you with information that you want to hear about, and that’s not good. You want your employees to feel confident that they can speak to you without having their name attached to it, because otherwise you’ll never hear about some pretty important things.

Almost always, there’s a way to act on information without attaching the person’s name to it.

But not every time.

Here are your options in this situation:

First, I would start by explaining to the employee that what she observed is serious and puts children at risk. Ask her to reconsider and to allow you to relay what she told you. Sometimes, just pointing this out to people will get them to agree to it. (And people appreciate being asked, rather than having you plunge ahead without their permission.)

If the employee doesn’t agree, however, then your options are:

1. Try to witness the behavior yourself — by coming by when you’re not expected and so forth. If you can spot it yourself, you can address it without violating the other employee’s confidence. I’ve had employees tip me off to a problem before, and once I know, I can easily look around and find evidence of it myself. This can be a good option in some situations.

2. Address the issue on a more widescale basis, such as reminding all the employees that talking on a cell phone while supervising children is unsafe and a fireable offense. Hope the perpetrator gets the message.

3. Tell the employee that you’re sorry but the situation is so important that you need to be able to use the information. Say you’ll keep her name out of it, but since she’s the only one who observed it, you can’t guarantee the other employee won’t draw conclusions. (I’d also point out that the cell-using employee has probably done this before, and so for all she knows, there have been multiple witnesses to it.) You can also tell her that if the other employee gives her any crap about it, you’ll intervene and make it known that that’s unacceptable.

I would only use this option if you consider the situation so dire that you have no other choice, because you may pay a price in how open employees are with you in the future. In other words, this option is only for really serious stuff.

Anyone have a fourth option?

{ 14 comments… read them below }

  1. Deirdre HR Maven*

    Would the employee who witnessed the behavior be willing to confront the individual his/her self? It could be something as non-threatening as 'I see you on the phone – I know our policies about this and if you need to take an important call, let me know and I can cover for you …' Or something along those lines.

    If the person using the phone had something serious happen, it might give him/her the opportunity to explain why s/he was on the phone in the first place.

    I have experienced that people are willing to come forward if someone else has to do the heavy lifting – My other question would be – why tell me if you don't want it addressed?

    If the behavior continues, then it could be addressed more widely as you outlined.

  2. KB*

    As an employee, I really dislike the "give a blanket warning and hope the perpetrator gets the message" approach. It's a a real morale buster to be reprimanded for something you're not doing. And, in my experience, rarely do the offenders get the message.

  3. HR Godess*

    I'm a big believer in trying to catch them in the act yourself. This totally lets the employee off the hook and gives you an opportunity to address the situation as it's occurring.

  4. scott*

    I think that there is a very important fact that is missing from this. Here is what I've been taught about this sort of situation. If I am a manager and someone reports to me a situation that potentially endangers the kids that I'm responsible for, I MUST act on the information.

    Anytime a situation like this is reported to a manager, and the manager takes no action to correct it, then the company is now very exposed to a lawsuit. Lets say the next day a child is hurt because the supervisor is talking on her cell phone and not paying attention. When this incident is investigated, if it comes out that this situation was reported to management and management took no action, the lawyers will have a field day with this.

    One HR lawyer that I worked with advised me to handle a situation like this in this way. If an employee comes to me with a tip you interrupt and say, "you should know that anything you tell me I may need to act on. There are certain situations that I need to take immediate action if reported to me and I can't guarantee confidentiality."

    In my experience, the most common scenerio is someone reporting sexual harrasment that they have witnessed between two other employees. In this situation, I would drop everything and start the sexual harrasment investigation process immediately and I would not promise or provide confidentiality. The stakes are so high of a lawsuit, that you can't risk it. If you act quickly and effectively to a tip like this, then you keep the lawyers out of your business.

    In another scenerio, where there isn't legal liablity for the company, I think the options you outline make great sense. For example, if someone tips me off that another employee is cheating on thier time sheet, then there isn't legal exposure for the company and the options you outline would work great.

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Scott, that's a really good distinction to make. And in that case, the manager could just be really apologetic to the reporting employee, explain that normally you take confidentiality really seriously, but there are actually legal ramifications in this situation.

  6. llamaface*

    I think everyone has made good points.

    Though… I kind of wonder why it's an issue. If a manager says "You've been seen talking on your cell phone while you are supposed to be working. This is a serious offense, and here are the consequences."

    There is really no need to say "Sally saw you do this." It's very unlikely that the only person who ever sees this other co-worker is this reporter.

    I suppose in a situation where the offender is fired immediately, this may be a bigger deal. However, If I wads the offender this is what would go through my mind "Oh shit. I got caught." Not "You can't prove that." Perhaps I take more personal responsibility than others, though.

  7. Charles*

    I agree with all of AAM's advice and everyone else's here too. But with some skepticism.

    Here's a further question for all managers here. Would you always assume that the employee who is reporting this "breaking of the rules" (or anything else for that matter) to be telling the truth?

    I would hope that most managers would receive such reporting with some skepticism.

    Here's why – I used to work in a department that had over 70 employees. That most of the department was to be outsourced to India was no secret. Several people started to "report" the behaviour or sloppy work of their fellow employees to one of the three supervisors, or the Department Head, or to me (the trainer). I and one of the supervisors would always ask why the employee didn't just fix the sloppy work (or ignore the behaviour) and instead brought it to our attention. The Department Head and, to a lesser extent, the other two supervisors would always act upon it as if it were true.

    I believe that this was one way that many employees felt that they could "survive" the coming layoffs – make yourself look good by making others look bad.

    While most of the staff did not engage in this poisonous behaviour, far too many did. To call the work environment there "poisonous" is an understatement. I truly do feel that these backstabbers were to blame for their own actions; But I also feel that the two supervisors and, especially, the Department Head were to blame for encouraging such behaviour by "rewarding" it.

    While not to the same degree, I have witnessed similar behaviour in other companies and have always wondered why so many managers tend to not be skeptical of such "reporting employees."

    I realize that this scenario is VERY different from the OP's situation because the OP's is a safety issue. But, would everyone be willing to just assume that the employee doesn't have an ulterior motive for reporting on a fellow employee?

  8. scott*

    Charles, you are right. I think that the proper thing to do when you get "tipped off" is to start an investigation. You can't assume that what you are being told is true.

    I have also dealt with false complaints, or more often, a complaint that leaves out some very critical facts.

    In the case of a false complaint, it can be very disruptive and demoralizing to the person that is being investigated.

    In my experience where the complaint or tip isn't totally accurate, the person "tipping me off" often has a role in the problematic behavior.

    Over the years, I've learned to treat disruptive behavior, like tipping me off with false information, to be a performance problem – and subject to disciplinary action.

    The last few cases that I've dealt with where I've had to do an investigation, I've found multiple parties involved – often including the person that gave me the tip.

    My perspective is: We are here to produce and sell our products. We are not here to spend time filing and investigating complaints. Anyone and everyone involved in disruptive behavior that pulls us away from producting and selling our proeducts will be disciplined in some form.

    Anyone that I investigate that is totally innocent will have a long talk with me explaining why the investigation was needed and a profuse apology from me for suggesting they might have been involved.


  9. scott*

    Wow, what an interesting topic.

    Let me shift gears and throw this into the mix.

    There was a time in my career when I would feel obligated to take on this issue and "own it" until it was resolved. After years of taking on these problems, I'm starting to get tired of being the only person in the department that is expected to have any ethics. Let me explain….

    First, I'm a father of a young family and I know that you can't take your eyes off a group of young kids for a second. Talking on your cell phone while supervising young kids endangers the kids. The person that made this complaint understands this.

    A higher level, the ethics-based question to ask the person providing the tip is: If you witnessed kids being endangered, why didn't you do something about it right then? Why didn't you confront to the person on their cell phone – instantly?

    As I get older, I have a real problem with the expectation that its OK for employees to leave basic ethical obligations (as a human being) at the door when they arrive – yet expect their manager (a fellow human being on this planet) to act ethically.

    While the company has a policy of protecting kids, is that where it stops? Over the last few years, I've come to expect fundamental ethical behavior (like protecting kids) from everyone I work with.

    So, to expand on my previous answer, I would launch an investigation but I would also say to the person tipping me off, "If you saw kids put in a potentially dangerous situation, why didn't you immediately do something about it? Can I trust you to take immediate action on a situation like this in the future?"

    – Scott –

  10. Anonymous*

    I understand why it's better to not be talking on the cell phone while supervising children, but… is it THAT big of a deal? OK, maybe it is – but maybe the person supervising the children honestly doesn't know it. It may not be an issue of ethics (and just because something is company policy doesn't mean it should be followed) but rather the person doesn't know any better.

    Good advice given (I would definitely treat is as a tip-off and then try to catch the person in the act)

  11. smith17*

    In the case of the OP – if using a mobile phone is so important, why are staff allowed to carry them while working? Should there not be a rule that they must be locked away with coats, handbags, etc at the start of the shift?

    I would also draw a distinction between someone 'chatting' on the phone; or taking a brief, important call (which happens to us all at times). After all, if – (referring to the point above) – staff are allowed to carry their phones while working, should you then criticise them for using them?

  12. Susan*

    I'm wondering exactly what these kids are doing that a cell phone call is going to endanger their lives? Are these kids mentally or physically handicapped where they need constant and direct supervision? Is this a hospital situation? Are these children playing next to a busy street? What are the circumstances that have made the need for constant and totally undivided attention?

    I'm a teacher. I don't use my cell phone at school because it is against our school board policy. The classroom telephone rings at least a few times each day with calls from the front office, the librarians, the nurse, or one of the assistant principals. I'm required to answer that phone when it rings, and it does interrupt the learning environment, which seems to annoy me more than the kids. Nobody has died because I'm required to answer the phone. At times, the person who called me can be quite lengthy, especially when it is the assistant principal in charge of me. Again, none of my students have experienced grave danger.

    Given this is truly a situation where the children are in danger, I would have to ask the employee making the report what he/she did to try and stop the dangerous behavior. I have seen colleagues who don't like each other make true and false reports of bad behavior of others to try and make someone look bad. Unfortunately, even in education, there are employees who seem to feel that trying to make others look bad makes their work look better. I'm not suggesting this is the case here. There really isn't enough information to understand exactly what is going on here.

    I agree with others that this will easily be observable if the behavior is going on or was more than a one-time occurrence.

  13. Lynn*

    how about if you came across information innocently. Say for example you asked a co-worker to lunch, but they said they couldn’t because if the co. let out early they would have to stay to make up the lunch hour they took (well before the early dismissal).
    The co-worker is adamant that nothing be said and they don’t care about the hour. This is a violation of law – effectively taking away an unpaid lunch break (min. requirement is 30 unpaid). Co worker is very angry now that I want to address the situation; keeping his name out of it completely, but somehow getting it to the manager that they cannot do that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Are you a manager at the company (even if not this person’s manager)? In other words, do you manage anyone there? (I’m asking because the bar for reporting is different if you are.)

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