what’s the difference between tattling and reporting a concern?

A reader writes:

I started my first real job about a year ago and have a good rapport with my coworkers (as is necessary when working in a collaborative work environment). However, there is one, we’ll call him “Fred,” who is causing me some stress. Fred will frequently slam his keyboard into his desk, loudly curse, and generally disrupt the workplace environment. I never feel personally threatened, but it is disruptive and unprofessional. Fred and another coworker started dating last year, which led to a good amount of office drama, and their subsequent breakup (police were involved), led to more office drama that I cannot even begin to recount while keeping this brief.

Fred has been reported to HR several times, but most recently he was sent home because of a fight with his ex-girlfriend/coworker. This led to a meeting with HR and he may or may not be back tomorrow, depending on their decision. In the meantime, our boss has told us that if at any time we feel that our work environment is not safe, secure, professional, or positive, we are more than welcome to go talk to him and voice our concerns. My main question now is, in the event that Fred returns to the office, what is the difference between complaining about Fred’s workplace habits (again, I never feel threatened) and keeping our boss informed about the workplace environment? Where is that line drawn? I worry that if I go talk to our boss about him (or any other concerns I may have), that I will be seen as a complainer and a tattler. Can you help me figure out that line?

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today, where three other careers experts are answering this question today too.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Student*

    Since you emphasize that you aren’t concerned about your own safety, I’d suggest these guidelines as to where the “line” is drawn between a whiner and a proper complaint to the boss:

    (0) It is a safety/legal issue?

    (1) As AAM said, does it have an effect on your work?

    (2) Did you talk to the co-worker about it directly?

    Any issue that touches on (0) is the boss’s territory to deal with. You have a human right to be safe at work, and a profound self-interest in staying on the good side of the law (we’re not talking about stealing pencils here, to be clear).

    Issues that involve (1) separate everyday annoyances from things that impact business. Your boss, as a general rule, cares about things that harm the business. Your boss probably doesn’t care about interpersonal issues that don’t hurt the bottom line.

    Issues that involve (2) invoke the idea that co-workers are all adults. If you were accidentally annoying a co-worker with a smelly snack-food or a humming habit, you’d probably rather hear it from the co-worker than from the boss, right? The boss is not a classroom teacher; the boss expects you to work out interpersonal problems on your own whenever possible. If you try to talk out an issue and come to a compromise, and you cannot get resolution that way, then you talk to the boss. If it’s too small to look a fellow in they eye and ask him to stop, it’s too small to go to the boss – with exceptions for safety concerns.

    In this case, despite your protests, there really might be a safety issue with this guy. Head over to the boss if he does it again. If he didn’t have a history of fighting with a co-worker, I’d suggest taking the tough line with him when he has a tantrum at work – when he has an outburst, go up to him and tell him to knock it off because it’s disruptive and unprofessional. Tell him that if he has to vent, he should go do it somewhere private, go for a jog, something like that.

    1. Jaime*

      “If it’s too small to look a fellow in they eye and ask him to stop, it’s too small to go to the boss – with exceptions for safety concerns.”

      Love it.

  2. Anonymous*

    I would usually say try to hash this out with the coworker, but at the point where HR/Management has already become involved regarding his behavior, I think you need to bring concerns to your manager. I think that’s probably what the managers speech was saying in so many words.

  3. Catherine*

    Since your boss opened up the floor for feedback, I would take that as the go-ahead to let her know about his behavior. One of the suggestions in the article is to present the question as asking for advice – that is a great idea. However I don’t think that’s even necessary if your boss has outright asked you and other coworkers to come to her. I consider tattling to be unsolicited complaints about small things that don’t impact your performance. For instance, I don’t really care for the way our office receptionist talks to people on the phone, but it’s not impacting me. But slamming the keyboard and cursing all the time? That is certainly disruptive and I would want to talk to my manager about it even if I wasn’t asked.

  4. ChristineH*

    This is an excellent topic and I think all four answers are spot on. I’ll admit to sometimes bringing petty complaints to a supervisor, and I’ve had petty complaints brought against me. I really love the frame upon which to decide whether to address something that irks you. I’d say that most situations are probably best left alone or addressed politely with the coworker in question.

    This situation, however, is definitely something you want to address with your boss, especially since he’s made it feel safe for you and your coworkers to go to him with your concerns. Also, keep in mind that, per your letter, Fred does have a history on the job and in his relationship.

    Good luck, OP, and please be safe.

    1. ChristineH*

      “I’ll admit to sometimes bringing petty complaints to a supervisor”

      “sometimes bringing” should’ve read, “sometimes having brought”. I’m mainly referencing a job I have long since left.

  5. fposte*

    In this particular situation, where he’s a known issue, I’d also be inclined to go to HR if he’s developing a new disruptive behavior, if his outbursts are worse or more frequent, or if they return after a lapse into normalcy–basically, anything that suggests there’s a deterioration going on. And that I’d probably do for most anything that suggested anger or depression, even if it were a behavior that wouldn’t ordinarily elicit concern in somebody else.

    I really don’t like the sound of this one.

    1. Laura*

      I agree with this. Now that it has been broached by management and it is beyond the general scope of workplace complaints (especially considering the police were involved following the breakup!), it’s more about your safety than anything else.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, this might not be the best incident to base a “when is it tattling” framework on. The question here goes: “HR is concerned about this employee’s anger and aggression and are hoping he’s now got it under control. Am I seeing anything that suggests it’s not?” That’s not the usual “do I go to HR?” question.

  6. Lindsay H.*

    Yeah, I’d say to err on the side of caution. It’s better to worry about having a “big mouth” beforehand rather than regretting keeping quiet after an unfortunate event. Your co-worker has moved from isolated incidents into a pattern of behavior.

  7. YALM*

    I’m the boss, and I’ve opened the door. If you feel threatened, come talk to me. If you don’t feel threatened but do still feel that your work is being disrupted, come talk to me. Be honest and clear about whether your problem is threat-based or disruption-based. Don’t bash Fred. Tell me what’s happening with you. If you can keep the issue focused–tell me what’s messing with you doing your job–you’re probably on the safe side of the complaint line, and it makes my job dealing with Fred easier.

  8. bob*

    If HR and your boss still let this guy in the building after his tantrums and outbursts they’ve both already failed so you need to cover your butt and your coworkers. Workplace violence is a serious issue anymore and if you or your coworkers ever feel threatened by this idiot, skip HR, just call the police and don’t feel bad about doing it.

    1. Jen M.*

      …But we don’t know that they have. The OP said they may or may not let him come back to work.

      It sounds like he is on suspension, and even if he does come back, he will be closely monitored.

      Of course, if I were the boss (the one with the hire/fire power and there’d been police involved, he would have been let go.

  9. Corey Feldman*

    The kinds of stuff you mentioned should be reported. Anything that is truly disruptive to the work place should be reported. I typically expect that if you don’t feel threatened you talk to the coworker first about the problem. And of course if there is ever anything that makes someone feel unsafe, or is an ethical concern, a danger to someone or the company it should be reported ASAP. Now if it is something petty and personal. So and so won’t eat lunch with me, doesn’t say hello, didn’t invite me out with xyz coworkers, I don’t want to hear it.

  10. Lauren*

    My dad’s boss would bring a knife and a gun to work (at a state building no less), and threaten my dad with it constantly. His boss also started as a keyboard throwing, angry, cussing person. It was annoying, but not directly threatening to my dad until he suddenly was threatening him with weapons. Things escalate fast, and faster when there is a workplace breakup involved. I am worried that he could come back to the office to settle a score with the ex.

    Not everyone who has this behavior becomes “that guy”, but HR should know about the keyboard slamming and you should tell your boss immediately. Maybe HR only knows about the verbal altercations. This isn’t just verbal aggression, it is physical aggression toward property which could lead to throwing that property at someone in the office. Tell now.

    If you are concerned about being the bad guy, you can tell your boss that “although I am not personally feeling threatened, Joe slams his keyboard aggressively on his desk often and curses loudly when upset, and I thought you should know”.

  11. sparky629*

    That’s a tough situation. I’ve definitely worked with that guy except there wasn’t a co-worker breakup. He just had a multitude of personal problems that always kept him on edge. I will say that in case there were several clear signs that he had an underlying mental disorder.

    On a good day, he arrived to work on time and did something other than play online video games at his desk and eat/drink tons of soda and candy (literally, he would drink liters of Mountain Dew and bring in a grocery bag filled with every kind of sugary candy you could think of and that’s all he would eat ALL day).

    On a bad day, he would spend hours at your desk talking to you about his personal life and ANY efforts to get rid of him would result in him cussing or being incredibly rude or mean to you.

    Why wasn’t he fired from that job?? Well, the boss was incredibly afraid of confrontation so she NEVER disciplined him because he would tell her/us that he could…and I quote…”gut you with his letter opener.”

    He eventually self imploded and left in a ‘blaze of glory’. That first month after he left though, we were all REALLY afraid to come to work. Scary times. *shudder*

    So having been there the only thing I can say is 1) report the really dangerous/scary stuff 2) be careful and 3)his foolishness is going to get him the door.

    It’s hard to wait that long but at least your employer is making an effort to document things so he can be terminated in the future. In my situation, the boss NEVER documented anything EVER. The only reason that guy isn’t here anymore is because he quit.

    1. sparky629*

      That should have been “gut you with a letter opener” because that makes it better. ;-)

  12. Vicki*

    My immediate reaction upon reading this question’s headline was “How old are you?”. To me, if you’re much over the age of 5, “tattling” stops being a concern.

    It may be gossip (if it’s entirely social in nature). If the issue could cause harm (to a person, a company, etc), then for heaven’s sake, speak up. You’re an adult now.

  13. Jill*

    I have a coworker like this. Slamming the phone, throwing her printer when it doesn’t work right, dropping things loudly on the floor and lots and lots of swearing for issues that really don’t merit it.

    This co-worker also openly talks about all of her illnesses and pain management issues so I suspect that she is totally addicted to her painkillers/prescription drugs and acts this way out of being high.

    To that end, I do perceive it as an issue to discuss with the boss – prescription or not, she’s essentially high in the workplace and that IS a safety issue.

    Maybe that’s the OP’s issue – a co worker that has an addiction that’s manifesting itself in his behavior.

  14. Charles*

    Since the manager has asked for “feedback” on this issue I wouldn’t consider it to be “tattling” to report this guy’s behaviour. (“tattling”? really, AAM are we in the third grade again, hehe)

    Since the higher-ups are aware of this unprofessional behaviour, and yet, they cannot be everywhere all the time, they have asked other employees to act as their eyes and ears – that is now a part of your job.

  15. Elizabeth West*

    They already wanted to know about it. It’s not tattling. It also sounds like they need to find a way to get Fred out of there, or at the very least, put him on some kind of leave until they decide what to do.

    I had a workplace once that was oversensitive to this, and the policy was that ANY disagreements were to go to management FIRST. It was ridiculous; we were all adults, and if someone was irritating you, even unconsciously, you were not allowed to say for example, “Hey, Jane, when you shove your chair under your desk, it shakes my cube wall and I find that really distracts me. Is there any way you could maybe not shove it so hard? Thanks.” Nope, you had to tell a manager. It felt like a playground, not a workplace.

    This is not petty, though. And the manager asked to be notified. So don’t worry about doing it.

  16. mh_76*

    I confess that I haven’t yet read the QuickBase column but you should definitely talk to your boss about the guy, especially considering that the police have been called in the past but even if that hadn’t come to pass. I can certainly understand the occasional slam of the keyboard or *&$@!!! but for someone to do it constantly is indicative of other more serious problems that you don’t want to see surface more than you already have. If the police are called again, take one of the officers aside and tell her/him about the guy’s behavior as well. Even though you don’t feel threatened doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t freaked out and doesn’t mean that the guy’s behavior won’t escalate and/or become directed beyond his keyboard and the ex.

  17. KellyK*

    On the general topic, I think another good question to ask yourself about tattling vs. reporting a concern is what you hope to gain from it. To me, “tattling” implies trying to get someone in trouble for the sake of getting them in trouble, rather than to actually address a problem. If you’re hoping to see someone get a disciplinary warning, lose some privilege, or get fired, that’s probably tattling.

  18. Joe*

    One thing that I’d add here is how this impacts the business in ways other than personal safety or distraction/disruption. If Fred is screaming and smashing his keyboard frequently for normal aggravations, what’s going to happen when he gets really mad about something? I used to work at a company with a guy like that (I didn’t work with him directly, fortunately), and his boss gave him a pass on it because he was a personal friend, and he wanted to give him a chance to improve. Then one day he got really pissed about something, and tore a customer’s server out of a rack and flung it across a room. Nobody was hurt, but the customer site was down for several hours while they scrambled to rebuild it from backup, and some other office equipment was damaged.

    In the OP’s case, the boss already knows about the behavior, and they can make an informed decision about it, but in the general case, if the boss might not be aware (for whatever reason) that an employee has extreme anger management issues, they need to know before it escalates. That’s not tattling, that’s protecting the business.

      1. Joe*

        I wish I could say yes, but the boss who liked him protected him. (I honestly don’t know how. That was crazy.) He continued to work there for several more months, until the dotcom crash layoffs started, and then he was laid off in the first wave. Four people escorted him to his desk to gather his things and then out of the building. (Everyone else laid off that day got one escort.)

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