what should I say to my boss when coworkers tattle on me?

A reader writes:

My supervisor has been calling me into her office and telling me about mistakes I’ve made that she found out about from my peers who work with me. They are minor mistakes and I take full responsibility for them, but what should I say to my supervisor about being “tattled” on?

“Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’m going to do ___ to make sure that it doesn’t happen going forward.”

That’s it. There’s no reason to address the fact that your coworkers brought these mistakes to her attention — because that’s not relevant here, and it will make it look like you’re more concerned about that than about the fact that you’re making mistakes, and that would be misplaced.

The thing is, there’s really no such thing as “tattling” in the workplace. There are petty complaints about things that don’t affect anyone’s work (“Jane is three minutes late every day” or “Bob taps his foot all day long in the most annoying way”), and then there are comments about things that truly do affect the organization’s work. It’s not tattling to bring the latter to your manager’s attention.

Now, of course it’s generally better if people bring mistakes to your attention before escalating it to your manager, and it’s annoying if they didn’t. But sometimes they just don’t. Sometimes that’s because they’ve pointed out mistakes to you in the past and are now concerned there’s a pattern, or because the mistake was big enough that they thought the manager needed to know. Sometimes it’s because they’re not comfortable talking to you directly (either because you’re not especially approachable or because they’re just bad at those conversations). Sometimes it’s because they really just didn’t think it through and alerted the manager because that seemed like the logical choice to them. And yes, sometimes (not often, but sometimes) it’s because they’re jerks who want to get you in trouble.

It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, though — the fact is, you made mistakes, your manager spoke with you about them, and your best bet from here is to put your efforts into making sure you don’t continue to make them.

That said, you can certainly say to your coworkers, “Hey, Penelope let me know about mistakes X, Y, and Z. If you notice stuff like that in the future, feel free to give me a heads-up — I definitely want to fix it.” But you need to say this in a tone that doesn’t signal, “You’re a jerk for telling her.” It truly needs to sound sincere and kind — and if you can’t pull that off, you’re better off not saying anything, or you risk your boss hearing next that you horribly mishandled this situation by making people feel uncomfortable for sharing information with her.

But regardless, don’t take this up with your manager, or you’ll look like you value not being tattled on over the organization’s need to have work done well. And believe me, her priority is having working work done well — and that should be yours too.

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. Andy Lester*

    Although OP thinks that it is bad for co-workers to point out OP’s mistakes, clearly the boss sees it as a good thing. If the boss didn’t like it, then she would tell the co-workers to shut up.

    Saying anything to boss is saying “You are wrong to like co-workers reporting my mistakes.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah. It also kind of comes across as saying, “I have a world view in which me and my coworkers are on one side and you’re on the other, and I expect them to show loyalty to me by not ratting me out.” And no manager subscribes to that world view, believe me (and frankly, it’s a problematic one to have, even if you keep it hidden, because it will affect how you conduct yourself at work).

      1. KarenT*

        I wondered if the problem is that co-workers is plural (perhaps the OP feels it’s her vs. co-workers). It’s not clear if the OP made multiple mistakes that were reported by multiple people, or if she made one mistake and a group of people complained about it.

  2. K*

    Also, sometimes it’s because the Manager says something like “Jane, why did you screw up X?” and Jane replies “Oh, OP was responsible for that.” It’s a bit much to expect your co-workers to throw themselves under the bus for your mistakes if that’s what’s happening.

    1. A Bug!*

      Yeah, and in such a case it’s good for the manager to follow up on it with OP, just in case Jane is lying through her teeth to cover her own butt.

      (Speaking of which, what’s the right way to address something like that if ‘OP’ knows it’s going on, but the manager won’t bring it to her attention in a way that will allow her to clarify gracefully? How would you say ‘I heard Jane told you I screwed up on that file, but actually it was Jane who screwed up’, without coming across like a quibbling child?)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d say something like, “Hmm. I think there was a miscommunication somewhere. I didn’t actually work on that part of the file at all; that was Jane’s.”

        1. A Bug!*

          But what about when the issue’s not actually brought to her attention, and she only knows about it second-hand from someone who wasn’t directly involved? How would you broach the topic in the first place without seeming kind of nosy?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Oh, got it — I missed that part of your question the first time. I’d just be direct: “This might have been miscommunicated to me, but I wanted to clear it up in case not. I heard something that made me think that you had the impression that I made X mistake in the ABC file, but I actually didn’t work on that part of the file at all. I did the first part, and Jane covered the whole second part. I felt odd thinking that you had the impression I’d done that.”

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Yes, OP, be sincere and do your best every day.

    I have worked in places where tattling was a full time job for some people. If the tattling gets to be too much, even a not-so-great boss will step in and put their foot down. This can happen in a number of ways that you may or may not see. One boss decided that the chronic tattlers needed to come tell me (and the others they complained about) themselves. Haha- that ended THAT! Another boss decided that if a person found a problem then they could fix the problem themselves. Whoops, not the solution the tattle-taler wanted to hear.

    Just focus on letting the boss know that you are concerned about your own work. Be seen checking your work or asking questions about it. That way you build a reputation for accuracy. This will help. If the person(s?) is a chronic complainer the boss will figure it out and handle it.

  4. Sara*

    Just wondering, in what situation is it generally unacceptable to tell on a coworker? I find this topic very interesting since there are so many perspectives and situations.

    1. KayDay*

      In my opinion, it depends on what would solve the problem/mistake better–whoever has the power to solve the problem should be told. E.g. Susan notices a typo in Bob’s memo; Susan should tell Bob. But if the manager finds a typo and ask Susan who wrote it, it’s reasonable to say it was Bob. Also, if Susan keeps constantly reminding Bob to proof read his memos, Susan should tell the manager, so the manager can speak to Bob.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree with KayDay. If it’s a minor one-time thing, the coworker should talk to the person directly. (Although if it comes up in conversation organically, and the manager asks how it happened, the coworker should be honest.) But if it’s larger and thus the sort of thing the manager would want to be aware of, or if it’s a pattern, then it makes sense to mention it to the manager.

      Ideally if it’s a minor one-time mistake and someone brings it to the manager, the manager would say, “Did you alert Beth so she can fix it?”

      1. Hooptie*

        I recently dealt with a situation where someone on my team was not using spell check or proofreading her emails to customers (internal or external) before sending. I wasn’t made aware of it until a member of our sales team asked me what our standards were for business communication and provided me with an example. I was horrified, and immediately sat down with the employee to develop an action plan for improvement.

        Later, another employee told me that they knew of the mistakes but didn’t want to tell me because it would appear to be ‘tattling’. If I had known from the beginning – and there is a nice way to approach your manager with concerns about another employee that ISN’T tattling – I could have taken action sooner. If mistakes/errors affect how customers perceive our department or company, or if they create issues with workflow I want to know about it.

        If mistakes are repetitive, please tell your manager! I can usually find a way to let an employee know of an issue without disclosing the source. If someone is tattling for the sake of tattling, I have no qualms about calling them out. However, it looks like the OP’s manager just spills all without caring about the relationships between her employees.

      2. Kelly O*

        I’m wondering how long the OP has been on the job. If she’s new, it might be a case of coworkers who don’t want to look like they’re trying to be the boss of the OP. They’re sharing it with the supervisor, who is correcting the issue.

        Sometimes when you have a new coworker, there is that half-uncomfortable moment when you’re not sure if you should say something, or how the new person would take it. It’s logical to direct that issue to the supervisor, who can then say “you can talk to Jane about that” or “okay, I’ll have a chat with her.” It sounds like the boss is taking approach number two, which is his or her prerogative.

        1. Jenn*

          This is exactly what happened to me, once. And I felt really, really hurt by it – especially because they were minor mistakes, and our boss was the type of person (ex-military) who felt that mistakes were NEVER ACCEPTABLE. So I really felt like they sold me out, rather than just telling me privately.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            This is kind of how it was at one place I worked, where the official policy was to report to management first any mistakes or disagreements. This was true for all employees, whether they were new or not. I felt we were all treated like little kids. Adults should be able to work out their conflicts, or suggest a fix for an error. It didn’t endear me to the company, for sure.

    3. fposte*

      To me, “tell on” is kind of like “tattle” in that it misframes the situation. These are all people who should be speaking regularly with one another about what’s going on in the workplace. Mentioning that there’s been a problem in one area of the workplace that somebody else needs to know about or deal with is just part of that discussion. Therefore the question to me as a manager isn’t whether it’s acceptable or unacceptable, it’s is it appropriate, important, or useful? Is anybody in danger? Is it about an issue that’s genuinely slowing down the workstream? Is it resulting in a problem for somebody else that a manager should know about? Is it going to hurt the organization? Is it recurring? Is it something that the person coming to me has tried to resolve on her/her own with no success? Is it something that’s not going to go away on its own soon? Those are the kinds of issues that I’d particularly want to know about. “Mistake” is a broad word, and it could cover anything from getting somebody’s name wrong in an early draft (don’t really care, process should take care of that) to repeatedly failing to handle a task properly when the person is acting as the safety net (I’d care very much).

    4. Anonymous*

      I think it’s not right to “tell on” a coworker when it’s something minor and you haven’t addressed it with them first.
      For example, I was cross trained on another department’s procedures for 3 days –6 months before I started covering over there. When they needed me, I obviously was rusty. I went to my peer coach and consulted the manual, but obviously I wasn’t 100% on every single thing. There were one specific TINY detail I missed consistently and during a quality control check the person overseeing my work (who is pretty much a direct peer) gave me 26 errors. Instead of saying “Hey I noticed you didn’t select MR or MRS for any of these 26 items. This is REQUIRED, please make note for next time” he threw me under the bus, basically. My error ratio was SUPER RIDICULOUSLY HIGH and my boss and boss’s boss and the person who trained me all needed to having a meeting with me over it.
      Maybe I’m just petty, but that really bothered me and it really framed my opinion of this person in a negative way.

      1. Anonymous*

        This could be a really big deal though:
        If your database is a delicate flower and doesn’t function right when this field isn’t completed and so you not doing this 26 times made these other 3000 processes slow/stall/not start causing others to not be able to do their jobs/get info/incorrect info.

        I’m not saying it was in your case, and surely someone should have brought this up to you immediately, and I hope that someone walked over to your desk going hey! you need to not do any more of these entries this way immediately instead of letting you continue on until a meeting. But you don’t always have all the facts about what a seemingly minor error can do.

        1. Anonymous*

          I know that everyone on this board believes every little function in their job results in a haptic meltdown if it is neglected. However, this was literally data entry. Hen you create and account you have the drop down option to select a persons title. However, since I do not usually work on the end of the office, I did not know that entering a title was “error worthy.” I work on the customer side and we also create accounts in the same exact database over the phone rather through the mail forms and are not required to ask if they are a dr/dean/special snowflake. Honestly, if it was something MAJOR! I fully would expect that to be comminuted ayes as the end of the world. There are some things that are THE END OF THE WORLD if they are not done correctly I could have gone in and update the title field in 10 seconds per account. I just don’t think it was something that should have required 3 separate meetings, though.

          1. KarenT*

            I know that everyone on this board believes every little function in their job results in a haptic meltdown if it is neglected.

            That’s both unnecessary and unfounded.

            1. ARS*

              Obviously this is the OP and the point is valid. The person who reported it to the manager probably should have talked to the OP first. It sounds exactly like the situations I’ve been in with a tattle tale in the office. Instead of just dealing with what is probably a minor issue in person, they create a scene. If the tattler is like the person I worked with, it’s more of an opportunity to let the manager know he/she knows everyone’s job better than they do and to show the manager how on top of it they are. It’s aggravating and doesn’t actually lead to better productivity.

              1. Heather*

                I have dealt with this issue as well. It is usually these same folks that when you go to the boss on them are the first one to cry “you should have come to me before you went to the boss” but they do not extend the same courtesy to others. How do the tattletales know OP is unapproachable? Have they gone to her and received a nasty response? Or have they just decided to tell everything that everyone but themselves does wrong?
                How about if the boss writes up a memo and says that customer service should keep in the persons title? How about train both areas the same way?
                How about adults act like adults and communicate with each other without getting their knickers twisted because someone did not do something the way they do?

      2. Jamie*

        Fwiw I’m the head of our internal audit team and if an audit report came across my desk counting each separate instance of the same error, I’d correct that down to one non-conformance.

        There is a difference between multiple errors and sloppy work and one omission made consistently which shows a part of the process needing to be addressed and not sloppy work.

        Doesn’t take the sting out of what happened to you, and I’d have bridled at that too, but not every auditor would have hit your error ratio that hard for that.

        1. Anonymous*

          See, you’re a sane person and that makes total sense. I’m so glad I left that madhouse.

    5. Joey*

      It’s basically unacceptable when your manager thinks its unacceptable. Most think it’s inappropriate and unnecessary to raise petty issues with the boss (although some managers disagree). Now sometimes petty things turn into bigger issues when they happen too frequently. The hard part is figuring out what your boss considers petty and when it’s big enough that your boss wants to know. The only way to find out more definitively is to raise it with your boss and talk about some examples until you have a better feel for her expectations.

      1. Kelly O*

        It’s also a question of “is this truly ‘petty’ or is this a legitimate concern about overall quality of work?”

        Mistakes are mistakes, and sometimes the ones that seem small and insignificant can make a huge difference down the road. We also don’t know how long the OP, the coworkers, or the supervisor has been on the job. We don’t know the culture of this office. Those are all factors that directly affect the way you approach dealing with smaller issues.

        I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the way this was handled. I don’t have enough information to make that call. I am just saying that perhaps there is more to the story than we’re aware of right now, and that can make a difference in how this story reads.

        1. Joey*

          Ah, but whether it should be a concern and whether or not its petty is ultimately for the boss to decide. That’s why its better to get some clarification from the boss if you’re having a hard time with it.

        2. ChristineH*

          Ohhhh I can relate to how seemingly small errors can be a big deal. I had one data entry job that involved entering product information on human tissue that included very specific measurements (for labeling purposes). If a piece was 5.6 mm and I accidentally entered 5.5 mm and nobody caught it until the QA department verified everything (before going on the shelves ready to go), that got a ding against my department. That job was H-E-double-hockey-sticks at times!

          1. moss*

            In that case, a QA process should have been implemented that would lessen the impact of a typo. Perhaps something along the lines of double data entry, so it was checked well before it left your department.

            QA is not a single-person job.

        3. Heather*

          Then maybe retraining is in order so that all departments that have to interact are on the same page?

    6. Sara*

      Interesting replies!

      I’ve found myself on both sides of the coin, as the one who was “tattled” on (where I nearly lost my job) and the one who did the “tattling” (where the person did lose their job)….I realized that my professional judgment has been really bad in the past so I’m trying to figure things out…..why it’s been so bad and how can I fix it. I guess it’s a part of my own wiring to be a “teller” (or a snitch or rat or bitch etc)……I’ve been like this since I was a kid, and independent thinking, erm, wasn’t really encouraged so to speak…so I’m trying to work on that.

      Anyway, the replies were interesting…I asked cz I’ve seen this topic come up on the blog where someone was told to “mind their business” and others were being applauded for stepping up and speaking to the manager. Aside from the extreme ones I know there were a variety of situations as well, so I just find it fascinating.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        For what it’s worth, and especially when it comes to professionalism, I don’t think you want to inject concepts like “rat” or “snitch” into the workplace. They generally don’t apply there, because they imply that you and your coworkers are on one side and your manager is on the other — not a great mentality to have at work.

        1. Sara*

          I meant, I was called those names, a rat/snitch….for both work and personal situations……the “us v them” mentality….I never really thought of it that way but its something I’ll be keeping with me. But I think there are offices that do have cultures like that……

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ah, I see. There are indeed some workplaces like that, but you generally want to avoid them! Or if you find yourself stuck in one, you want to avoid getting caught up in that — ultimately in a situation like that it’s more important to be on your employer’s good side than your coworkers.

      2. Lindsay*

        I always think about whether it is something that my boss needs to know or not.

        If it is something that is affecting the business interests of the company, or something that he might be questioned on if one of his peers or higher-ups saw it, I will let him know. (Ie, “this kiosk had no revenue for the day because so-and-so didn’t turn it on” when the kiosk has revenue every day unless it is broken. He might see that it has no revenue and question us about it, or might forward on the information to his boss who will see that it has no revenue and question him on it, and I want him to be able to be prepared with an answer).

        If it doesn’t fit those criteria I address it myself and only notify him if the issue becomes a recurrent one. Usually, actually, even if it is the first scenario I address the issue to the extent I have the authority to anyway, and am informing him so he is in the loop about issues and performance problems and so he can choose to take further action if needed.

  5. Anonymous*

    It could be an unfortunate word choice (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) but OP, your use of the word “tattle” is signaling an immature view of the situation. As AAM says, the ideal would be your co-workers mentioning to you when they find a problem with your work but that’s not always going to happen for a variety of reasons.

    Be honest with yourself – are you approachable? Do you make more than your fair share of mistakes? Do you make the same mistakes over and over again? If the answers are Yes, no and no, then unless you know otherwise, assume that your mistakes came up organically btw your co-workers and manager (rather than them running with glee to alert your manager you have screwed up yet again).

    1. Jen in RO*

      I think the last paragraph is key. We gave the benefit of the doubt to a coworker for a year, until we realized he never fixed the errors we pointed out. When we decided to tell the boss, he didn’t believe us… since we never told him about coworker’s mistakes, he thought we were overreacting when, in fact, we were at our breaking point. Now another coworker is going on the same path and, when she repeatedly makes the same mistake even after we point it out, we go to the boss. She probably thinks we’re tattling, but when we have to stay until 8 pm to fix her mistakes…

        1. Cruella DaBoss*

          I’m with Annonymous 3:43 on this one. “Reporting” an error or other issue should be viewed as just that. “Tattling” gives it a grade-school feel and thus seems more petty, and well, childish. I would much rather my errors be pointed out to me personally, so I can take steps to correct them myself (and quickly!) and make sure they do not happen again.

  6. Anonymous*

    Part of it is what are the problems? Did you forget an e at the end of “the” in an internal email saying “Thanks for th information.”

    Or was this Jane didn’t invite me to a meeting where I’m the project manager and then Jack had to relay everything to me second hand and I’m concerned I didn’t get all the information I need to do my job.

    If every error was of the first variety then it is your boss’s concern over what your coworker is spending their time on, not yours.
    If the second, that is a very egregious error that might seem small, whoops forgot to add them to a meeting invite.

    Do your job well. You’ll make errors* so try to minimize them and don’t worry about what someone else is doing with their time at the office unless it impedes your ability to get your job done.

    *unless you are a robot

  7. Kelly O*

    The other thing to remember is, you admit you made the mistakes. While I understand feeling odd that your peers are the ones who brought it up, it’s still important to remember to focus on resolving the problem instead of worrying about who brought it up.

    All those small things add up eventually. It may not seem like much, but it really does. I get feeling frustrated at finding out about several at once, but you have the ability to set an overall positive tone by simply taking the criticism and showing results.

  8. Rob Bird*

    There may come a point (and I hope that point comes soon) where the Manager pushes back and tells your co-workers to talk to you about it.

    I can’t see a manager having enough time to talk to you all the time about minor mistakes when there are probably bigger things in the company they can spend their time on, imho.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it depends — if it’s a conversation like, “Jane told me you have a typo in this document, so please fix it,” then I agree with that. But if it’s more along the lines of, “We’ve talked about mistakes in the past and they’re continuing to happen, which concerns me,” then it makes sense that the manager is handling it herself.

      1. KarenT*

        Is it just me, or is it weird that the manager revealed the co-workers told on her? Shouldn’t the manager have said there is an error on page 8 of your report, not Sue and Bob tell me there was an error? It seems like unnecessarily stirring the pot and creating conflict won’t encourage Sue and Bob to come forward next time.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think we need more info about how it was done. If it was something like, “In talking with Sue about how this project played out, she mentioned that she didn’t get timely follow-ups from you when she needed them” or “Sue has mentioned that some of your emails to her clients have contained spelling mistakes,” I think that would be understandable — in other words, situations where the manager wouldn’t necessarily have known any other way.

  9. Laura*

    Another thing to do is to let your manager know as soon as you realize you’ve made a mistake. One time I said something to some external consultants and based on their response I realized I’d perhaps spoken out of turn. I told my manager right away that I thought maybe I’d stepped in it. Turned out I hadn’t, but my manager really appreciated me letting her know. She noted it as one of my strengths on my performance evaluation. If you realize you’ve made an error, tell your manager right away and then if someone else brings it up, she can say, “Thanks, we’ve already talked about it.”

    1. Joey*

      Yes, but there is such a thing as drawing too much attention to a mistake. It’s easy to make a big deal out of a mistake when it doesn’t have to be.

      1. Laura*

        True…if you do it with every little thing you’re going to look needy and insecure, and no manager wants a direct report like that. However, usually, you can tell when you’ve potentially made a big error. For me, it’s when I hear that voice in my head saying, “Oh, crap.”

        In the example above, I was talking to a couple consultants who were with my company on long-term assignments for an ERP implementation. I said something about the next phase of the project, and I could see their antennae immediately go up, and the wheels in their heads start turning as to how to get their contracts extended, or alternatively, start thinking about putting out feelers for their next assignments. Not their fault; it’s the nature of consulting. If you’re sitting on the bench you’re not making money, which is bad, so you try to have something lined up after you finish your current gig. But anyway, we were having enough trouble getting the first phase of the project across the finish line without worrying about the next phase, and I was concerned I’d opened a can of worms. So I figured I’d let my boss know so she could head off any inquiries at the pass and not be caught off-guard. And she was quite appreciative.

      1. Jamie*

        Yep. I own mine, and I respect anyone who does the same.

        Since I know mistakes come with being human if nothing is ever your fault my default will be to think everything is your fault. I worked with someone nice who never did anything in error, even when shown the audit trails of his own electronic footprints…didn’t know how or why but wasn’t him. Drove me crazy – because I don’t believe in witch hunts or assigning blame – I just want to resolve a problem and prevent it from happening again, but lie to my face like I’m an idiot and its a different conversation.

        If you have a reputation for owning your mistakes I’m far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when needed.

        1. Laura*

          Oh yes, I’ve worked with those types. A bunch of my co-workers just spent the last week correcting an egregious error made by someone in another department, simply because he didn’t double-check his work before he uploaded it into the ERP system. So many, many hours were spent rolling back his mistake. And to add insult to injury, he went onto the company’s social networking page — which customers access — and blamed the problem on our allegedly horrible ERP system. ARGH!!! I work on the team that supports the ERP system, and it sure isn’t perfect, but when people try to blame it for their own stupid mistakes it just makes my blood boil.

  10. Ry*

    There are times when a problem is petty or only occurs once, and it seems like the manager doesn’t need to be involved. There are other times when a mistake is chronic, or A Big Deal even though it happens only once.

    You can’t change the past, and you can’t control your coworkers, but you can decide how you respond. If you have the wherewithal to say, “Thanks for letting me know; I’ll fix it,” and then fix it, then you don’t have to judge whether it was appropriate for your coworker to tell your boss. You know you’re acting respectably.

    I had a coworker who LOVED to gossip and find fault with others. It drove me crazy. To make things worse, she couldn’t see any sort of big picture but got lost in details, and if she thought she could “trip you up” or “catch you” at something, she seemed to enjoy talking about it very much – to our director, not just to peers. I realized early on that I could not change her. I used to just think, “I’m a duck! It’s all rolling right off my feathers!” basically whenever she talked.

    Yes, that is a ludicrous mental image. I hope you will also find some humor (and patience!) in being a duck :D

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I had a co-worker who liked to “catch” people making mistakes. And then he’d make a big deal out of it and make sure everyone knew about it.

      One time, another co-worker and I actually saw him plant a lost document (hard copy) in a wrong file, pretend to discover it there, and blame the file clerk. I wanted to pound the guy, but he was in a wheelchair. We did let our manager know, but he just said “well, that’s the way “Louie” is”.

  11. Mike B.*

    “Minor” errors aren’t always so minor–a simple typo in the wrong place can be catastrophic in terms of both expense and embarrassment. As a copyeditor, I’m regularly in the position of having to inform my manager about errors others in my department have failed to correct. I’ll go directly to the colleague in question once or twice if the error isn’t consequential, but after that there’s a pattern that needs to be documented. Failing to document performance problems would be dereliction of duty as far as I’m concerned.

  12. Skylark*

    Definitely own up to the mistake and promise to be vigilant about not repeating it, whether minor or not. But for sure, a co-worker going to the boss to point out your mistake(s) can have an axe to grind on their behalf on the behalf of someone else, and sometimes you don’t even know they have an axe to grind with you until then. Recently, a co-worker with whom I thought I was on good terms, emailed me in her usual jolly way, enquiring about a seriously inconsequential omission. I told her outright that it was my error. Within 5 minutes I received an email from the partner reminding me to be on the look out for such omissions in the future, and just below his email was whose email? My frenemy’s, using quite a different tone in pointing out my mistake. He cc’d her on his reply which must’ve shocked her. LOL. Again, I owned up to the error and promised to be careful.

    1. Lily*

      This reminds me of a similar situation that I have to deal with every once in a while. When I get an email from Joe writing “Sandy said X” and X is wrong, I will reply to Joe and cc Sandy. If Sandy is misinformed about X, then she will know for next time. If Joe is exaggerating / lying about what Sandy said, then she will also know for next time and he will know that she knows. Does it make a difference whether Sandy and Joe are peers?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Hmmm. I think that’s fine to do, but that your thinking about it might be missing bigger problems: If Joe is lying about what Sandy said, that’s a big problem that needs to be dealt with — not just something you leave for them to each realize that you know about. If you really think there’s any chance that’s the case, I’d deal with this differently.

        1. Lily*

          You’re right! I guess I don’t like automatically believing Sandy, if she writes back that she never said “X” and that is keeping me from judging Joe, but it does color my judgement of him.

          I wouldn’t know how to address this with Joe. After all, if he did lie to me, and I confront him with the evidence, then he will probably lie to me again. I guess could make a statement about how lies damage relationships and we can’t work together if I can’t trust him.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Well, if you suspect an employee is lying to you, that’s nearly never the only problem — so I’d consider it a flag to take a closer look at his performance (or at both of their performances, if you think Sandy might be the one lying) — you’ll almost surely find other problems that need to be addressed. Usually if there’s a trust problem, it’s a sign that you need to part ways — you can’t have someone working for you if you don’t trust them. It’s not something you need to tell them — it’s something you need to act on.

            1. Lily*

              If I suspect someone of lying to me, I need to start reviewing their work more closely. That makes sense and actually it is my normal inclination which I used to fight against! I was proud of not holding a grudge when I had forgotten about how someone had lied to me in the past by the time he lied to me again! I am going to give in to that feeling in the future!

              I count that you have told me this three times already, so thank you for your patience each time and thank you for repeating yourself in a somewhat different way each time!

  13. jesicka309*

    I’ve had a similar issue before – there is NOTHING worse than the boss being informed of a ‘mistake’ when it’s something so minor that they probably make the same mistake themselves.
    Eg. Last year I was in a siutation where I was giving schedules to a coordinator to look over before they handled it. There is no ‘correct’ way to do a schedule, though there are matters of personal preference in the procedure.
    My coordinator was unnecessarily picky – she would come and stand by my desk (open plan office) and question minute details of my schedule in front of the office. EG. “Don’t forget to make sure car ads and bank ads don’t run next to each other because bank ads feature cars in them frequently.” or “You using this function too often – I’d prefer this function instead.”
    So pedantic, and she would do it in full view of my team leader and supervisors ie. the people who set my KPIs, have the authority to discipline me etc.
    It was frustrating because in context, it was so minor, most people wouldn’t even consider them mistakes (and in my view, I had done nothing against procedure) but because she did it so publicly and often and in view of my supervisors, it gave the impression that my schedules were SOOOOO terrible and were riddled with mistakes.
    I am almopst certain there was a level of jealousy (she got that job only narrowly over me due to seniority) and she wanted to keep me in my place.

    OP, if it’s such a minor mistake that other coworkers could/do make it as well, and you get the feeling there is something more than just ‘telling the boss because itis right’, you could always counter with something like “I am so sorry, I had a feeling is was incorrect, but I’ve seen Jane and Bob do that before, so I thought it was okay to do.” It’s probably not this though, so maybe don’t follow this advice, as it’s a bit petty. :)
    There’s nothing worse than getting pulled up on a mistake that others get away with frequently.

    1. Lily*

      If she was doing this in front of HER bosses, then think of the impression she was making on them. They may have been judging her more than you.

  14. SCW*

    Tattle to me makes it sound juvenile–so in my mind I picture coworkers saying “Boss, I saw so-and-so blow her nose on a tissue and THEN she put it back in her pocket–eww gross!” And then the boss taking you to task. In my mind if your boss is taking stuff like that seriously you have a bigger problem.

    However, I’ve also known folks who if encouraged would spend more time complaining about their coworkers than get any work done! Just because they’d “tattle” didn’t mean we’d talk to the person, or get them in trouble–sometimes it just meant more training or sometimes it was clearly a non-issue.

    Sometimes it was important to bring up that a coworker had told us something, because not all employees will own up to the mistake. I’ve had folks say outright that they didn’t do something when a customer complained and another staff member backed the customer up.

  15. ChristineH*

    All the advice here is excellent; I would certainly rather small errors to be pointed out to me directly, but if I showed a pattern of such errors, I would understand the need to address it with the manager.

    I just want to say thank you to Alison and the commenters. Through reading this blog, I am slowly learning about how to reframe difficulties in the workplace. I get that not everything is going to be perfect, but learning how to frame these things will hopefully help me better able to handle a job (once I finally get one!!).

  16. BCW*

    I think many people are giving these people far too much credit. I had an experience where a guy clearly tattled on me with the express intention of trying to get me in trouble. To make a long story short, the guys were all going to do something one day (it would be like everyone wearing a matching shirt or something, but not exactly) just as kind of a joke. I was the organizer of this day, and sent an email about it. Well apparently he had an issue with this, essentially saying I was excluding the women and that he didn’t think it was professional, and he forwarded the email to my boss expressing his “concerns”. In reality, he really just didn’t like me, and as I later found out it wasn’t the only thing he went to my boss about. Anyhow, I got written up, every other guy got a verbal warning or something like that, which I’m sure was an unintended consequence since he kind of got along with most everyone else. Point being, lets say for arguments sake he really was just concerned about the professionalism of it all, he very easily could have talked to me, or even just hit reply all to address this, instead he threw me (and in turn every other guy) under the bus. Lets just say at that point he had no other male friends on staff.

    So yeah, some people do things purposely with the intent to harm someones reputation or get them in trouble. Hopefully you can figure out these people and avoid them.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm. Since it’s something that your manager took seriously enough that you got in some significant trouble over it, it might have really been appropriate for him to share it with your manager. If someone on my staff is doing something that would warrant a serious warning if I knew about it, I’d want someone to bring me into the loop if I wasn’t there already. It’s possible that he acted responsibly by talking to your manager!

      1. BCW*

        Well honestly, that conversation was really part of another conversation that was had. However I can assure you it wasn’t anything mean or malicious. The women actually thought it was hilarious. I guess my point though is that knowing the guy, his main objective was clearly to get me in trouble.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          I’m a woman. Tell me what it was, and I’ll tell you if I find it funny. (I do have a good sense of humor, so I might agree with you.)

      2. BCW*

        Also, considering she talked to us days after it happened, one of 2 things went down. He either sent it to her in advance, and she didn’t think it was bad enough to prevent it. Or, it happened and then he sent it to her after the fact to make it look like he was a “good” employee and we were all not

        1. Jamie*

          I totally get obscuring the facts on a public forum, but I have to admit I’m really curious as to what the event was.

          1. BCW*

            Fine, it was long enough ago. Basically it was at the time when it was fashionable to wear scarves (the winter kind, not fashion kind) inside at all times. Most of the women we worked with were doing that. So one day all the guys decided to do it too. Mind you we were wearing our own ties that we already owned (we live in Chicago, its cold). Thats it. As I said, when the girls we worked with saw all of us guys wearing our big winter scarves inside, they thought it was pretty funny.

            At this job all the guys wore ties to work, so I see it as if one day all the girls decided to wear a tie. Its not malicious, just a way to have fun in the office.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think that sounds hilarious. Unless there’s some context to this that we don’t have here, I can’t understand your manager’s reaction.

              1. BCW*

                Exactly my point. But I was written up for harassment. I guess because guys were making light of something women were doing we must have been sexist and harassing them or something. So hopefully you can understand why, with something that small, I found it to be a case of tattling. I think my managers reaction may have been based on the way he framed it to her.

                1. A.*

                  I actually think I get what you’re saying — while I do think it’s much more egregious that your manager didn’t follow up to ensure the scenario was as your coworker described, it sounds like he probably told her that you were purposefully and hostilely leading a charge to mock the women in your office, as opposed to it being goodhearted and inclusive. And that’s an accusation any manager would have to take seriously! But again, the onus was on her to investigate the claims and actually talk to you rather than wholesale accepting his word.

                  So basically he’s probably a jerk, but she was overly reactionary and that’s a much larger issue for your work environment.

              2. Jamie*

                I don’t get that reaction either – I think it’s funny.

                I can’t imagine a write up for this. I would have just laughed.

              3. Laura L*

                I agree! Definitely funny. I definitely thought it would be something that was actually bad based on what you said before.

    2. fposte*

      I’m curious–what would you have done if he’d said to you “Dude, that’s going to exclude the women in a way that will make management really nervous.” Would you have changed your plans?

      1. BCW*

        Maybe, maybe not. Point is, we did it before my manager talked to us about it and I’m not really sure at what point he brought this up to her but based the time on when she brought it up to me, I have to think it was after the fact so he could look like the good one. So had he brought this concern to us, and we chose to do it anyway, I at least could have respected him more. I honestly feel his only real goal was to get me in trouble.

        1. fposte*

          So if he’d talked to you beforehand, you went ahead and did it, and *then* he informed management, you wouldn’t have been ticked at him? I’m kind of skeptical–I think it’s more likely you just don’t think he should have told your manager, period.

          The thing is, none of this means that what he did was wrong, nor does the fact that you were ticked off at him. He doesn’t work for you, and he doesn’t owe you more than he owes his employer. Obviously it’s worth considering whether you want to anger your co-workers before you do something, but that shouldn’t be your most important concern. And absent other information, it sounds like management thinks he made the right call.

          1. BCW*

            I didn’t say I wouldn’t have been mad, but I’m saying I could have respected the way he went about it. Again I really don’t think the guy was doing it because he thought it was that bad, he was trying to get me in trouble, period. He basically admitted that to someone later and it got back to me. So while you may want to defend the action, the motive behind it is honestly what made me the most angry.

            I’m going to be honest, I still don’t think what we did was that bad. And my manager made a judgment call to take some disciplinary action and thats her call. But if the people that it was supposedly bad against thought it was funny, then I don’t see it being that bad.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think, though, that the question here is: Was your coworker in the wrong to go to your manager? And since your manager clearly thought that it was something worth disciplining you over, the answer is no. Your coworker made the right call in guessing that it was something your manager would want to know about.

              You don’t like his motivation, but that’s really a separate issue from the question of whether he was wrong to talk to her.

              1. fposte*

                Wait, it sounds like you think the answer to “Was your coworker in the wrong” is no, not yes.

              2. Lily*

                You have really made me reflect, both from the point of view of the reprimanded employee and the point of view of the manager! What if someone needs a lot of time to realize they were in the wrong? Do they tell people of their change of heart?

            2. AD*

              You “could have” respected the way he went about it, but you probably wouldn’t have. You thought it was funny; he clearly didn’t. He didn’t like you; he told your boss, you got reprimanded. There is something to be said for thinking, if even for a moment, “Was that really the wisest choice on my part?” Even if you don’t like how the other person chose to go about it.

            3. Lily*

              BCW, thanks for sharing! This thread has really made me think about some issues her in my workplace!

  17. ARS*

    I’m a little sensitive about this topic since I worked in a place where rattling was the norm and one particular coworker thrived on it. Luckily we had a layer of Leads between us and the manager (who was often level headed and sometimes really not) so the tattling was usually done to the Lead who could ask about it without it being a major deal. I have a lot more empathy for the OP. I know exactly what it’s like to explain away every minor mistake. I would also say if you are speaking to your manager before you’re speaking to the person making the mistake, you’re wastin your manager’s time and embarrassing your coworker. Try the three times rule if it’s minor. Once is an aberration, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

  18. Professional Lurker*

    Ugh… this is making me think of an issue I have with a coworker where it feels like she is going out of her way to try to catch me in the wrong. Whenever she sees that I haven’t done something by her best guess of when it should have been (we don’t do the same job but our jobs interact) she sends an email to me asking about it, with two managers/supervisors in copy.

    The email itself wouldn’t bother me, but with the C.C.s an exchange that should have been a casual “Oh, it hasn’t been done because I’m still waiting on X and Y” or “Don’t worry, it’s next on my stack” or even “Thanks for the reminder.” immediately puts me on the defensive having to respond in a way to make sure that two bosses don’t think I’m slacking.

    1. Laura*

      Ohhhhh, I hate people like that. I worked with a smarmy little weasel once who would pull stunts like that.

      I was a manager in the Accounting group, and he was the Director of Procurement. I had the AP group reporting to me. This jerk emailed me one day, and copied my boss, the Director of Finance, the CFO, and everyone else he could think of to tell me that one of the buyers had tried to place an order with a supplier and was told that no more PO’s would be accepted until we paid all our past due invoices. He then proceeded to tell me, in a very condescending way, about how critical it was to pay invoices on time and maintain good relationships with vendors. In about 30 seconds I determined that the invoices were on hold because the buyer had not done some required follow-up work. So I told him that, using Reply All, and said that as soon as the buyer got the invoice holds released I would have AP cut a check immediately.

      Now, if he had gotten off his behind and walked the 20 steps to my cube from his office, he and I could have resolved the issue with minimal drama. But no, he had to go out of his way to try and make my team and me look bad, when it was his team’s problem all along. He did that to me a few times, I responded in the same way, and then the nasty emails stopped.

      Jerks like this are part of the reason I’m no longer a manager. My threshold for this kind of petty, political BS is non-existent.

      1. Esra*

        I’ll be honest, I feel a little schadenfreude when someone snark-emails me and cc’s every manager there is and the issue is actually on their end.

        1. Laura*

          I’ll be honest, I feel a boatload of schadenfreude when someone pulls a stunt like that with me and it comes back to bite them. :)

    2. aname*

      How long are we talking? I’ve had someone absolutely go for my throat when I’ve copied in a manager on an issue because I’m ‘tattling’ and ‘unsatisifable’ when all I was doing was covering my back since the issues had been outstanding twice (or more) as long as they should have been.

      The request itself was as soft as I could make it (and was confirmed to have been worded suitably non confrontational) but I still got rammed with a nasty response because I dared to copy a manager in. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble – I’m trying to make sure management are aware of any issues currently outstanding outside of usual procedure.

      To me it doesn’t matter whose copied in (as long as its not clients) it gets the same response as I’m not going to filter my responses dependant on management. If I’m not doing my job correct;y no amount of defensiveness is going to help cover that. If I need more help or I’m running behind management most likely need to know anyway.

      1. BCW*

        I think that may come to each person’s perspective. In my experience, when someone copies a manager in on an email that they don’t really need to be on, its a back handed way to tell on someone. Now there may be cause to do this. I’ve done it when I have repeatedly asked someone for something, and gotten no response. So on the next one I CCd that persons manager in on it. In that situation, my intention was absolutely to make sure the manager knew and handled it accordingly. However if I did that on the first time I asked them, I probably would’ve (rightly) been seen as a jerk.

      2. Laura*

        I think it is a judgement call. When someone jumps all over you for copying their manager on something, if you can produce previous requests that have not been answered, that tends to shut people up pretty quickly. One thing I do when I copy someone’s manager is to play dumb, even when I know darn well I haven’t gotten what I needed. I’ll close the email with, “Jane, it’s possible that your reply got lost in the sea of email in my Inbox, and if so, then sorry for the inconvenience,” or something like that. Then the person who hasn’t responded can save face — not that I care one way or another, but it does help keep feathers unruffled and avoids drama. Sometimes.

        On the flip side of this, a few months ago I assisted one of the Help Desk techs with an ERP issue that was the result of access being granted incorrectly. Since it was access to HR data, it was a pretty big deal (although no security breaches occurred). A couple people in the group had made the same mistake because the correct procedure is pretty complex. So I emailed this person and asked her if she minded if I brought this to her manager’s attention. I said my intent was not to get anyone into trouble, but just to make sure that everyone was aware of the correct procedure to use, and that I wouldn’t use any names. I also stressed that because this involved HR information, we all had to be very, very careful about how access is assigned to make sure people only see what they’re authorized to see, and that was the only reason I wanted it addressed at all. She never responded. Really irritated me…I tried to do the nice thing by not blindsiding her, and she blew me off.

        1. ARS*

          My feeling is, if you’ve spoken to the person a couple of times and not had any results, that’s when you CC their manager. I’ve had to do this and even though I felt like a jerk when I did, I had already followed up with the person three times and had nothing move forward. It was literally that a project I was working on could not move forward because of someone else on another team and my Supervisor was not intervening. I finally had to get my and the Supervisor’s manager involved to get it done. My point is, try to resolve it on your own first and maybe second. If you’re not getting results, that’s when you pull in a higher level.

  19. Cube Ninja*

    While this is a little off topic, I would like to propose that we just eliminate the use of the word “tattle” and its derivatives when we’re discussing any kind of professional employment. “Tattling” is something that children do – when I hear this word brought into any sort of professional discussion, I get a twitch in my eye.


    See? There it goes! :)

    1. BCW*

      When I taught, here was how I described it to students. Reporting is when you are saying something because you are concerned. Tattling is when you are saying something with the goal of getting someone in trouble.

      To me, the same standards apply. If a person’s main goal is to get someone else in trouble, not because they are concerned how the issue is affecting work, then yeah, I think its tattling.

      Hope your eye is ok lol

      1. KarenT*


        This, exactly. I confess to being a tattletale when I was a child, and that was how my parents explained it to me. If I was telling for my own benefit (ie., the satisfaction of watching my brother get in trouble), then that was tattling. If it was something important that could jeapordize my brother’s safety or something else serious, then I was reporting a legitimate concern.

  20. SciFiGeekGurl*

    I have an issue at work where I am “tattled” on. Yes, tattled is a juvenile word that describes the coworker’s juvenile behavior.

    The owner of the company is our boss. She flits between 3 offices that are each 45 min to an hour apart.

    My coworker tell the boss things based in a grain of truth but the rest is exaggerated or a lie. She tells her I left at a certain time (truth) to be at a training I was conducting (truth) at another time (false) and that I was late (false). She said I called our manager at another office (truth) while the owner was on vacation (truth) a lot of times (false–I called on 3 major items that she could not help me with or refused to help me with). She told the boss that I made a trainee wait while I cleaned that bathroom (false–the trainee had to wait while I set up the drug testing). Now she’s telling the boss that I don’t keep her in the loop and that I’m going over her head on projects and not asking her advice. I ask her and she either tells me she does not know, to call the senior HR person (I’m being trained in HR, the coworker was in my position but was promoted and I was given her HR position), or she refuses to answer me/help me.

    She “tattles” and lies and I’m honestly at a loss of what to do. If I go to the boss I feel like I’ll be tattling. It will be a she said/she said and no one ever wins those.

  21. Stats*

    What would you think if your Supervisor forwarded an email you sent to your Supervisor specifically to ask them to step in and help with another employee? We work in separate departments so we don’t see each other but another employee repeatedly requested I do their job for them. I emailed my Supervisor and gave an appraisal of the situation. My Supervisor then forwarded that same email to the other employee which then resulted in a nasty message from that employee.
    Now, the company is thinking of asking me to work in the other department with that employee. Is there any recourse I have?

  22. Raul.*

    The two toughest people to manage in an office setting are the brown noser and the tattle tale. The former, is tough because they quickly establish themselves as your buddy and are always slavishly attentive to anything you say. Its next to impossible to manage one, unless there are literal numbers to track or job duties grossly behind their peers.

    The tattle tale is tough because in theory, a manager WANTS to know EVERYTHING going on in their workplace. It took me having my STAR sales person leave and in his exit interview him mentioning he did not feel safe here because of my spy network. Needless to say i was shamed into some immediate damage control. I was able to keep the sales person by asking them for one more “Incident” to occur…

    I waited for my tattler to come to me, close the door and snitch on someone for being 10 minutes late. I called said person into my office, said “Colleen has noticed you coming in late, is this true?”

    to which they replied “Yeah, but i have been staying late every time that happens.” (which i did not know about)

    The tattler turned bright red and said “I–uhh…I…Uhh!” a lot and has never tattled since.

  23. Linda*

    I am most interested in how a boss should handle tattling. I think the boss should, in most cases, encourage the peers to learn to communicate and work out their problems themselves, rather than buying into a bunch of tattling. A basic tenet of the judicial system is that you have the right to confront your accuser…otherwise, what stops the tattler from lying, slanting the truth and generally poisoning the atmosphere against you and you might not even know it is happening if the boss doesn’t tell you? It appears to me that the boss should, in most cases, inform the person who has been accused, and if possible, facilitate some discussion about the matter. For trivial stuff, the boss should encouage the tattler to suck it up or else find the courage to diplomatically discuss the issue with the peer.
    Obviously, there are exceptional situations, but why not encourage people to behave like responsible adults and learn to deal with their problems? Guess I just don’t get it???

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