360° Answers: Am I Being a Tattle?

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

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?

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

In general, I would refrain from complaining to your boss about your co-workers, because it will usually make you look immature and/or gossipy.  The fact that you are a recent grad underscores this point.  In this case, though, it sounds like your boss has purposely opened the lines of communication about Fred, so assuming HR doesn’t send Fred packing immediately, I think you could say something like:  “You mentioned that you wanted us to keep you informed about what’s going on with Fred, and I’m still pretty concerned about him.  What do you think is the appropriate way to respond when he says/does A, B, C?”  In this way, you are keeping your comments professional while showing empathy and asking for guidance, and you will likely protect your manager’s opinion of you.

Whether you should do this or not depends on how much the situation is eating at you.  Some people who are less caring might just let it go since what’s happening with Fred doesn’t affect them directly, but based on the fact that you wrote in with this question and are saying you feel stressed, it seems that it’s bothering you enough that action would make sense.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

I think Alexandra’s answer is right on, but I have another concern. Because you don’t have a lot of workplace experience, you might not recognize some of the warning signs of a more serious threat. I’ve worked with someone who had similar behavior – loud cursing and fits of temper – I can tell you this is not a situation you want to take lightly.

Research shows that employees who recently have been disciplined, have an inability to control outbursts and have disagreements with co-workers are much more likely to become violent at work. Too often we hear about tragic consequences at work because no one recognized the warning signs and took the necessary steps to secure the workplace against violence.

At the very least, you need to express some concerns about Fred.  Don’t dismiss this as an overreaction and at least visit with your boss or human resources and ask them what steps they’re taking to ensure your safety. Even though you may feel no personal threat right now, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If one day he escalates his anger, you don’t want to be anywhere around.

Answer from Alison Green:

I love Alexandra’s suggestion to phrase this as a request for advice from your manager! “What’s the best way to respond when Fred does XYZ?” is a great way to make it clear to your manager that Fred is behaving this way without having to worry that you’re coming across as complaining.

However, you also shouldn’t even worry about complaining in this situation. This isn’t like complaining that your coworker chews too loudly or takes too many personal calls — this is serious stuff that significantly impacts your workplace. Any reasonable manager would want to know about this … and in fact, yours specifically asked you to keep her informed.

In general, when you’re trying to figure out when something is worth raising to your boss versus when it might come across as petty, the question to ask yourself is: How does this impact our work, and by how much? When something isn’t just mildly annoying but has a real impact, a good boss wants to know about it. In this case, you think Fred is creating — at a minimum — a disruptive and unprofessional work environment. (I’d actually even go further and add that even if his behavior isn’t making you feel unsafe, it’s easy to imagine it making others feel unsafe. And if they’re, say, interns or new employees, they might not feel comfortable speaking up.)  When I’m managing people, that’s exactly the sort of thing I want to be aware of.

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

This is a really good question and I have often wondered where the line between tattling/complaining and open communication lies. Over time, I’ve come to define complaining and tattling in the workplace as:

  • Complaining: expressing negativity in an unproductive manner
  • Tattling: escalating a situation to a higher up when unnecessary

For your situation specifically, keeping your boss informed about incidents falls under open communication. You may feel safe, but the behaviors you mention are definitely not professional, positive, or conducive to a productive team environment. I would consider it crossing the line to complaining if you mention a single incident more than once or pester your boss about what is being done about the situation. I’m not sure tattling applies at all since your boss specifically asked for information.

You express concern that you might be seen as a complainer. Do you worry that your boss, Fred, or your peers will think this? From your boss’s perspective, he has already asked for that specific feedback—unless he is also giving mixed signals, it sounds like he would appreciate your input. In order for your boss to do what he can to keep the atmosphere professional and collaborative, he needs your help to support making that decision. Fred, of course, would view this negatively but I think it is fair to say you can discount his opinion. Perhaps the only one who might judge you negatively for this would be a peer—but I suspect your conversation with your boss would remain confidential if you do it one-on-one and request it to stay private.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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