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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

The Office Tattletale: A Waste of Everyone's Time

Obsessing About Your Colleague's Work Ethic Might Say Something About Your Own

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page F06

You noticed it one day coming into the office: The receptionist was on a personal call. The next day, you watched for it. And before you knew it, you were so worked up that she spent her time talking to friends, you wanted to tell your boss.

We revert to grade school in many ways in the workplace. The tattletale impulse is just one of those ways we digress and turn something minor into a major issue that probably has nothing to do with our own work.

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"People get irritated about the most fascinating things," said Heather Bradley, founder of the Flourishing Company LLC, a workplace consulting firm. "If it's really in the way of someone getting a job done, a manager will find out."

Bradley's earlier days as a human resources manager were spent listening to one co-worker complain about another. Unless there was an ethical breach, she would mostly just think the tattler was wasting too much of his own time worrying about someone else. Once, Bradley's company introduced a no-smoking policy on company property, so smokers began to go outside to smoke. First, nonsmoking colleagues started grumbling. Soon, co-workers were "telling on" colleagues who left their desk for a smoke break. Bradley's thought was, how could a co-worker know the smoker had stopped working, or thinking about a work problem, during a 10-minute smoke break? Or that he might not stay a bit late to make sure the work was finished? The time-wasters, in fact, might be the people who were so worked up about the smoker taking a break.

"If a person is committed to getting a job done, they manage their time," Bradley said. "If someone's tracking when someone is gone, they're doing what with their [own] time?"

Sure, there are times when one person should blow the whistle on another (Enron being a prominent example). Recently, though, there have been a couple of incidents in which tattling about personal, not financial, matters caused upheaval.

New York Times reporter Susan Sachs was accused by management, according to anonymous sources in press reports, of sending correspondence to the wives of two colleagues telling them their husbands were having affairs. She was subsequently fired. She has denied writing the messages, and the Times will not discuss its reason for firing her.

In March, Boeing Co. forced chief executive Harry C. Stonecipher to resign after the company's non-executive chairman received an anonymous tip that Stonecipher was having an affair with a subordinate. In that case, the company said it was less about the affair and more about poor judgment.

"What the Stonecipher case does is help companies view 'company business' perhaps more broadly and policy violations more broadly," said Jeffrey M. Kaplan, an attorney and member of the Law and Business Ethics Advisory Board at Midi Corp., which develops compliance and ethics training programs. "If you do anything work-related, that is now seen as fair game. That's because corporate reputations are seen as more important recently."

But there is a right way and a wrong way to "inform," if one must.

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