When Asked to 'Tattle,' It's Best to Be Honest

By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 26, 2008 6:15 PM

My boyfriend "Mike" has a problem at work. He works full-time on-site with a client of his company, usually on his own -- his supervisor is there several days a week or more as necessary. His employer is a small business. Mike has been there since the beginning and has been told he's a very trusted employee. His boss has been with the company less than a year.

Recently, one of the owners (who is essentially Mike's boss's boss) mentioned he had been hearing from the client that Mike's boss has been chronically late on the days he is supposed to be at the client site, along with other tidbits that make the owner wonder whether Mike's boss is the right guy for the job. So, the owner asked Mike to let him know when the boss is late or if he sees anything else that seems off. Mike really wants to help the owner (since he asked) because Mike isn't happy with his supervisor either. He agrees that the guy does come in very late almost every day, doesn't manage people or projects well, and tends to be a blamer/credit-stealer.

I say that this puts Mike in a really bad position, and that true or not, this is a bad idea -- he is not his boss's keeper. I think that "tattling" on his boss has enormous potential to come back and bite him in the rear. Do you have any advice on how to handle this situation?

Mike faces the moral dilemma of "tattling" out of loyalty to his employer or feigning ignorance to avoid a potential backlash. The company's owner has made the choice clear by explicitly asking Mike to tell, but the truth is that he has been in this uncomfortable position ever since he wised up to his boss' shortcomings.

Mike should be honest with the owner about what he has been seeing. This is part of his fiduciary obligation to the organization, and it is also what will best preserve his good reputation as a reliable and loyal worker. How Mike goes about doing this is what has the potential, as you say, to "bite him in the rear."

Mike should be careful not to become so swept up in the fulfillment of his employer's request that he loses all sense of propriety. Even as he is dutifully reporting his supervisor's missteps, he should not editorialize or grandstand. He will otherwise run the risk of appearing unprofessional, and the information he conveys will be weighted accordingly. If Mike passes along purely factual data, that will provide his employer plenty to go on in assessing his supervisor.

Mike should also not hesitate to point out to the owner, in case it is not perfectly obvious, that asking him to snitch on his supervisor leaves him in an uncomfortable position. If Mike's supervisor finds out, it could make for a testy reporting relationship indeed. He should request, therefore, that the owner do all that he can to leave Mike's name out of any performance management conversations. It sounds like the client is wise to the problems with Mike's boss, so it should not seem implausible to Mike's boss that the reports are coming from them.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, April 1 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail hradvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.

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