This week something different: Meta-advice.
This is advice I have for a fellow advice-giver who, like me, responds to readers’ questions about their jobs, management, and other work-related topics. Feedback for a competitor, in other words.
In this case, it’s for Roxane Gay, the contributor who pens the ‘Work Friend’ business advice column for the New York Times. On Oct 29th, 2022 she responded to a reader’s question about whether or not to “snitch” on a colleague who’s punching out early, and I feel she got it horribly, horribly wrong. What follows then is the original letter to the NYT (in italics), Ms. Gay’s response (in quotes), and my rebuttal (in bold).
“To snitch or not to snitch”
Some co-workers of mine are puzzled about how (if at all) to handle a colleague who doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to her. We are a small department in a large office. We have a very specific, skilled task we perform and we really try to work as a team. One of our colleagues was hired during the pandemic when we only had to be at work if absolutely necessary. Our supervisor recently told us those days are behind us and it’s back to the office, 8:30 to 5:00. This colleague continues to come in an hour or more late, takes one- to two-hour lunches and leaves at 3:30-4:00 if she wants.
It’s not just annoying. We’re worried if an emergency happens and she’s not here, it will cause all of us to have to start punching a clock. We’re hesitant to tattle to our supervisor, but since we’re equals, we’re also not comfortable confronting her. Advice, please. – Anonymous
“This isn’t a situation you and your colleagues need to ‘handle.’”
Let the gaslighting begin.
“Your co-worker’s hours and habits are none of your business.”
None of their business? Given this concerns this reader’s place of business, a business which presumably pays their and everyone else’s wages, wages derived from revenue resulting from the sale of its products/services in a competitive marketplace, a marketplace furthermore populated with other businesses all trying to win customers from each other, anything less than its optimal operation—which would include tolerating an employee who is clearly not pulling their weight—jeopardizes the very survival of that business, and therefore the livelihood of everyone it employs.
It quite literally is this person’s business.
“Do you hear yourself? You’re reluctant to ‘tattle?’ You are adults! Adults do not tattle.”
Just because this individual chose a term more frequently associated with juvenile behavior to describe an otherwise serious work situation does not make it any less of a serious work situation.
“If her conduct is affecting your own work, which it seems it is, be mature professionals and tell her, with specifics, how her behaviors are affecting the team’s performance!”
Two things here: (1) Of the many, many things that mature professionals expect of their managers, delivering critical feedback to colleagues is usually amongst them. (2) Without the means to hold a coworker accountable, confronting them yourself is not apt to bring about the change you desire. It’s far more likely that you’ll simply damage the relationship, making it even harder to work with them in the future. This will further undermine optimal organizational function.
(Also, stop using exclamation marks! It makes it seem like you’re yelling!!)
“But stop policing her coming and going or monitoring how long she takes for lunch. That is not part of your job description.”
Many a business has gone under when employees chose to do only that which is in their ‘job description’. In fact, it’s a surprisingly effective way for workers to ‘strike’ without actually walking off the job. (It’s called ‘working to rule’.)
“You’re only doing it because you don’t want to be overly policed yourselves. I encourage you to consider that.”
Only because you don’t want to be overly policed yourselves? Have you never lost a treasured privilege because some ***hole abused it to the point where management had to step in and take it away from everybody? Trust me, it sucks – big time.
I encourage you to consider that.
So what’s my advice for Anonymous?
Discreetly mention your concerns to your manager – but be sure to frame the issue as a professional concern, not a personal one. Because it is. Any manager worth their salt will quickly realize this, of course; in fact, yours may be aware of the problem already. Even the best managers sometimes need a little nudge, however.
Regardless, stick to the line that you’re acting out of a professional consideration for the organization as a whole, and its continued well-being. Because you are. You might even mention that you’d feel remiss in your responsibilities as an agent/advocate of the organization if you didn’t say something. And if any of this makes you feel uncomfortable, keep in mind that many businesses today actively encourage their employees to ‘take ownership’ on occasion (although I’m not convinced most managers really know what that means). That’s all you’re doing here.
Then consider the matter closed, and give your manager the room to take whatever action they feel is appropriate.
[ 4 Comments ]
My comment to add to all of this is that staff quite often think they see the whole picture when, in fact, they see only the top of the iceberg that’s sticking above the water. Perhaps the ‘offending’ peer has made a deal with the boss – maybe to allow the ‘offender’ to deal with a personal situation. In the same vein, the boss might already be working with the ‘offender’ to resolve the problem (if there’s truly a problem, of course).
I think a candid conversation between one of the offended about the situation is warranted, as you do. It’s absolutely crucial, though, that such a conversation not be made in a way that the boss senses an impending mutiny (the writer makes it feel that way to me). It’s even more important that the offended take it as a given that the boss is already aware of and dealing with the situation unless the boss says they aren’t already so. This is a situation fraught with opportunities to drive wedges into relationships.
Agreed – the manager here may already be aware of situation and working hard to resolve it. Assuming as much will go a long way towards remaining in their good graces. Here’s the words I would use when broaching the subject: “You’re probably already well aware of this, but just in case you weren’t…”
It’s true too that the letter writer may only be seeing ‘the tip of the iceberg’. (Although it’s worth noting that, in my experience at least, employees tend to see far more than their managers realize.) Nevertheless, a backroom deal may have been struck between the hour shirker and their manager, as you say.
But that too is problematic, is it not? If similar deals haven’t been extended to the rest of the staff, that’s preferential treatment—in secret, no less—and is sure to undermine trust. That, in turn, will negatively impact the workgroup’s motivation levels, and productivity.
Still, while you seem to see as open question whether there is ‘truly a problem’ here, I do not.
The staff is clearly upset – or at least one of them is frustrated enough to take time out of their busy workday to write to the NYT. That’s bad news for the manager, and the organization. Again, employees who become annoyed or discouraged—whether justified or not—tend to be less enthusiastic, and therefore less productive than they might otherwise be.
This situation is indeed ‘fraught with opportunities to drive wedges into relationships’. But I’d counter those wedges have already been driven into place…and will only be hammered deeper the longer management allows this circumstance to persist.
I agree. Work friend should take the question/complaint more seriously. Tattling was probably the wrong word to use
I would find it difficult to not try to use humor to hold a mirror up to this co-workers’ workplace slovenliness in the hopes that he would see how absurd it was to be acting this way while everyone else is doing their job and functioning as part of a team.
I agree that Roxane’s response suggests it’s been a long time since she had a job that was even remotely similar to this letter-writer’s. Stop monitoring their hours and breaks?? If there’s one thing these coworkers are ALL aware of, can’t HELP but notice, it’s that one person who’s seriously deviating from the norm. Hard to say if their irritation would arise from concern about potential lost privileges – it seems to me it’s instead more that old employee gripe – injustice & favoritism. And let’s be honest – something’s up with that manager NEEDING to be told what’s happening. Whole situation is sorta sus