advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Stop borrowing my tools

I work as a mechanic at a car dealership. One of my pet peeves is tools not being put back in their proper place. It drives me nuts. So the other day one of my colleagues asked to borrow a socket-wrench, and I asked him why he needed it. When he told me, I said a spanner would do the job just fine – and probably work a little better (I also knew he had one). Still, he insisted – so I handed it over. As he walked away, I reminded him to “be sure to bring it back,” and he shot me a dirty look, which I don’t think I deserved. I mean, I’m sick of chasing down tools every time I need one. – Name withheld   

Yeah – so don’t do that anymore.

By suggesting he use a tool other than the one he’s asked for, you imply he doesn’t know his job well enough to make even the most rudimentary of professional decisions. If he wants a socket wrench, spanner—or even a monkey wrench—for whatever he’s working on, who are you to say otherwise?

You then add insult to injury be “reminding” him to bring it back (or is it you who’s failed to return it to it’s proper place?). In effect, this is to reprimand him even though he’s done nothing wrong. In fact, by asking you first (for something that’s not even technically your property, I might add), he’s extending you a professional courtesy. Keep this up and don’t be surprised if, in the future, he simply takes whatever he needs without bothering to tell you.

(By the way, you fail to mention whether this particular individual is in the habit of failing to return things – although given his reaction to your comment, I suspect he’s not.)

So the sum total of your not-so-subtle message to your coworker is the following:

You’re bad at your job, and irresponsible too. Furthermore, you ineptitude is predictable, and something I have anticipated. As a result, I am now taking action to protect me from your incompetence.

No wonder he gave you a dirty look.

If, as I do, you pay attention to current thinking regarding effective management practices, you’ll notice a lot of attention these days being paid to organizational “culture.” More specifically, there is a growing recognition of the importance of creating environments in which employees feel engaged, and are thus able to perform at the highest possible level. With that in mind, I would remind you managers aren’t alone in being able to impact this. Individuals workers such as yourself exercise enormous power when it comes to effecting the quality, tone, and character of the workplace.

So my question to you is: What kind of environment would you rather work in?

One that is cooperative? That is, in which coworkers genuinely enjoy working with each other, and are happy to not only share company equipment and resources, but their knowledge, expertise, and perhaps even their time too, should one of their colleagues find themselves in need?

Or would you prefer a workplace that is more territorial? In other words, one in which employees simply put their heads down do whatever job has been assigned to them, and where the requests and needs of coworkers are viewed as unnecessary intrusions on one’s time, and therefore a nuisance to be avoided?

I probably don’t have to tell you which one is better for business.

So I suggest you start cutting your colleagues some slack. More frustrating than not having the right tool for the job is knowing the right tool is available, but not being allowed to use it. And micromanagement isn’t something only a manager might be accused of, so keep that in mind too.

Finally, it occurs to me that you may be justifying your “return it or else”-approach to tool-sharing as a way of preventing equipment loss, and therefore conserving valuable company resources.

But even assuming a worst case scenario here – namely, that your colleague loses the tool you’ve “loaned” him. I assure you the cost of replacing a misplaced wrench every now and then is far cheaper than the toll your suspicious attitude exacts on the morale and enthusiasm of your fellow coworkers.

Those organizational resources are truly priceless…and should be the ones you make an effort to protect.


  1. Tim Eiler

    I’m assuming the person whose situation you commented on told you specifically that the tools are supplied by the company, given your “not even yours” comment in the second paragraph. If that’s not the case, I think you erred. Many mechanics supply their own primary tools. My brother is an aircraft mechanic, for instance, and that’s the case where he is. My dad was a machinist, too, and he had to supply his own non-specialty tools.

    As you can imagine, who owns the tools to be borrowed definitely has an impact on the tenor of the situation and the response.

    I agree, however, that micromanagement isn’t something only managers can be guilty of.

    • the subordinate

      That’s correct – this individual did not personally own the tool in question. Nevertheless, great point – I was unaware that so many mechanics use their own tools.

  2. Rolf von Deusen

    This was a very interesting case. While the topics you write about usually have to do with boss / subordinate relationships, in this case it’s employee / employee.

    In the more typical scenario on this blog, having a bit of an anti-authority streak, I root for the subordinate and cheer on putting “the man” in his place. In this particular situation (illustrating how complicated it can be to attain the best culture for an organization and how truly one size NEVER fits all), it struck me that the tone you used in responding to the person who wrote *could* be received in a similar way to how “Dirty Look” responded to being told to return the wrench.

    Now obviously you aren’t the co-worker. And your advice was sound and written in a fairly neutral tone (except possibly for the part about whose tools they are!). There’s never not a good reason to try – and KEEP trying – to create a company culture where everyone is doing their best because they feel valued and see their part in a whole, sometimes people and their own weaknesses and insecurities get in the way. All more food for thought!


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