Hero vs. Tattletale

In any office, there are "secrets" that everyone but the manager seems to know. What’s obvious to your coworkers—like the team member who takes two-hour lunches each day or the one who is rude to peers but nice to those above her—is often less so to supervisors. Managers are often removed from interactions between individual colleagues. Still, these perceived injustices can be a source of frustration for employees who wonder why certain behaviors go unrecognized and unaddressed.

But unless it’s a serious problem—such as verbal abuse or theft—it’s hard to know whether bringing an interpersonal issue to your supervisor’s attention will paint you the hero or make you look like the office wet blanket. Here are a few guidelines:

First, consider your motivation for taking an issue to your manager: Are you the only one who’s bothered by this person’s actions? If so, tread carefully. For instance, if a coworker continues to be rude to a client, even after you’ve addressed the problem directly with her, you’ll probably want to say something to your boss. On the other hand, if you find your colleague’s disorganized approach to leading meetings annoying, but you’re the only one who is irritated, it’s probably not worth bringing up to your manager. You might end up looking like you have a personal issue with your coworker.

Next, how often does your coworker misbehave? If she’s late every other day and holding up team meetings as a result, it’s likely worth a mention to your manager. If, on the other hand, her tardiness doesn’t seem to affect productivity, you probably don’t want to broach the subject with your boss.

Consider whether reporting the action will change anything. If your teammate has been working six-hour days for a few months—and people have reported him to your manager already—it’s not likely that you mentioning this is going to have an effect. Perhaps your colleague is still fulfilling his work responsibilities but has family obligations that have led to an agreed-upon condensed work schedule. In certain situations, as long as your coworker’s behavior isn’t affecting your ability to do your job, you have to trust your boss.

Keep in mind that your manager may know more about what is going on than you realize. He or she could even be taking steps to resolve the situation with the individual or through human resources. Often, privacy issues prevent supervisors from sharing such information with those not directly involved.

If you do decide to approach your manager about a problem with a coworker, you should also think about how you broach it with him or her. It’s important not to be confrontational or emotional; instead you might try leading into the conversation by saying something like: "I hesitated about whether to bring this up but thought that I would want to know if I were you."

When discussing the situation, focus on one or two actions you consider to be problematic instead of bringing up an entire list of accusations. Otherwise, it’s going to look like you have the problem or are harboring a grudge against your colleague.

If possible, be proactive and offer your supervisor a solution to the dilemma. If you’re upset with the quality of someone’s work in a particular area, offer to help mentor that person yourself or suggest a class he might take.

In general, it’s best not to go over your manager’s head when you have an interpersonal issue, even if you doubt she will address it. Instead, give your manager a chance to discuss the problem with you and remedy it.

If you have doubts about whether or not to bring up something—office politics create many "gray" areas—talk to a colleague whose judgment you value. He or she might be able to give you some insight. The person also might offer to approach your boss and say something on your behalf. Often, it’s useful to have someone with more seniority deliver the news.

Finally, have patience. Even if you say something to your manager, you may not see immediate changes—or any at all. Who can say what’s happening behind the scenes, but at least you’ll have spoken up. Knowing you did your best to bring the problem to your manager’s attention means you can move on and focus on your own work.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.www.creativegroup.com