Deciding whether to squeal on a colleague is not something to take lightly. In the best situation, it could protect you, others, or the company from an employee’s wrongdoing. You could come out looking like a hero if the circumstances are right. But, more often than not, it will likely lead to little change, possibly compromise your professional reputation, and make you look immature.
To be clear, snitching, squealing, tattling, and “telling-on,” all generally mean that you are reporting the activities or behaviours of others to an authority without their knowledge or consent. This means, at work, you witness or experience a colleague do something you find problematic and tell your boss or an HR representative about it. Your goal is that they will address the issue with your colleague and then make them stop, maybe even dish out punishment to them.
If you are in this spot and considering reporting a coworker’s behaviour without their knowledge, it would be wise to first consider the following.
Have a direct conversation with your colleague
The reality is that there are far fewer reasons to actually snitch on a coworker than not to. This is because addressing problems directly is best. For example, if you witness your colleague falsify their timecard by reporting hours you know they didn’t work, address it with them first, not HR. Maybe there is context or information you don’t have, or maybe it was a mistake. Everyone deserves a shot to explain or correct their behaviour.
Take my friend, for example, who had a medical accommodation to park in a choice spot in the company lot that is typically reserved for executives. Her coworker noticed where she parked and reported her. It eventually got back to my friend that her colleague did this, and it compromised their relationship. Even though my friend addressed it with the coworker, and they apologized, their relationship wasn’t the same going forward.
This situation could have been prevented by my friend’s colleague just asking her about the great parking spot she had. This is what others in the office did. But instead, this coworker assumed my friend was doing something wrong.
Give people the benefit of the doubt and have a direct conversation before snitching. This doesn’t negate you reporting the issue, but it does make your actions transparent. After all, that’s what you’re advocating for by exposing someone else’s behaviour.
Understand policy violations
There are plenty of behaviours displayed at work that are simply not worth reporting. People can be annoying, disagreeable, sarcastic, and even rude. Certainly, these behaviours aren’t great, nor am I advocating that they be welcomed, but they do fall within the realm of generally accepted bad behaviour that often doesn’t violate a policy. If you’ve ever experienced or know someone who has been reported for this behaviour and your boss or HR seems to do nothing about it, that might be why. The behaviour may not be severe enough to warrant action. Ultimately, it often boils down to personality conflicts versus policy violations.
Also, there is a big difference between someone who is a jerk to be around and a “workplace bully.” The same goes for a “hostile work environment.” These terms get tossed around without a full understanding of what they mean and the criteria that are (usually) set for them. Most organizations have clear definitions. It’s wise to know how the company defines them and the processes that unfold (and don’t unfold) when they are reported.
Document your experience
However, there are indeed situations in which you might “snitch.” This is when the person at fault is in a position of power and you may fear retaliation, or that person is doing something so egregious that it’s not a matter of making a correction. Also, there is a clear policy violation at play. Again, the best first step is to inform the person of your concerns. Everyone deserves the chance to defend their actions.
But if that’s not possible, document your experience. Write down dates, times, what you observed, exact words that were said, and others who witnessed it. Also, note how frequently the behaviour occurs or the scope of the issue. A one-time oversight or rude reaction is different than witnessing a coworker lie repeatedly to client.
Share the information with your boss
This is now the time to share the information and documentation with your boss, preferably before going to HR, legal, or another authority. Managers deserve to be looped in, and there might be other circumstances at play, such as the boss knowing of the bad behaviour and your documentation will benefit their case. Bosses who aren’t informed of what’s happening on the team are at a disadvantage in correcting and improving the environment. They also can protect you from making a mistake by going above them. “Telling on” your coworker may still be a bad idea and your boss can help you keep your relationships and credibility intact.
The majority of the time, it’s not worth snitching on a coworker. It’s perceived as petty and can make you look conflict-avoidant. In the rare occasions when you might, be sure to have your facts straight and partner with your boss. That way, you’ve done your part to preserve your credibility and reputation while also standing up for what you believe is right.