Should I report the questionable things my co-worker said
March 22, 2015 12:41 PM   Subscribe

I overheard my co-worker saying some potentially extremely damaging things the other day - not sure if I should tell our boss or not? Trying not to be self interested but worried our team could be at risk.

The coworker in the office behind me is loud while on the phone - frequently loud enough that I can easily hear him. So unless I put headphones on it is hard not to eavesdrop.

Recently a position fairly high-up has opened up in our company that is somewhat similar to what my dept does, but not exactly the same. It sounded, from what I overheard, that this person may be making a play for that job. He seemed to be lining up support to make a move. The concerning items are he seemed interested in trying to merge our current dept with that one (which would be a bad thing!) and he also alluded to playing dirty politics to get what he wants. He also indicated if he didn't get the spot he would bide his time.

A few other notes:

1) I don't much care for this person. I don't think anyone really suspects, but nonetheless turning him in seems self interested.
2) I do not think he has a shot at the position
3) It could make our dept look foolish if he goes chasing after this with guns blazing and runs to the CEO or COO to make his case
4) He is relatively new - just about a month shy of a year at the org
5) His willingness to play politics concerns me - I have seen him in emails and other things be really very harsh on some people without them being aware. I am concerned he might launch into a crusade about everything that is wrong with our dept to exemplify his genius
6) I have had a few people tell me he has been rude or short with him or they ask what his deal is.

In sum - there are A LOT a way for this to get ugly and I feel like I owe it to my boss, the head of the dept, to let him know about the situation. I don't know that he can do much but I feel like he should know just in case - to at least prepare. I just am concerned about looking like a gossip, etc.

Were I friends with this person this is serious enough that I would have a talk with them, but I am not and do not feel comfortable speaking directly with the problem person.
posted by UMDirector to Work & Money (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You should stay out of this. As easily you've figured out what he's like many other people probably have too. No need to damage your own reputation as bad mouthing this guy, even if deserved, will make you look bad.
posted by hazyjane at 12:48 PM on March 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

Be there to support your boss and your department if it does get ugly, but until then, keep out of it. Stay above the fray. Take the high road, even when others take the low road.

Let your coworker shoot himself in the foot. It sounds like he's more than capable of it and people other than you have already noticed that.
posted by heatherann at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I should add - he is good at the politics. He wears a great mask. I was actually warming up to him until I heard this phone call.
posted by UMDirector at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

You know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy rushes to tell Miranda that she's going to be ousted for someone younger? Think about what happens after she does that. Don't be Andy.
posted by asockpuppet at 12:52 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

It is hard to imagine a positive professional benefit for you coming out of a conversation that by necessity starts with, "So I was eavesdropping on ____ the other day and...".
posted by The Gooch at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

How is your relationship with your boss? If it is very, very close, I could see giving them an informal head's up. Otherwise, stay quiet.
posted by saucysault at 12:54 PM on March 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

I've seen this sort of thing before as a manager and in coworkers, and I currently work in a gov dept that works with actual politicians.

He isn't that good...he may have almost had you convinced, but at the critical moment he failed and the truth was out. This is typical and will repeat itself.

Also, the managers know - and probably know more.

Take the high road, he will self-destruct in time.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:55 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I agree with the others, definitely stay out of this for now. Sadly, this kind of behaviour is not unheard of in most workplaces and saying anything about it will make you look naive at best and like a whiner--and eavesdropper-- at worst.

Now that you know who this guy really is, though, you have a tremendous advantage. You know what to watch out for, and can quickly step in to defend your department if and when needed. The truth about this guy will come out eventually, with no help needed from you. Keep your hands clean as long as you can.
posted by rpfields at 12:56 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

And consider that he might be feeding you misinformation by "accidentally" talking so loud.
posted by calgirl at 1:03 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Consider Burke's great maxim (updated slightly): 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.'

And tell your boss.
posted by jamjam at 1:13 PM on March 22, 2015

I don't think I'd be aiming to rat him out by name. After all: 2) I do not think he has a shot at the position

What I would do is say "Hey boss, I heard a rumor that there's talk of merging us with [other department.] What do you know about that?" The boss will appreciate that. Playing office politics well (and defending yourself from the same) absolutely depends on having a good timely rumor collection "ear to the ground".
posted by ctmf at 1:20 PM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

Oh, and the answer to "where did you hear that" is "Oh, you know, around. Can't remember exactly" i.e., "I'm not going to tell you that" without saying it outright.
posted by ctmf at 1:26 PM on March 22, 2015

Turn him in for what? Seriously, you're going to report that he wants a promotion? That he might want to make changes once he's in a position to do it? That he's going to play "dirty politics"? Which of those things do you think is remotely beyond the pale and needs to be "reported"? Maaaybe the last one, if he said something about committing an actual crime.

I just am concerned about looking like a gossip, etc.

That's because what you're thinking about doing is gossiping.
posted by Etrigan at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2015 [24 favorites]

I agree with Etrigan here.

What this guy is guilty of, according to you, is:
- saying he wants to be promoted into a new vacancy,
- saying he would merge your department with his new department if he got the promotion,
- being willing to play some kind of dirty politics in order to get his way.

Unless you have knowledge of a crime about to be committed, there's nothing to report here.

I thought you were going to say you'd found evidence that the guy was committing fraud, or keeping child porn on the company servers, or something like that. If you'd discovered something like that, that would be "extremely damaging" and something you should report.

Do you know what your behaviour would be called if you went to your boss to tell him what you told us? Dirty politics. And not very clever dirty politics.
posted by tel3path at 1:41 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounded, from what I overheard, that this person may be making a play for that job. He seemed to be lining up support to make a move. The concerning items are he seemed interested in trying to merge our current dept with that one (which would be a bad thing!) and he also alluded to playing dirty politics to get what he wants. He also indicated if he didn't get the spot he would bide his time.

I think this is...normal. Personally, I like to be pretty upfront about this stuff but it doesn't really sound like he's engaging in subterfuge. Being ambitious isn't by definition being an asshole, nor is thinking that two departments would be more effective as a single department.

I mean, he may be a dick, but I think that's beside the point. I'd leave it alone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:56 PM on March 22, 2015

Stay out it. Yes, you overheard something upsetting, but as mentioned above, nothing he said is actually illegal & there is no visible benefit to you telling your boss. If anything, it could make you look bad in various ways. If people have asked you what the deal is with this guy, he hasn't fooled that many people. Now, in the unlikely event he gets the job, you might want to give your boss a heads up about the merging departments idea in a vague way, not naming the source & attributing it to office chatter. For now, just keep what you heard to yourself knowing probably nothing will come of it.
posted by katemcd at 2:00 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

For what it is worth I am pretty close to my boss. We are a close work environment.

It's interesting these reactions because everyone I have spoken to about this outside of here has said "say something". This includes a trusted co-worker at the company and three people I know from grad school. Not discounting what has been said here - just not what I expected.

No matter my ultimate decision I just find that fascinating. With a rare exception here it seems to be totally different. I wonder if that has anything to do with not knowing me or the details. I have certainly left some out that I can't go into.
posted by UMDirector at 2:01 PM on March 22, 2015

Also it wasn't just "politics" he was wiling to play but specifically called out playing dirty.
posted by UMDirector at 2:04 PM on March 22, 2015

Also it wasn't just "politics" he was wiling to play but specifically called out playing dirty.

Did he say what he was going to do, or was it just "I'm willing to play dirty to get this promotion"? If the latter, it was either bluster or so general that you won't be able to help anyone by reporting it. If he said something specific, e.g., "I'm going to get the CEO drunk and take some embarrassing pictures," then sure, report that, but leave out all of the stuff where he's angling for a promotion or trying to merge departments. Stick to actual claims that he made of bad (i.e., criminal) intent.
posted by Etrigan at 2:38 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Do you have some reason to think that the "dirty" things he's willing to do to get this job constitute fraud? Is someone going to get hurt? Even if not criminal precisely, if this is someone who you know for a fact--not for supposition--is going to try to destroy someone else's professional reputation in a way that cannot be repaired, by all means, say something. But while you're certainly within your rights not to divulge all the details to us here, and certainly probably shouldn't, I think you need to divorce "behavior that you think is unpleasant and wrong" from "things that are going to cause definable harm", if all you have is a few things you've overheard. Your tone here comes off as colored very deeply with dislike for your coworker. If you come off that same way to others in the real world, and it turns out that you deliberately involved yourself in politics like this, especially if people find out about the eavesdropping (no matter how loud he talks), then the professional consequences for you personally could be very severe.

It's tempting because it's satisfying to think about this guy getting his comeuppance. The problem is, even if he totally deserves it, that what you're proposing is likely to get you the same sort of reputation, and that's a Pyrrhic victory at best. If the bad consequences here are "an unwanted departmental merger", then seeing him taken down is just not going to be worth it, no matter how much he'd deserve it. That said, of course many people are going to support the idea, because they'd do the same thing, and that's why office politics like this get out of control in many companies, because everybody fancies that their cloak-and-dagger operations against their coworkers are different.
posted by Sequence at 3:04 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

The reaction here is totally different because we are not your friends or a trusted co-worker. We are more objective because we know nothing about you or your organization. And I would not be surprised if a co-worker said "go for it"...after all, no skin off their back. Its all on you if there is blow back.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:05 PM on March 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'm going to agree with your friends and go against the opinion here, especially given your update. If you're close with your boss, you should tell him/her. I would. My loyalty is to my immediate supervisor, to my department, and to my company, not to some newbie who is trying to be "political" to get ahead while having no regard for the consequences of his actions. Present it as a potential problem that you want the boss/department be prepared for, not as eavesdropping.

On the other hand, someone who is so oblivious that he talks out loud about his dirty strategies on the phone with everybody around being the unwilling audience is going to self-destruct soon, so from this angle I agree with the other commenters that it might not even matter whether you say anything or not.

(If the guy goes running to the CEO/COO to make his case, he will make himself look foolish, not your department.)
posted by Ender's Friend at 4:41 PM on March 22, 2015

So, one of your coworkers wants to try to get a promotion that you think is out of his league, and you suspect he won't do it in a way you approve of. Is that the bottom line? You should keep your mouth shut. If you report this to your superiors, it's going to end badly for you. I feel pretty confident about that.

And what do you get out of it? I don't see how the upside outweighs the downside.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:54 PM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

If he's talking out loud, it could be dumb or it could be reaction seeking behaviour.

"Trusted co-workers" often aren't.

You're worried that some guy you hate might continue to act like an idiot and do so in a way that would be embarrassing. Yay? He doesn't need your help?

Now if he gets the promotion that would be th time to say to your boss that you overheard him saying he wanted to merge the departments. That would be the point at which there'd be some benefit to your saying something. Not before.

I actually don't buy the "if everyone knows he's a moron the problem will take care of itself" thing. Malicious and/or apparently stupid people can get promoted because they're malicious and/or stupid in ways that benefit their bosses. I wouldn't get complacent about that. But he's not in the wrong for wanting a promotion, nor for talking about it, nor for talking about wanting to merge departments. as for "dirty politics" that means nothing concrete.
posted by tel3path at 5:13 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

The big risk I see here is you acting on unactionable intelligence — just because you overheard him saying something doesn't mean that he is going to do it or even intents to do it. He could have been talking big to impress who he was talking to, to impress you, or to impress himself. He could be planning to do this stuff but decide not to do it. In any one of these situations you 'speaking up' makes you look silly.

I'd be very curious to know what else you heard — of the things you say he said only the "playing dirty" raises any flags, and that sounds like 100% pure bluster. Wanting a job? Normal. Wanting to make changes? Normal. Biding your time if you don't get the job? That's how promotions at jobs work.
posted by wemayfreeze at 8:42 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

The difficulty with answering this question is that without knowing a lot more details about your workplace and coworkers, it's going to be impossible to give a good answer. Depending on how political the environment is, and how adroit your boss and coworkers are, there may be ways to use this to your advantage. Without knowing the details though, I'd say the best move is to just keep quiet. If this guy is just bluster, nothing will happen and there's no need to risk getting a reputation as a gossip. However, on the off-chance that this guy succeeds, it means he has managed to cultivate some very powerful allies in senior management, and you really don't want to be on the wrong side of a person like that.

In short, if you want to take someone down, you had better know who else is in that person's camp, and be damn sure of your own allies. In general, I strongly advise against trying.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 9:41 PM on March 22, 2015

Confront him. Let him know you heard him say some things that you feel reflect poorly on you, that you take your job seriously, and that if he has complaints about to what you do or how you do it, he is more than welcome to bring them to you directly. Do this in earnest, without talking down to him or trying to heap shame on him, and your distress will probably evaporate. You will have stood up for yourself, and I'm taking a wild guess that his temerity to say what he wants about you and your coworkers without consequence is at the heart of what you find distressing.

I disagree with many of the responses that suggest there is nothing you can or should do because his behavior isn't illegal. While I am disagreeing, I see thousands of used-to-be-middle class people shouting, "Not another Enron!"

Remember that pearl of wisdom from Michael Caine's character in that fantastic film, "The Weatherman:" "The hard thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same thing." And, since it is your decision, keep in mind that sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing.
posted by Mr. Fig at 3:00 AM on March 23, 2015

So unless I put headphones on it is hard not to eavesdrop.
I don't think sitting at your desk and hearing a conversation is eavesdropping. But, it also does not seem like this conversation has any content that your boss needs to know. Also, I wonder what you think your boss could do about this.

Merging departments: As this affects you directly, I understand why you are concerned about that. If he makes a case for it, will your boss be able to/willing to make a case against it? If so, they should be ready to do that right now if there are really two groups doing the same thing.
It could make our dept look foolish: no, it will make him look foolish
His willingness to play politics concerns me: Everyone does this to some degree and it is not always a bad thing. Blackmail is very different than Networking, but many people group them both under "politics".
I am concerned he might launch into a crusade about everything that is wrong with our dept: Again, your boss should have a response to this if anyone, including this guy, brings up these problems. If they are big enough to matter to the higher ups, they should already know about them. Secrets don't keep well.
he has been rude: not your problem, maybe your boss' problem
posted by soelo at 8:46 AM on March 23, 2015

Dude, what? Do nothing.
Your'e worried about him going for a promotion, let him. IF you think you could do it better or have better ideas, you should go for the promotion.

You're worried about him wanting to combine departments, but then say you don't think he has a shot at the position, so what does it matter wheter he wants to combine departments or not?

If you actually believe he doesn't have a shot, just do nothing and appreciate that this is a golden opportunity for the rest of your collegues to see this guy isn't up to par.

Doofus alarms sound themselves. Don't be a doofus.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:20 AM on March 23, 2015

There are some people who would consider me a "trusted coworker" that I would absolutely not tell them if their plan was bad. Not because I'm setting them up to fail, but because I don't get involved with office politics at all. I hate them, and if someone wants advice having to do with them I make very super non-committal noises that they can interpret however they want. For instance, if asked point blank by you "I should tell Boss this, right?" I might say something like "If you feel like you need to." or "I can see why you would think that." or something along those lines. Especially if you're really worked up and feeling strongly about it. (Now, should I be more forthright telling someone they have a bad plan? Maybe. I just hate politics enough to say whatever will get me out of the conversation the fastest.)

If you feel compelled to say something, be super casual about it. As an aside in a conversation say something like "Heard so-and-so talking about merging our departments. That's interesting." And just leave it alone. Go on to something else. Pick the one thing your boss really does need to know, and figure out how to drop it simply without fuss. If you go in and have a meeting and are super serious about this - it is GOING to blow back on you. It will be unpleasant. It is not worth it.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:23 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

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