If a co-worker isn't doing his or her job, whose responsibility is it to set matters straight? A reader from Northern California whom we're calling Wendy wrote recently about a new co-worker who seems to be fabricating her reported work hours.
According to Wendy, the co-worker has "left for lunch a half hour before she said she would, stayed way longer than she said she would and then disappeared for an hour in the afternoon without letting anyone know she'd be gone," writes Wendy. The co-worker has only been on the job for about three months.
Many people have found themselves in work situations where they feel like a co-worker isn't pulling his or her weight. Sometimes it's merely a matter of perception where co-workers really have no idea exactly how much work a colleague is doing, but are convinced it couldn't possibly be as much as they themselves are doing.
I'm reminded of the time I was working a summer job while in college and complained to a co-worker how much work had been dumped on me to stock the shelves of a couple of stores in the historical restoration town in which we worked. "We're all busy," my co-worker, who held her job year-round to support her family, responded. She was right. It's often easier to pass judgment on others when we don't really know the full circumstances, but that doesn't make it right.
However, Wendy's case seems clear. Wendy might not know why her co-worker is misrepresenting her hours or staging afternoon disappearances, but she knows it is having an effect on her and others being able to get their own jobs done.
"It's difficult because we rely on each other to answer the door when one of us is out, so not knowing when she is going to be out is an inconvenience," writes Wendy, adding, "not to mention that I believe she was on company time when these absences occurred."
Now Wendy is struggling with whether or not to report her co-worker's absences to their supervisor.
"I don't want to be a tattle-tale, but I have a tough time working with someone who is not there when she says she will be, and also with someone who may be cheating the company by not clocking out when she's off campus," writes Wendy.
My initial response is that it's odd that Wendy's supervisor has not noticed the co-worker's absences. Shouldn't that be a fundamental responsibility of supervising? But Wendy points out that the co-worker seems to time her absences for when the supervisor is not around.
Since the co-worker's actions are directly affecting Wendy's ability to do her own job, I believe if a conversation directly with the co-worker proves ineffective, the right thing is for her to then inform the supervisor. She can start by asking if the supervisor has ideas on how to best monitor who is going to be minding the door since she's found it challenging not knowing when her co-worker is going to be around.
If Wendy doesn't speak to her supervisor, she runs the risk of being held accountable for something not getting done because she was covering for a wayward colleague. But she also runs the risk of turning a blind eye to behavior she is convinced is dishonest, which can have lasting consequences for Wendy if it causes her superior to question her judgment. Ideally, the supervisor can work to set things right before the co-worker's behavior becomes the norm.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.