On Snitching at Work: Part I
by Rick Brenner
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
Elia Kazan (1909-2003), award winning film director. Among his films are A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). In 1952, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a so-called "friendly witness." He provided to the committee the names of artists then employed in film and theater, and whom he had met during his days as a member of the American Communist Party in New York. His testimony led to the destruction of numerous careers. More.
We learn about snitching as children, often at home, when siblings practice it on each other, or in our early years at school. By whatever name, snitching, tattling, ratting, or finking is the act of informing authority about an alleged transgression by a third party, usually a peer. And again as children, we learn that the practice is deprecated. Those who snitch are sometimes ostracized or socially penalized in a variety of ways. To most children, snitching — all snitching — is bad.
But that's the child's view. Children have difficulty with nuance. To children, things tend to fall into two categories: good and bad. We're adults now, and we can do a little better.
Let's use neutral terms to help us in the discussion. In place of "snitching", I prefer "reporting." The person reporting is the reporter or witness. What's being reported is the offense. The person who's alleged to have committed the offense is the accused. The report recipient is the authority.
Even when the offense is real and the report would be truthful, deciding whether to report it to authority can be difficult. Let's examine the issues.
- How serious is the offense?
- If the offense is serious enough, reporting it is probably not a social transgression. What "serious enough" means is up to you, but most crimes are serious enough, certainly. Also serious are fraudulent absenteeism, false reports about work in progress, ethical violations, and violations of regulations.
- Indeed, if the offense is serious enough, If the offense is serious enough,
reporting it might be obligatory,
even if the offense isn't
a crime or ethical breachreporting it might be obligatory, even if the offense isn't a crime or ethical breach. For example, if a co-worker's performance is far enough below standards, reporting it might be an expected part of your own performance.
- One useful test: if the authority finds out somehow that I knew about the offense and chose not to report it, will I be in trouble? If so, then the offense is probably "serious enough."
- Isn't all reporting antisocial?
- If the primary purpose of the report is to benefit not the organization, but the reporter or someone else, then the report might be a social transgression. For example, some people report offenses to ingratiate themselves with authorities.
- If the primary purpose of the report is to harm the accused or someone else, then the report might be a social transgression. For example, some people report transgressions because they seek revenge against the accused, or because the accused is a rival for a promotion or a plum assignment. Some seek to harm the supervisor of the accused, or the spouse of the accused. The accused might be merely a proxy for someone else.
- One general principle: a report is most likely to constitute a social transgression if its primary purpose is to benefit the reporter, or to harm someone else.
We'll continue this exploration next time, focusing on retribution. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics
- Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True
- Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a little too much.
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
- What Do You Need?
- When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
- How to Undermine Your Boss
- Ever since I wrote "How to Undermine Your Subordinates," I've received scads of requests for "How to Undermine Your Boss." Must be a lot of unhappy subordinates out there. Well, this one's for you.
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration
- Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: