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April 2, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 14
 
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On Snitching at Work: Part I

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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, award winning film director

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 breach
reporting 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  Go to top  Top  Next issue: On Snitching at Work: Part II  Next Issue
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