Is dobbing ever okay in the workplace?

By Robert Half 5 November 2018

Every workplace has its employees who ‘slack off’ from time to time.

But think about your own company. Would your employees perform better if colleagues were encouraged to ‘dob in’ co-workers they observed weren’t behaving appropriately?

This could include time-wasting activities such as taking long lunches, browsing social media, or spending too much time on personal smartphones. A 2012 Ernst & Young report found that unproductive activities are a serious problem, costing Australian organisations about $87 billion a year.

But does this mean that dobbing in co-workers should be considered an acceptable part of workplace culture? That’s the view recently taken by the CEO of a major Australian telco, who encouraged his employees to dob in low-performing colleagues after customer complaints surged by 35%.

The Australian Tax Office has followed a similar line. It was recently revealed that staff are being urged to report colleagues who habitually do things like eating breakfast or reading newspapers at work. The policy arose from concerns that some staff were recording their hours incorrectly, and claiming overtime they weren’t entitled to.

For better or worse, dobbing is unlikely to go away. So, what are some situations where it may be morally defensible?

1. Persistent neglect

If an employee spends a few minutes discussing last night’s football game with a colleague, that’s probably not worth reporting to the boss. Likewise, if someone leaves the office at 5.59pm instead of 6pm, the person reporting them is unlikely to win praise from colleagues.

But if it’s obvious than an employee has not been pulling their weight, and others are forced to pick up the slack, the worker who is reporting it should feel justified in doing so. If it’s harming staff morale, customer satisfaction or the bottom line, it’s a problem that shouldn’t go unreported.

2. Bullying or harassment

The Productivity Commission estimates that workplace bullying costs the economy up to $36 billion every year due to the physical and mental problems it causes. Despite this, a recent study from the UNSW Business School found that most workplace bullying goes unreported.

Whether it’s bullying, sexual harassment, or other harmful behaviour, it’s important that employees feel empowered to report incidents. This will help to protect the employee, their colleagues, and the reputation of the organisation.

3. Unethical behaviour

If someone’s iced coffee goes missing from the fridge, there’s probably no need to get a third party involved. But if an employee has clearly breached ethical guidelines, this can be good cause to blow the whistle. It could be an employee giving discounts to friends or family without clearing it with their boss, or pilfering stationery for their own hobby business.

It’s important to communicate to employees what constitutes reasonable, ethical behaviour – and that starts with setting a high standard that they can follow.

Setting the ground rules

Many employees will take the view that dobbing is always wrong, and can only erode people’s trust in each other. But as explained above, sometimes speaking up is necessary. Here’s how you can ensure it’s done properly.

  • Provide a reporting system. Give employees a way to report unethical behaviour that keeps their identity private if they fear reprisal by the other party.
  • Define roles. Make sure employees know who they can speak to if they need to report something, e.g. a HR staffer or senior manager.
  • Seek the facts. Serious allegations should be easily verifiable. This won’t always be the case, e.g. with bullying or harassment. In such instances, it will help to have a witness who saw the behaviour firsthand.

When it comes to behaviour that falls into the grey zone between irritating and unethical, dobbing in colleagues should only be considered a last resort.

Careers can be on the line, and employees shouldn’t feel pressured to tattle on each other if it’s something that can be solved by confronting the person calmly and providing them with constructive criticism.

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