When Should You Complain about a Coworker?

by Marcianne Kuethen
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If a conflict arises with someone in your workplace, when should you complain about a coworker? Or should you try to handle it yourself, or simply suffer in silence?

Tammy (not her real name) was thrilled when her boss gave her a promotion with a small raise and more responsibility. She took it as an acknowledgment of the loyalty, strong work ethic, and positive attitude she had displayed in the past six months. But she hadn’t counted on the resentment and bad attitudes that would come her way from jealous and insecure coworkers. Sometimes it came in the form of petty actions such as a coworker’s turning off the lights when Tammy was clearly still in the room. Other times, it came in the form of accusations and lies that attempted to make her performance look bad.

Seeking support, Tammy went to her boss and confidentiality asked for advice on how to manage these conflicts. Although her boss was sympathetic, he then announced the misbehavior to everyone, embarrassing the troublesome coworker and causing further conflict. Tammy wished she had just kept her mouth shut or approached the coworker on her own.

When Should You Complain about a Coworker?

There’s not one right answer to the question, When should you complain about a coworker? But there are a few things to take into account when faced with such a decision:

Don’t Complain about Low-Level Conflict

Some issues can and should be handled on a personal level. For instance, suggests  Monster.com, if you’re faced with competitive coworkers, look for ways you can learn from them. And if you disagree over a strategy, look for common ground to figure out if there’s a common choice you both can agree on. Most bosses don’t wish to be dragged into or even made aware of petty personality conflicts and power struggles. Had Tammy chosen to ignore a few minor irritations rather than personalize them, her professionalism and responsible nature would probably have spoken volumes and reinforced her good reputation. Likewise, the overly dramatic and complaining nature of her coworker would likely soon have become evident. But being lied to or defamed is difficult to ignore.

Consider Complaining about Escalated Conflict

So when should you complain about a coworker? Sometimes a difficult employee’s behavior creates a chaotic, stressful, or unsafe working environment that affects multiple employees. Tammy’s toxic coworker, for instance, left a work area unusable and then lied about who was responsible for the mess. No one should be forced to cover up or enable another person’s bad behavior. For the good of the organization and to prevent further problems, you may need to take the issue to your boss or HR department. But, advises Monster.com, only bring in a manager as a last resort, when “talking to your colleague on your own isn’t bringing fruitful results.”

Take Your Company Culture Into Account

Before you speak to your boss about a conflict, ask yourself what you know about your manager’s style and what outcome you hope to achieve. If Tammy were more experienced, she might have taken note of the negative company culture before she approached her boss, and adjusted her expectations accordingly. In her first six months, Tammy had found him to be publicly accusatory and demeaning when correcting workers’ mistakes. She had also realized that he didn’t understand how to hire people who fit the culture he was trying to create. Where there were positive elements at work, Tammy had noticed that they came less from good leadership and more from a few good employees who had decided to make the best of a chaotic work environment. To seek help from someone well-intentioned but with little leadership capability was sort of like hoping to squeeze milk from a turnip.

When deciding whether to complain about a coworker, it helps to understand that low-level conflicts in the workplace are a normal occurrence. People come in all sizes, shapes, and viewpoints! Learning how to work with a variety of people in the workplace is an important career skill. As you develop professionalism and learn to navigate personality differences, you’ll learn to recognize when escalated conflicts might have further reaching ramifications. Knowing the difference, and taking into account your company’s unique culture, might just rescue you from complaining too soon and becoming a difficult employee yourself.

Please note that this information is not intended to provide legal advice. If you are being sexually, emotionally, or physically harassed or threatened, you should remove yourself from the situation and seek appropriate help.

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