The Ethicist: Should I Report a Do-Nothing Co-Worker?

March 24, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “The Ethicist: Should I Report a Do-Nothing Co-Worker?”.

I work in a department of about 10 people, within a smaller team of four people. The culture is relaxed, even more so as you accrue seniority. One of my teammates, who has been here for many years, has managed to adjust her schedule to be present for only 7.5 hours per day (for which she is supposed to not take a lunch break) and work from home one day a week. It has become clear that she takes advantage of her privileges. She frequently takes lunch breaks, comes in later than her start time and is not actually working on her “work from home” day. This is supported by evidence on social media, which she brazenly posts, as well as verbal confirmation from her.

In addition, she is constantly complaining and indifferent to her projects. She gets the job done with minimal effort, often blaming results on clients or outside factors. She’s not affecting my projects or workload, but I constantly have to field complaints about her, and it affects morale, as newer employees are shocked by this person’s behavior. I’ve had to say many times, “It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”

None of our supervisors seem to notice or care, and they tend to let sleeping dogs lie. They seem worn down by years of working with this difficult employee and ignore her bad attitude. We are all granted leniency in balancing our personal and work lives, but I don’t have the tenure to be granted her schedule, nor would I be allowed to have such privileges.

First, she is taking the company for a ride, getting paid for hours not worked. Second, she exhibits poor professionalism. Personally, I find her behavior unethical and unfair. Do I have a responsibility to report this to H.R.? I can see how it would backfire, and I would be perceived as a tattletale or as vindictive. Should I leave it be, as she has earned her seniority and the privilege of managing her schedule? Name Withheld

My response: “Should I . . . ?” … Asking what you should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to take responsibility, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You can act and you have plenty of options, but you only asked if you have a responsibility. There is no book in the sky or other measure of responsibility that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did. You’ll only get a label.

Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

If you’re going to do something that involves others, involving them in the process generally helps.

The New York Times response: Let me see if I’ve got this straight. This colleague is a pain to be around, doesn’t do her job very well and lowers the general morale. Someone like that isn’t exercising her privileges; she’s abusing them. As an ethical matter, reporting someone who doesn’t do her job properly and makes life difficult for colleagues isn’t engaging in tittle-tattle; this sort of freeloading is legitimately brought to the attention of management.

But perhaps management already knows what you know. Your supervisors must, if they are, in fact, supervising. You’ve concluded that they just don’t want to go to the trouble of dealing with a difficult person. So what do you want to accomplish? Maybe your aim is not so much to inform H.R. as to oblige them to take action, by means of a formal complaint. Maybe it’s really your conflict-averse supervisors you want to hold to the fire.

Here’s another thing to reflect on: Some of what you say — about the fact that she is allowed to do things that you aren’t — suggests that your resentment might be due, at least in part, to envy of her position. And envy isn’t a legitimate reason to act. If some of her privileges are earned, part of the company’s culture of seniority, it’s important to distinguish between the things you’re entitled to resent and the ones you aren’t.

A final consideration: Reporting what you know to H.R. might get her a reprimand, but it probably won’t get her fired, especially in a workplace with a “relaxed culture.” So she’ll still be a teammate of yours, and she may well figure out who did the complaining. How will that change the atmosphere? The effect of your actions on relationships in the workplace matters ethically. Before you make a formal complaint, think hard about what it’s likely to achieve.

My gardener is a lovely man who lives in a home with his wife and two children about three blocks away. About eight years ago, I hired him to cut the grass along the boulevard in front of our house. He comes by when the grass needs cutting and does a fabulous job. Occasionally I hire him for a big spring or fall yard cleanup as well.

Since the beginning, he has been slow to bill me for his work. I initially agreed to pay him once a month, but the invoices were often late, and as the years wore on he began billing me once a year for the entire summer’s work. I told him that was fine with me, if that was his preference. He always says he is trying to get around to his books and will bill me soon.

Eventually, he stopped billing me altogether. It has been two years since I’ve paid him, during which time he has faithfully continued to cut the grass. Feeling horrible about this, I wrote a check for an amount I figured was close to what I owe him and dropped it in his mailbox. That was two months ago, and I have confirmed he received it. The check remains uncashed.

This is making me crazy as I hate owing people money and feel I am taking advantage of him. My husband laughs and tells me I’ve done my best to pay him and to quit nagging the poor guy. I don’t want to fire him and hire someone else as it would likely hurt his feelings. He does good work, and at these rates, I certainly won’t find a better price. But can I in good conscience let him continue to work free? Name Withheld

My response: Everybody involved seems a consenting, sane, informed adult. Anyone who wants to decline can.

The New York Times response: You can’t force someone to cash a check. And you can’t leave large amounts of cash in a mailbox. So the ball is now in his court. But there’s some interesting moral psychology here. People often dislike being indebted to others. In an odd way, it can make us feel that a certain patronage has been established: The person in whose debt we are has put himself in a position to lord it over us. In some societies, people feel this so strongly that they actively resent those who put them in their debt. You say you don’t like to feel as if you’re taking advantage, but some version of this debt aversion may nag at you as well. Try leaving a note that says: “Please cash my check. Do it for my sake. I would be happier if I knew I had paid you for the excellent work you do.”

I recently visited friends at their home. They proudly showed me their antiques and art collection. Although I am not an antique dealer or art appraiser, I know that the jade horse was a cheap Chinese marble reproduction, as was 85 percent of their furniture. The other 15 percent could possibly be as well. Here’s the question: Knowing they just spent a small fortune on a container load from Singapore on this garbage and are likely protected by the insurance from the credit card, do I say anything or keep my mouth shut? Name Withheld

My response: Is there an ethical issue with telling them? I don’t know why you wouldn’t.

The New York Times response: Although the sale of actual antiques can sometimes involve ethical and legal complexities, this is basically a case of misrepresented merchandise. Your friends would probably be embarrassed by what you have to tell them; you’ll want to be diplomatic. But you would want to be alerted if you’d been taken, and you should alert your friends while the fraud is fresh. Besides the specific protections their credit card might offer, it’s worth bearing in mind that Singapore takes pride in its legal system, and its authorities will investigate such charges. If your friendship with the couple is genuine, you’ll share your concern that their acquisitions aren’t.

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