I’ve been in my current job for about two years and I enjoy it. I get along well with my boss and I like the company I work for. Recently, there was a reshuffling of seating and I’ve been placed in a pod with a couple of new people. One of them does design work and it’s clear that he’s doing work for his own business while in the office. It’s not that I’ve gone rifling through his desk, he’s quite blatant. He seemingly doesn’t care that anyone walking past can see what he’s doing on his large double monitors, and he loves to boast about being able to ‘get away with it’. It’s not just a few minutes here or there either, he’s made it clear that he sometimes spends an entire day doing work that’s not for our company.
I like to pride myself on my work ethic and I don’t agree with what he’s doing. Our pod is kind of tucked away—we’re not on a thoroughfare—which is how he can get away with it, I guess. It’s unlikely any managers are going to come across his behaviour by accident.
Should I say something to our boss? I don’t think it’s fair that he’s cheating the company and his behaviour makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure that it’s my place to say anything, but I feel like maybe I owe it to my boss to let her know?
Doesn’t sound like a bad gig he’s got there, does it? He’s being paid twice—once for the job he’s not doing, and again for the job he is.
Except, I feel sorry for this dude. (Let’s call him Mike.) You get on well with your boss, you like your job and you like the company. Mike clearly does not. There’s something pushing him to take such obvious risks with his job. From what you’ve described, it seems like he wants to get caught.
The question is: do you want to be the one who catches him?
We’re told that for evil to prosper, all it takes is for good people to do nothing. Are you wondering if you can still call yourself a good, honest employee living out your integrity if you don’t say anything?
Have a think about your own motivations in this situation. Are you jealous of Mike’s chutzpah—even the tiniest bit? It’s hard work to be a good employee, and here this guy is, swanning around being definitely not good and getting away with it.
Or is it that his blatant crossing of ethical boundaries effectively makes a mockery of your own values?
When someone challenges our deeply held values at work, discomfort is inevitable. The urge to relieve that discomfort is understandable and imperative. That urge makes us seek action—and typically that action is to want to make the other person change their behaviour.
It might feel quite satisfying to have a blab to your boss. (However, now you’ve just presented her with a problem that she has to solve—and it’s never a good idea to bring problems to your boss without contributing at least some ideas of how to solve them. But that’s a whole separate column for another time!)
Let’s think through what happens next. You’ve told your boss. You haven’t stood by and let ‘evil’ prosper. How will you feel after that initial satisfaction wears off?
How will you feel when you see your boss walk over and ask Mike to see her in her office?
What will your boss think of you after she hears you out? (You’re assuming she’ll automatically believe you—what if she doesn’t? What if she thinks Mike is the bees knees, and you’re now embroiled in a he said/she said dispute?) Will she be grateful to have been landed with this situation to sort out?
Just maybe, the blab to the boss might not turn out to be as satisfying as you’d hoped.
But ‘do nothing’ isn’t living by your values either, so let’s look at two other options.
Move along: Ask to be moved to another area, if it’s easy to do so without making a fuss. You could claim you don’t like the reflection from the windows on your monitor, or that you need to sit closer to Fred Smith to collaborate on a project. Remove yourself from the situation instead of staying there and feeling uncomfortable. Let Mike continue to slowly sabotage himself and trust in karma to balance the scales. (It will happen.)
Speak up: If you can’t or don’t want to move desks, say something. But say it to him directly. Be very clear in your own head why you are saying something first though. This is not about giving him a ‘talking to’. It’s not about teaching him a lesson about how he ‘should’ behave at work.
Because there’s no point. It won’t change anything except to make him resentful of you and create an even more uncomfortable vibe in your little pod. It’s not your job to teach him how to be a decent person. Talk to him because you want to restore your own peace at work—not because you want to change his behaviour.
The next time he brags about his extra-curricular work, try: ‘Hey Mike, enough about the XX. I’m busy enough trying to get my own stuff done.’ Being called out on it might just be enough to get him to tone it down a bit. But you may need to repeat it a few times. A jokey version: ‘Okay, okay. You’re a legend. We don’t need to hear about it all the time.’
Be prepared for him to call you out as a goody two shoes or something. Shrug and be okay with that—because you’re valuing your integrity here. He’s not and he’s going to have to lash out at you for it. Don’t take that personally, he’s only criticising you because he doesn’t have enough self-awareness to recognise that his behaviour is a problem.
If it continues, you may need to be even more direct. ‘Hey, Mike? It makes me really uncomfortable when you talk about doing your other work here. Can you keep it on the down-low when I’m around? Thanks.’
Don’t expect him to change what he’s doing. He may or may not get caught. He will continue to be miserable until he makes a decision about what he wants to do with his life.
Leave him to his dilemma, get on with enjoying your work and don’t let Mike’s behaviour alter your ethics or your decency.
Important note: You said you work for a company, so I have assumed you don’t work in government. In some government departments, there are specific policies governing this type of situation. Government workers who use government resources to pursue their own financial gain are effectively committing fraud. Anyone who knows about someone committing fraud and doesn’t declare it can be accused of abetting that fraud. In these kinds of environments there are typically whistleblower policies and procedures that enable the reporting of unethical behaviour.
So if you’re reading this and work in government, you might need to think a bit differently about the situation if it applies to you, and perhaps look up your organisation’s policies on the intranet or speak to a friendly member of your HR team.