37

Recently, I witnessed 3 out of our 4 managers joking about the company owner. These jokes weren't the normal "ah he's making me work weekends" stuff, they were pretty heinous in my opinion and it went on for over 30 minutes.

I'll just give one example. Our boss is undergoing surgery in a couple weeks. One guy said "what I would give to walk in and take the doctor's place after John (owner, not real name) was put to sleep."

The owner of the company probably isn't going to win any awards for best boss, but he is actually one of the best I've worked for. He approves just about any time off you request, gives out reasonable raises, and doesn't expect ridiculous hours.

I was able to overhear this conversation because my office is right next door to another manager's office. It made me really uncomfortable, but I'm not the type of person to rat on co-workers.

Would it be wise to tell the boss (anonymously or not anonymously) or should I pretend I never heard it?

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, Victor S, knallfrosch, Conor Mancone, Eric Lippert Nov 21 at 19:56

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 99
    what are you trying to achieve? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Nov 20 at 20:13
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    Do you want one or more of these managers to be fired? Are you trying to get in good graces with the owner? You might achieve these, even if you didn't intend to, depending on how you go about ratting them. Also, you might just out yourself as a liar too, if the owner trusts the managers more than he would trust you. Doesn't even matter if you lie or not, this is a matter of he said she said. – John Hamilton Nov 21 at 6:20
  • 1
    After a few decades of working in offices, I learned to be wiser. Your boss probably knows already about it, don't mind it while the three mice are useful and they can be even considered more useful than you. Mind your own business. – jean Nov 21 at 11:27
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    Do these managers have issues with the company or boss? Are there other problems with them? The answer completely depends on the relationship between them and your boss. If they have been friends for 40 years then it is perfectly normal to be able to do very harsh/black jokes simply because they are close. Speaking in that manner could just be a sign of how close their relationship is, and maybe when the owner is present they say that stuff in their face too. If on the other hand these managers are not close to your boss and have other issues with them or the company that's an other matter – Giacomo Alzetta Nov 21 at 13:41
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    I don't think its bad to be a rat, if it was for something of substance that might impact the business. But shit talking is pretty normal behavior, people should be allowed to decompress. – Mark Rogers Nov 21 at 15:13

11 Answers 11

112

Would it be wise to tell the boss (anonymously or not anonymously) or should I pretend I never heard it?

Pretend you never heard it. This is not a case where some employees are stealing from the company or something similar where telling the boss may make sense. They are jokes, possibly in poor taste, and you were not present for or a part of the conversation.

Nothing good will come of you telling the boss, he might even question why you are listening in to their conversations for half an hour instead of doing your assigned work. Let it go and forget about other people's jokes about your boss.

  • 1
    Yeah as someone who despises medieval politics if I was the manager being told about some guys talking crap behind me I would take more offense to someone volunteering to be a stooge telling me about it. But then again there are managers who like stooges and playing petty politics. – Victor S Nov 20 at 18:59
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    To add to this: It is not like they are actually plotting to harm him or interfere with his surgery. – Damila Nov 20 at 20:00
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    @RichardSaysReinstateMonica I agree. My comment was meant to say that they (the other managers) are not actually plotting to harm the boss (with the joke about the surgery), so there is no need to rat anyway. – Damila Nov 20 at 20:12
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    I would add that unless you know the exact relation between the boss and those employees, you really should not interfere. One of my previous managers was a great chap and I would make jokes like this not just about him, but to his face as well. He would not take well to someone ratting me out. – user622505 Nov 21 at 3:30
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    Going by workplace training and policies where I have worked currently and in the past, this sort of joking could still be considered inappropriate and actionable. This is doubly so when in the workplace and in earshot of other employees. It ends up fostering a hostile workplace. I would consult your company guidelines. If this was a one-off, I would ignore it. If it happens frequently, this can lead to talking among the rest of the employees, which is why it should be taken seriously and reported anonymously, through your reporting chain, or to HR. Most companies have anti-retaliation rules. – gmiley Nov 21 at 14:16
25

What would your boss do with that information?

Do you think he would fire them? Would you want him to? Would he have a conversation about the fact that someone overheard them talking, but not fire them? What happens then? Could he even have that conversation without revealing the fact that you're the one who told him?

I don't think the fact that you overheard it versus being part of the conversation matters as much as the fact that your boss can't act on it without being or at least looking petty. If you overheard them talking about another co-worker, he could tell them to not badmouth their peers but your boss telling you that you can't complain about him even when he can't hear you feels different even if it amounts to the same thing.

But to answer the general question in your title, you should speak up in the following types of situations:

  • The safety of people or property is endangered.
  • Violation of regulations or the law.
  • Bullying, bigotry, or harassment.
  • Sabotage.

This isn't exhaustive and circumstances matter. You might not report a co-worker for forgetting to lock their computer one time but you might report them if they're constantly leaving highly sensitive information visible while they're away from their desk.

In general you should ask whether harm is being done or is likely to occur and whether something can or should be done about it.

15

I'm not the type of person to rat on co-workers.

Would it be wise to tell the boss (anonymously or not anonymously) or should I pretend I never heard it?

I think you provided the answer to your question.

If you are actually the type of person to rat out co-workers, and you don't care that they will inevitably know that you did so, then go right ahead and tell the boss.

Otherwise don't.

Other than engendering bad feelings, I don't see how anyone can benefit from telling the boss that some of his workers don't love him the way you do.

Should you decide to take the rat route anyway, make sure your behavior is completely perfect in every way, lest someone tattle on you.

8

Here's the simple guide I tell my children:

  • Telling tales = trying to get someone into trouble.

Don't do it.

  • Whistle blowing = trying to prevent harm.

Consider whether the harm you hope to prevent is worse than the loss of trust you will cause by exposing a secret.

5

When I observe problems like this at work, I have a few personal rules for making decisions about whether or not I should report it or otherwise do something:

  • Does the issue have a direct impact on my work? Will I be at risk of under-performing as a result of this thing I've observed?
  • Is there a clear and obvious legal problem? Is this criminal activity, or a clear violation of some well-understood industry regulation?
  • Does the thing I observed have a clear and material impact on my employer's customers? Does it clearly cause a measurable impact to my company's ability to deliver on our mission statement?
  • Is my complaint actionable? Is there a clear corrective action needed? Is this a problem that has an obvious solution?

If the answers to all of those questions are "No" then I keep my mouth shut. And that seems to be the case for the example you've outlined.

There's no need to rat people out without a clear reason for doing so. People who run their mouths tend to get themselves into enough trouble without me helping. Further, complaining about non-material things you've heard may end up earning you a reputation - either with the person you complain to, or the people you're complaining about (if they learn of your complaint, which - sadly - it seems they often do).

And, relevant to your example, I'm sure we've all had situations where we engaged in potentially inappropriate gossip at work, or blowing off steam about someone we don't always agree with It would be a shame for someone else to decide that management needs to know every single time that sort of thing happens.

  • 1
    "People who run their mouths tend to get themselves into enough trouble without me helping." Very generally true. Unfortunately not true quite often enough. – FreeMan Nov 21 at 12:57
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    This is a really good answer, especially because those points will be excellent fallback points to stand on when justifying why you reported something, and justification can be really important for things like this. Definitely causing undue trouble at work can result in lots of damage and make things worse. – Andrew Nov 21 at 16:11
3

Be direct.

The next time this happens, call them out on their behavior.

Hey! I heard that.

I think John is a good boss, at least based on my experience.

But do not tattle. This isn't middle school.

People (even superiors) will respect you if you're direct with them, but no one will respect you if you tattle on them.

PS: And I don't disagree with quetzalcoatl, there is always the risk of antagonizing one of those managers even if you just say that. With such a risk, I obviously can't tell you what to do yourself. That being said, this is what I would do myself if I really cared about the person being unfairly joked about.

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    I would strongly advise against. I was scolded and punished by some petty managers for expressing my concerns in a less aggressive and taunting way. The OP did not state his position in the company, except for "another manager's office" which could mean OP is also a manager, but that's not sure. In case he's lower in position than them, such action may seriously backfire. – quetzalcoatl Nov 21 at 9:59
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    John is a good boss. is a strong opinion that they may not agree with, it solicits argument. Do not badmouth him around me. is an order, which may be not taken lightly even when the footing is even. One with higher standing than them may use such wording, or a peer of an adequate respect to mildly scold another one, carefully. They are behaving like kids, but they should not get such treatment. If any callout is to be made, it'd rather be something like Your talk makes me really uncomfortable, and also may be misinterpreted by junior workers. Please refrain from that in the office, etc. – quetzalcoatl Nov 21 at 10:07
  • I think this is the aggressive version of what I recommended in my comment on the OP. Instead of being accusatory and assertive, take the gentler approach, e.g., "I think he's a great boss, from my experience," and don't position yourself or your talk in such a way that requires them to agree or concede. Just let it hang out to dry as something to consider. – Andrew Nov 21 at 16:14
  • @Andrew and quetzalcoatl, I've toned down my answer following your suggestions. Thanks. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 21 at 23:27
2

"Joking" and "making fun" of things, people and situations are ways in which people deal with stress that topic has on them.

Maybe your boss is a "thorn" in their work, so they have to somehow cope with it.

In this situation, You should keep quiet.

The most damage will be to You. Both sides can think negatively of You.

By keeping quiet, You also gain an advantage, by understanding the dynamics in the team.

2

I've worked everything from the mop to the top.

If you get labeled a rat, even in white collar jobs, you're pretty much done. In a blue collar job, you might have an "accident". Saw one guy who got a plastic rat glued to his locker, and slices of cheese pushed in through the slats.

If it doesn't directly involve you, safety of your coworkers, something illegal, or the running of the business, it's none of YOUR business.

In you're scenario, you will be a rat of the worst kind. People blow off steam and going to the owner will only damage relations within the company.

If you go to the owner, the following will happen:

You WILL get the title of "office rat", and deservedly so. You will not have a happy life there. Not only will the people you ratted out be mad, but also anyone else who likes them, or just doesn't like rats. (more people than you might think)

Then, depending on the relationship the managers have with the owner:

If the owner already knows they bust on him and has no problem with it, the owner will hate you, and the managers will hate you.

If the owner does not know, you have just destroyed at least 3 professional relationships over words. The owner will hate you, and the managers will hate you. Your coworkers will also hate you because you have upset the apple cart over some trash talk.

Part of getting along means ignoring things that do not concern you.

Do not be a rat.

  • Looks like I got some downvotes from rats... – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Nov 21 at 13:43
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    I didn't downvote but I feel like your answer is more assertive and certain than one can really be in this situation. E.g. "You WILL get the title..." Well, maybe not; sometimes people report things anonymously and generically, for instance. It just seems a bit extreme overall. – Andrew Nov 21 at 16:18
  • @Andrew I prefer to drive the point home, as the risk far outweighs the reward – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Nov 21 at 16:32
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    @Andrew I started out doing blue collar work. It may seem as an exaggeration, but I've included things I witnessed personally. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Nov 21 at 18:37
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    No I believe that. – Andrew Nov 22 at 19:04
0

I guess my question is what outcome are you looking for by “ratting” out? Get these guys fired? Have these guys be disciplined? etc.... and is there a better way to accomplish that outcome than “ratting” out?

If so, then go take that path and...

For what already has happened, pretend you never heard it.

For the future, since it’s also making you uncomfortable to hear these kind of things, I would suggest some headphones with good sound blocking so that you can put those on when these guys get together and you ACTUALLY don’t hear it.

0

So it depends on how long do you plan to stay in a company. If I were in your place:

  • If I was going to work for less than two years: I would follow the advice given by other responders, and forget conversation happened.
  • If I was could imagine staying there for 5 or even 10 years: Managers doing rude jokes about somebody is a signal of very bad culture in a company. I wouldn't rat them out, but I would anonymise the situation (some people made rude jokes about another person), and bring to the HR, Talent, People Manager, or somebody who is responsible for the role. This kind of behaviour has to be stopped, and across the company.

Alternatively, you could bring it to them, saying something along the lines that you'd like to work in a company where people don't make cruel jokes, and you would appreciate if they reserved this kind of behaviour, to off-hours. But it can be interpreted as quite confrontational and doesn't apply to all the situations.

But I wouldn't rat on people for jokes, however rude and obscene, but it's good to make sure that we work in a company where this is discouraged.

  • "This kind of behaviour has to be stopped..." That seems very controlling. – Andrew Nov 21 at 16:19
-3

Negative elements like them should be fired immediately or they will harm the company sooner or later.

I would send a mail to the three managers in question to please keep the workspace professional and you don't see why they have problems with your boss and they can discuss those problems and what they would like to do to him in a pub after hours, especially when they are so loud that they can easily be heard in the whole office by everyone, maybe even potential clients that visit.

Personally I would also include the boss, either as CC or at least as BCC. He should know which people are loyal (or at least which are illoyal) so he can decide who to promote further for the good of the company.

Since you mention surgery, your boss is gonna have other things on his mind, so either do it right now a few weeks before the surgery or wait until he is recovered.

Also I think the answers that say shut up or let it slide or get headphones are making things worse. There's obviously something wrong and they should work on solving it, so an early reminder might save the day.

And unless you are a manager yourself, they are not your coworkers, managers represent the company side and should therefor show a certain level of professionalism.

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