How to Find and Stop the Workplace Snitch

Updated: June 17, 2009

One of the first lessons that most people learn in grade school is: "Nobody likes a tattletale." But some people never get this idea through their heads, and eventually, these pint-sized snitches grow up and join the work force, where they make colleagues' and managers' lives difficult.

Trust is a key component of any successful company or team, and it only takes one problem employee to kill the atmosphere. This will naturally lead to decreased productivity over time. Snitching is also bad for employee morale and camaraderie; who wants to be friendly with people that might stab you in the back? Besides creating an overall dysfunctional workplace, tattletales can also lead to increased employee turnover, costing a business the time and money it takes to recruit new hires.

That said, there is a big difference between being petty and what is commonly known as whistle-blowing — exposing a person or company for illegal, dangerous or unethical behaviors and practices. Employees should be encouraged to inform their managers or the HR departments of serious conduct breaches, such as sexual harassment, embezzlement or threats of violence. And if this results in no action, employees should take their complaints to the relevant state regulatory department.

But in general, employees who complain every time a co-worker takes the last doughnut, shows up 10 minutes late or periodically forgets to wear a tie are simply petty — and bad for business.

Here are a few ways that employees can spot potentially divisive co-workers (so that they can give them a wide berth), as well as a few sound strategies for dealing with colleagues or underlings who simply refuse to mind their own business.

Spotting a Snitch

As an employee, it doesn't bode well for your career prospects to falsely accuse another worker of anything, and that applies to tattling as well. Therefore, you should never attempt to out a suspected office snitch or start rumors about who you think the mole is. However, you may find that it's a good idea steer clear of an employee:

1. Whose job responsibilities have been marginalized: Employees whose job responsibilities have been gradually taken away from them may be in danger of an eventual layoff. The natural reaction to this is anger and indignation, which may cause some people to lash out at their fellow employees. Workers who feel insecure in their positions may resort to snitching as a way to cast themselves in a more favorable light with management and thus avoid losing their jobs. And of course, there will always be those people who just want revenge and don't care who has to pay — as long as someone does.

2. Who shows disrespect and jealousy toward colleagues: If one of your co-workers constantly talks trash about other employees in public, there's a better-than-average chance that they're also doing so behind closed doors with management. Also, someone who was recently denied a promotion or has been stuck in a menial, unsatisfying job for years probably has a good deal of pent-up resentment and may be jealous of other employees that seem to have it better. Such workers may stoop to snitching as a way to drag down other employees and prove once and for all that they should really have that job. However, since most managers dislike a complainer as much as co-workers do, squealing is almost never a successful strategy for ascending the corporate ladder.

3. Who constantly hangs around common areas: All of those old adages about "watercooler gossip" are true; office break rooms, kitchens and other common areas are prime places to overhear the latest workplace rumors or pick up scandalous tidbits about co-workers' wild weekends. Sure, everyone makes a few trips each day to common areas to eat lunch or exchange pleasantries with colleagues, but most people eventually return to their desks and get back to work. If you've never seen one of your co-workers outside of the kitchen, it might just be a harmless coincidence. But then again, it might not.

4. Who is regularly seen sucking up to management: Bootlickers are nearly as reviled in offices as tattletales, so it makes sense that these two personality flaws tend to go hand in hand. Such employees may use any face they get with upper management or executives to point out other employees' wrongdoings, once again to cast themselves in a more favorable light (and to make sure that the higher-ups are aware of the snitchs' vigilance and staunch adherence to company policies). Most busy upper managers have much better things to do than listen to childish complaints, but that doesn't mean that the problem employee won't keep trying.

5. Who never seems to leave the office: Ninety-nine percent of the time, those who work long hours are actually working hard, and they are probably arriving early or leaving late because they're on a tight deadline or are overloaded with projects. But long workdays also give a snitch the chance to witness all other workers' comings, goings and other activities. So if one of your co-workers is a constant office presence and they display all of the aforementioned warning signs, you may have found the offender.

Strategies for Dealing with Snitches

Snitching is a hard habit for some people to break, but fortunately, there are a few steps that employees can take to protect themselves from trifling or unjust accusations. Managers can also do a few things to help nip a tattletale in the bud or minimize the damage that one can do to a team.

For Employees:

1. Stay tight-lipped. Don't give devious co-workers ammo that they can use against you. While you should be professional and polite to all of your co-workers — even the suspected snitch — avoid revealing too much about your personal life or details about any projects you're working on. If a person is determined to knock you down the corporate ladder, he or she will find a creative way to use any information you volunteer against you, no matter how insignificant it seems.

2. Exceed performance expectations. If you've always gotten stellar performance reviews and have proved your value to the company, your manager will most likely blow off a co-worker's trivial complaints and tell him or her to stop complaining and get back to work. Conversely, if your job performance has taken a nosedive or you've botched a big project, any accusation leveled against you could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

3. Don't fight fire with fire. Whatever you do, don't retaliate by gathering unflattering information about other employees and passing it on. You will only lose the respect of your managers and co-workers.

4. Don't lose your temper. Many divisive employees thrive on attention, and if you angrily confront a suspected informant, you're letting him or her win. More importantly, reacting defensively to accusations will lead many of your colleagues to believe that you're guilty or that you actually committed an offense that warranted being turned in for.

5. Use a strong password on your computer. Only the most dedicated backstabber would actually try logging on to a co-worker's machine to snoop around email and other personal documents. However, stranger things have happened, so it's a smart idea to protect your workstation with an unbreakable password. You may also want to make a habit of clearing your Web browser's history; after all, you don't want a troublemaker telling everyone that you were checking the basketball scores on ESPN.com last Friday afternoon.

For Managers:

1. Never reward a snitch. Rewarding a snitch with a promotion or work on a big project only encourages him or her to continue this destructive behavior. The employee will naturally connect the reward with the tattling and will begin to bombard you with tales of the latest employee indiscretions.

2. Explain why the behavior is counterproductive. As previously mentioned, workers are likely to become paranoid once they know that the team has a divisive member. Explain to the problem employee how he or she is creating animosity and affecting everyone's happiness and productivity. Lay out repercussions as a proactive measure.

3. Pile on the boring work. Workers who are obsessed with the intricacies of their colleagues' days clearly have too much time on their hands. So pile on extra work. And who knows? The tattler may even connect the dots and realize that piles of tedious work show up every time they open their mouth.

4. Move the employee to a low-impact location. If your company has a large office, consider moving the problem employee to a location where he or she has minimal access to other employees. This will hopefully convince the individual to mind his or her own business, but if not, it will at least help other employees breathe a little easier.

5. Set up a meeting with HR. When all other strategies have failed, an inveterate busybody should be referred to the HR department, which can issue further warnings or take the appropriate disciplinary measures.

Remember: A work force or team built on trust will be happier, more productive and more effective. So don't let one person ruin the dynamic for everyone.