Should I Report What My Colleague Told Me?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about whether or not to report that a coworker
was asked to make a false accusation of sexual harassment.

Question: A work colleague told me that my boss asked her to fake a sexual harassment complaint against another manager. He told her he would give her $4,000 now and $4,000 later, for a total of $8,000.

I asked her what she said and she told me “Oh my gosh, I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do!” I told her to report it to someone higher, but she said no.

I feel that I should say something because this would be a serious accusation. I know the other manager and it wouldn’t be fair to him. My coworker told me not to say a word, but I feel like I should tell someone. What should I do?

Response: I’m sure this is a challenging situation for you. However, it gives you a chance to test your ethics, honor and fairness–and you sound like someone who will pass that test.

Think about it logically: Your colleague (we’ll call her Maria) either told you the truth or she told you a partial or complete lie. Let’s start with the option that she lied to you. You are probably not the only person she told. So, if she was lying about something that serious, she couldn’t be trusted about anything else. If she would make up such a story to tell to you, who knows what other stories she has made up and what negative results have occurred.

Perhaps she told a partial truth but part of the story was not true. There is no way to know which part was true or not and the result is the same as if it was all untrue: You now have a bad feeling about your boss’s attitude toward another manager and you will always feel that he can’t be trusted fully.

Thus, if you report the story to HR and it is discovered to be a lie or a partial lie, the company would be right to reprimand her or sanction her even more than that. You might feel badly about it, but you can at least know that she brought it on herself.

The other option is that she was telling the truth. If she was telling the truth, your boss suggested something that not only would be a dirty trick, it could be viewed as illegal–for him and for your colleague.

If you report it and it is investigated, even if he says he was just joking, he still may do (or already have done) small or large things to harm the career of other managers, including his target victim this time. Or, he may say untruthful things about employees, including you. Reporting it and having it investigated will either clear his name or bring to light his devious plans.

If you are concerned about how your colleague will react when she finds out that you reported her statements, develop a explanation, such as the one I’m going to suggest, and stick with it. Don’t let her make you feel guilty about it, just make your explanation and be a broken record if she discusses it.

Consider explaining it to her this way: “Yes, I did go to HR about it. I knew you wanted to do it, but didn’t want to be put on the spot. This way you’re off the hook if he gets upset you can tell him I reported it, you didn’t.”

If she says she wouldn’t have gone to HR and wishes you hadn’t, just say about the same thing again. “I knew you probably wouldn’t report it, but we both know it had to be reported. So, I took care of it.”

Keep in mind that if she didn’t want anyone to know about it, she could have kept it to herself, but she didn’t. So, she may very well have hoped someone would report it–and let her avoid being the one.

Consider what could happen if you don’t report this situation. Maybe your colleague won’t make the complaint but maybe some other employee will. If you wait until you hear about a complaint, it will be too late to keep the other manager from being falsely accused. Even if he is cleared, most people will believe he did something wrong.

Let’s say that no complaint is ever made. You still won’t know if your boss has devised some other way to create problems for the manager. And, no matter what your boss says or does, you won’t know whether he can trusted or not. It wouldn’t be a good situation. Reporting what you were told is your best option.

It will take some courage to go to HR and talk about what you were told, but it’s the right thing to do. You may save the career of a good person and prevent your colleague from putting herself into a situation that could be incredibly harmful to her future. If it turns out not to be as bad as she described, everyone involved will be more careful about their casual comments in the future.

Be prepared to put your statement in writing, as documentation. And, be prepared to have more than one conversation with HR about it. It may be much easier than you expect. However, one thing is for sure: You’ll be glad you passed the test of ethics, honor and fairness to all.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what actions you take and the results.

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors