Complaint About A Co-Worker Was Unintentional!

Question to Ask The Workplace Doctors:
Complaint about a coworker was unintentional!

“How can I tell my boss I didn’t mean to complain about my co-worker?”

I had a mandatory one on one meeting with my boss recently to go over how I was doing since being hired 4 short months ago.  It was a rushed meeting because we spent most of it going over the company website, then had 2 minutes left to go over my numbers and open questions/concerns.

In the process of discussing my work I informed her that I noticed a co-worker who has really high numbers is because she does not take a lunch. After much protesting of not telling my boss who it was, she said since I brought it up, she needed to know.

I told her the name of the co-worker and now I feel very anxiety-ridden, especially since this co-worker and I have had conflict in the past and she is a “brown-noser” and a liar. It sounds as though I complained about my co-worker, but I didn’t mean to have it sound that way.

What do I do now? My complaint about a co-worker was unintentional!  How do I go back to my boss and what do I say? Should I say I didn’t mean to complain about my co-worker, since it doesn’t directly affect me?

Wish I Had Kept Quiet


Dear Wish,

Two things immediately come to mind about this. First, is that it is a valuable lesson for you, me and our readers, about using limited one-on-one time to sound enthused about what you have accomplished and asking how you can improve, rather than putting the focus on some other employee.  You weren’t specifically complaining, but you were telling the boss that a co-worker was doing something against company policy, which is essentially the same thing. Your complaint about a co-worker was unintentional but  it still sounded like a complaint.

You have probably said all of that to yourself many times since then! If you approach this in a positive, humble way, you will be able to put it behind you very soon and move on to other things in your work.

The second observation is that you have made a negative judgment–which may or may not be justified–about a co-worker. You think she is a “brown-noser “and a liar. You would not have said what you said if you liked her.  However, from the employee’s perspective–and from the manager’s perspective–she may be an excellent worker who will go so far as to skip lunch in order to do more work.  Your intended criticism may actually make the co-worker seem even more valuable to the manager. That is another reason to not talk to managers about a co-worker you already think has status you do not have.

You don’t have control over what the manager does about any of this, as it relates to telling the co-worker to start taking lunch or whether or not your name is mentioned. However, you can do a lot to make things better–and even build something positive out of it. Go to the manager and say something like, “I’ve felt terrible all weekend about saying anything to you about Lisa’s work or her lunch breaks. I was nervous that you might be thinking I’m not doing enough work and I was trying to look better about it.”

Then, just stop and look apologetic and let the manager make a comment. There is no point in memorizing a long speech because she will know what you are trying to say and would rather you keep it brief.  If you try to minimize Lisa’s actions by saying you don’t know for sure about her lunch, the manager will know that isn’t true. If you say Lisa does take her lunch break, the manager will probably know that is not true either. If you say anything else to justify your remarks, it will sound like an excuse. So, just say you are sorry you said anything and give that brief explanation.

Here is why the explanation is important: It will let the manager see you as an employee who wants to do good work and is worried that you are not doing it or worried that the manager is dissatisfied. That might make you seem a bit needy, but at least it will not portray you as someone who is only interested in pointing a finger at someone who is doing good work.

Then, focus on your own work and keep moving forward. There is no point in bringing the subject up to your co-worker. If the manager tells her about your comments, she may or may not say anything to you. If you two aren’t very close anyway, there was probably no relationship to damage, but you should apologize if she mentions it and hope she accepts that apology. Find one or two other co-workers who you do like and be a work friend to those people, staying open to the other employees, including “Lisa”.

The most difficult part of this will be going in to see the manager. If you have been at work since then, you can say that you have thought about it every day. But, do it first thing, the next time you are at work and get it over with. If you see the manager outside her office and can be private, do it then. Then, unless the manager brings it up, don’t mention it again. Move forward and let it fade into awkward history, as you gain more knowledge and skills related to your job. If you gain influence and abilities, there will be plenty of positive things to replace this one incident.

Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe

To Ask the Workplace Doctors readers: If you have questions about a time when a complaint about a co-worker was unintentional or if you have thought there was unfair or unequal treatment of employees or if you have some other workplace question, look at our archives of thousands of questions and responses  and get some ideas for what to do next.  Or, ask us a question about a specific concern.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.