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The question

I have been working with a colleague for over six months. He is a receptionist, with lots of great experience. He is really good at what he does and everyone at the workplace likes him. Since my workplace is a small operation, he has to do some financial reporting. One of my responsibilities is to critique his work. I know he is not an expert in this area, so I have been pretty easy on him and never blamed him for his errors. But whenever he starts getting frustrated, he yells at me or gives me attitude. I have tried different ways to discuss his errors with him, but the situation does not improve. I am not his boss or supervisor, and this is also my first job. I don't want to tell our supervisor because it will look like I am telling on him.

The answer

I know exactly how you feel and have been in similar situations many times. I think most people have.

It's hard to know how to deal with a nasty and/or incompetent co-worker. One's first impulse is to be noble and take Robert De Niro's advice to young, would-be gangster Ray Liotta in Goodfellas: "Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut."

(I love the gangsterish redundancy of that – "always keep your mouth shut" obviously would've covered it.)

But, well, my feelings on the matter have evolved over the years. I remember bouncing along in the bus on my way to my first real job, as a reporter for a tiny newspaper on Long Island called The East Hampton Star, the callow and jejune 22-year-old David Eddie, thinking: "My policy will be not only will I honestly admit to my mistakes, but will nobly 'fall on the grenade' sometimes for my colleagues and take responsibility for theirs."

When my colleagues found out this was my policy, they started dumping their mistakes on me wholesale, and I was out of a job by the end of the summer.

Point being, your first duty is to yourself, and quite often, your colleagues will turn out to be unworthy of your scrupulous unwillingness to rat them out.

Get fired, then see what a pal this guy turns out to be. How worthy he was of your scruples. How quickly he returns your calls.

In other words, if he's compromising your reputation or ability to perform your work properly, you need to protect yourself.

And here I'll sound like a right little snitch, but you have a duty also to your boss and the company. They pay your bills, hello?

They need to know if there's a weak link or a problem – especially in a small company.

This may seem like an obscure point, but bear with me: I recently read a very provocative and interesting book called Sapiens by Yuval Harari. It's a weighty tome, full of thoughts and facts and history, but his essential thesis is this: The main reason behind the supremacy of homo sapiens over all other species (including bigger, faster hominids) is our ability to organize into large groups and accomplish things as a team.

He uses the odd example of nuclear weapons, which as he points out require co-operation from thousands of homo sapiens all across the planet – to mine the uranium, design the weapons, manufacture, oversee, etc.

But for a large co-operative entity (a "corporation") such as that to function, you need lots of communication and information – especially about where to find the weak links, bottlenecks, obstructions and underperformers. And that information, Harari claims, tends to be conveyed via the medium of gossip.

In other words, gossip – especially gossip about underperforming members of a co-operative group – is hugely responsible for the success of our species.

(I suppose gossip about who's shagging whom has an evolutionary function too, but he doesn't really go into that.)

Therefore I would say not to feel too guilty about your urge to rat this guy out to your boss. It's in your DNA! It's for the good of the co-operative unit – your company.

Slight caveat, though: You say, "He does a really good job and everyone likes him." Also that he has a lot of experience and it's your first job.

So some humility and reflection is called for. Could it be that you're in the wrong, and/or taking the wrong tack with him? And that you might be shooting yourself in the foot by complaining?

I don't have enough information to pronounce on this score, but take a long look at the woman in the mirror before you act.

P.S. He "yells" at you? I hope that's an exaggeration. Yelling's out. That alone would propel me into the boss's office to spill the beans.

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