Should I Rat Out a Toxic Co-Worker?

Last Updated Mar 29, 2010 6:05 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, I have a toxic coworker in my research lab. She is controlling, neurotic, and passive aggressive. I have to interact with her since she manages all the data for the studies I work on. My boss recognized her poor treatment of her direct reports and assigned those people to report to me instead. In addition to her bad behavior, she also is inefficient, resistant to change, incapable of handling tasks like scheduling , and takes weeks to do what should take hours. I cannot bring concerns directly to her because she gets extremely defensive and rejects any suggestions I make in a knee-jerk fashion, which requires me to get director approval on everything in order to make any changes. I am leaving the job to go to grad school this coming fall but am hoping to come back to the lab after I have my degree (at the suggestion of the director). Should I keep my mouth shut, leave gracefully, and hope things are better when I am looking for a job there later? Or do I say something to my director, who is always very responsive to my concerns? Honestly if she is still in the lab when I am looking to come back, it might sway me to look elsewhere, and I know the director would be upset if that were to happen since he really likes me. Sometimes we have fantasies that the only reason someone hasn't done something (in your case, fired Ms. Toxic) is because they are not aware of the situation. It reminds me of the time in second grade when we learned about how smoking is bad for you. My next door neighbor (a very nice man, named Joe), happened to smoke. Clearly he didn't know it was bad, because he would stop if he did, right? So, with all the moral superiority that only an 8 year old can muster, I decided that Joe had to be informed. I marched up to him and declared, "The Surgeon General has determined that smoking cigarettes can be hazardous to your health!"

I figured that he would put out his cigarette, thank me, and go on to live a long and happy life. Instead he said, "Shut up little girl," and stomped into his house.

Your boss is aware of Ms. Toxic's bad behavior. Sure, he may not know the full extent of it (especially if other people have been cleaning up her messes to cover their own behinds), but he knows she's bad news. He has taken steps to control her toxicity (he removed her direct reports and he approves your plans). He may well have her on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that you are unaware of. A good manager wouldn't be discussing a particular employee's performance problems with the employee's peers.

So, you actually don't need to rat her out. What you do need is a good cathartic discussion where you tell someone how rotten Ms. Toxic is. That's what I'm here for. And that's what your mother/best friend/next door neighbor is for. It is not, however, what your other co-workers are for. They may all agree with you, but it will only make the situation more unpleasant. By talking about Ms. Toxic, you necessarily have to exclude her from non-work activities (like lunch and general chatting), which serves to isolate her socially, which will magnify her bad behaviors.

If you go to your boss and complain, it will serve to further frustrate him. He knows there are problems. He's either handling them his own way or choosing (consciously) to ignore them. Or, just maybe (and I do shudder to say this), he has been trying to fire this woman but HR has been stopping him.

So, don't worry about saying anything to your director. You just head off to graduate school and keep your options open. You may be absolutely convinced that this lab is the place for you and you desperately want to come back to it. But, as you gain experience and opportunities in grad school, you may find that you want to head another way.

When you're done with school and you get offered a job at your old lab (and no matter what they say now, don't count on this happening), it's okay at that point to mention that Ms. Toxic was difficult to work with and ask if that is still the case. If so, you can inquire, how will it affect you in your new role?

Other than that, just let it go. Do your job. When she's extra annoying just keep thinking, "it's not my problem, it's not my problem." And give your mom a call. It will give you a chance to vent and a chance for your mother to remind you that if you truly loved her, you'd call more often.

Photo by brookpeterson, Flickr CC 2.0