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Covering for a coworker you don't like

Apr 01, 2008

by JEANNE FLEMING, PH.D. and LEONARD SCHWARZ

Question: I'm a research assistant at a large consulting firm. Recently I noticed a significant error in a report prepared by a co-worker who's always acting superior to me. It's not my job to proof this report, so I've said nothing. The report's about to go out, and I hope Julie gets in trouble. My friends are appalled, but I don't think I owe it to this woman to bail her out. Am I right?

Answer: When it comes to having to save (or not save) a colleague from a trip to the woodshed, you ordinarily have a bit of leeway. The problem in this situation is that your silence punishes one of two innocent bystanders: the company you work for or its client. If the client discovers the error, it may revise its opinion of your employer and take its business elsewhere. And if the client doesn't notice, it could be harmed by fallout from the mistake.

While it may not be your job to proof the report, you still have an obligation as an employee to speak up when you see something's wrong. If you worked in an operating room and Julie were about to amputate the wrong leg, would you remain silent? Just because the consequences in your situation are less obvious doesn't make them any less real.

One way or another you must notify the project manager of the error before the report goes out. So tell the manager and become a candidate for Employee of the Month, tell the whole office and embarrass your nemesis, or alert Julie to the problem and hope her attitude toward you changes - whatever you like, as long as it gets the error corrected.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at FlemingandSchwarz@right-thing.net.

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