July 20, 2019

Clients Complain About a Colleague. Should You Tell the Boss?

Clients Complain About a Colleague. Should You Tell the Boss?

Send your workplace conundrums to workologist@nytimes.com, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

Several clients of one of my colleagues have complained to me about her. Some even ask to work with me instead. We’re in sales, so relationships are crucial. I feel her poor performance hurts the reputation of our company and makes us all look bad.

Our company is too small to have a human resources department or middle management that I can go to for advice. But I’m friendly with the owner, and our company culture is quite casual and laid back.

Am I obligated to inform the boss of these negative reports, even if I may benefit directly by having my colleague’s clients reassigned to me, or might even cause her to be demoted or fired? That is, will I look like a tattletale trying to get ahead by bad-mouthing a colleague? Or as though I am taking advantage of my friendly relationship with the boss to sneak ahead in seniority?


Actually, the way you’re framing this makes you sound exactly like a tattletale angling to get ahead by torpedoing a colleague. It’s as though you’re trying to convince somebody (yourself?) that you don’t want to go behind your co-worker’s back but that you just have to. For the good of the company! And if that means you get more clients and a promotion, well, so be it.

I’m not accusing you of this behavior or these motivations. But that’s how you’re coming across. And it’s definitely how you will come across if you continue in the manner you suggest.

You might try to help your colleague. Obviously don’t say, “Your clients complain to me about you,” because that’s not helpful, it’s mean. Get more concrete about specific problems and incidents. Then maybe say: “I got a call today from Client X, who said he had Particular Problem Z. We don’t want him to go to the boss with that, so I’m letting you know.” Perhaps suggest a remedy. I’m not clear on what the complaints are, so tweak the language as appropriate. The point is to come across as (and be) more of an ally.

If this doesn’t work, or you think the situation is too far gone, then consider bringing it up with your boss and your colleague at the same time. Again, be precise: “I want to raise this with you both, because I think it affects all of us. I’ve heard complaints A, B and C. Even if they’re not true, this is what I’m hearing, and I thought we should address that.”

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