Every office or shop floor has at least one — the worker watching from the corner of his or her eye, taking mental notes and reporting back to the boss. The workplace snitch is a reliable recurring character in many workplaces, a petty villain who foments gossip and undermines teamwork and morale. But is tattling inevitably destructive? There are instances in which reporting what’s going on is the better choice — indeed, the necessary one — so can certain practices and policies make tattling a useful tool? Deciding whether to tattle isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“My gut instinct isn’t to get involved, but I am not sure that’s the right tone,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. “There are questions of what’s your business and what’s your responsibility. Once you get down to cases where you think something is clearly unethical and wrong and needs to be stopped, when there is the potential for real harm to be done to somebody — economic harm as well, or damage to a customer relationship — then I think the ethics there become important.”

Whistleblowing and reporting activities that are out and out illegal or clearly unethical demand action. But for more routine matters, the rules of the game are less clear, leaving the potential tattler with a no-win dilemma. Says Monica McGrath, vice dean for Wharton’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education: “While there is a risk in telling, there is also a risk in not telling.”

Snitches at Work: ‘See Something, Say Something’

Some human resources and management leaders think tattling is on the rise. Bidwell’s theory about why it might be more prevalent now: paradoxically, the emergence of self-managing teams. In a 1993 study by James R. Barker, a professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, those working for a team of peers reported sensing a collective impulse for tighter self-regulation than when they had worked for a single boss. “Now, the whole team is around me and the whole team is observing what I’m doing,” an employee at a small manufacturing company told Barker.

“With his voice concealed by work noise, [the employee] told me that he felt more closely watched now than when he worked under the company’s old bureaucratic system,” wrote Barker in “Tightening the Iron Cage: Concertive Control in Self-Managing Teams,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly. “He said that while his old supervisor might tolerate someone coming in a few minutes late, for example, his team had adopted a ‘no tolerance’ policy on tardiness and that members monitored their own behaviors carefully.”

A report found that the youngest workers were substantially more likely to report misconduct they observed than older workers.

“I think the general sense is that it’s a good thing for workers to feel empowered,” says Bidwell. “Productivity goes up.” However, “one of the side effects that disturbed some is that it does mean that peers start to discipline one another, and one way to do that is by tattling.”

Indeed, self-governing groups demonstrated the power of the collective in fostering altruism in a 2014 Stanford University study, “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups,” by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer and Michael Schultz, published in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers assembled nine groups of 24 members each and asked them to make decisions on choices that would benefit them financially before members moved on to another entirely different group. Groups were allowed to gossip about the behavior of prior groups’ members in order to exclude people with whom they did not want to be associated. When members learned that others were gossiping about them, they tended to reform their behavior.

When it comes to tattling, some studies suggest that an inclination to engage in it depends somewhat on generational membership. Millennials observe more workplace misconduct than their older counterparts, according to a 2011 survey report by the Ethics Resource Center, titled “Generational Differences in Workplace Ethics.” The report, which measured more serious wrongs from inappropriate use of company credit cards to sexual harassment, found that the youngest workers were substantially more likely to report misconduct they observed than older workers, 67% to 39%, respectively. “It appears that the younger the worker, the more likely they are to feel pressure, observe misconduct and experience retaliation for having done so,” says the report.

The Facebook Snitch

The times have also brought a totally new subspecies of the tattler — the Facebook snitch. This could be a worker who takes to Facebook to complain about a co-worker’s messy cubicle or to vent about a boss; again, age has something to do with this behavior. “With the baby boomers, there is an understanding that it’s your job and you don’t have to like each other. You do your job and go home,” says Linda Willey, human resources director at Jacksonville, Florida-based trucking firm Nextran Corp., who also serves on the Society for Human Resource Management discipline panel. “Whereas with the younger generation, there is that instant gratification they’ve grown up with, so if there is a perceived unfairness, if someone gets something they don’t, they go on Facebook.”

How should a manager respond if an employee points out that a co-worker has made public his or her complaints on Facebook? It depends on what’s said, says Willey. “If it’s regarding someone venting about their boss … just ignore it and move on. I think it shows immaturity on the part of the poster and the whole world is going to see that. But you don’t want to brush off [a Facebook post] immediately. You want to understand what was said and make your decision. If it’s a potential threat of violence, then you need to take that seriously.”

“It can impact morale and productivity, and teamwork goes down obviously because people start to not trust each other and they start cocooning.” –Linda Willey

Interpreting social media postings and other forms of expression also requires an understanding of the law. The National Labor Relations Act protects certain activity by employees. For example, when three workers for a construction contractor in Lakewood, Wash., aired concerns about safety on a job site in a YouTube video in 2008, they were fired by Rain City Contractors. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that such activity was protected, and the employer settled the case and gave them their jobs back. Numerous other cases have ended similarly — some also specific to social media — with the NLRB citing law that grants workers, regardless of any union affiliation, the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Employers can require, through employee polices, that “everyone is expected to be respectful and act in a professional manner at all times, and then if someone is a persistent gossiper and tattler, you can hold them accountable,” says Willey. But labor law prevails. “It’s a very fine line with tattling,” she says.

Employees should remember that management has some sound organizational motivations for discouraging or rooting out tattling. “It definitely can impact the workplace,” says Willey. “It can impact morale and productivity, and teamwork goes down obviously because people start to not trust each other and they start cocooning. And then turnover will increase, because good employees see that managers are not getting a handle on it and it’s become a toxic workplace, and that effects hiring dollars. All because of one or two bad apples.”

Truth and Consequences of Snitching in the Workplace

Experts say employees must consider a variety of possible consequences when deciding whether to bring to a superior something they have seen that concerns them. Among the considerations is making sure what you believe to be true actually is true — for instance, an employee who suspects a co-worker may have an addiction problem. “You have to be pretty sure you know as much as you can,” says McGrath. “You can say, ‘I think this is happening, this could be happening, I have evidence this may be happening.’ You have to really be able to make your case.”

It’s important to consider that once a complaint is conveyed, the person doing the complaining often loses control over what happens next — and sometimes the consequences are harsher than can be anticipated. “I remember an anonymous letter came to the CEO [of one company] … about inappropriate drinking and behavior at a corporate party, and there was some truth to it,” McGrath says. “It destroyed the person’s career. Was it a one-off? We don’t know. Once you get something like that, you really have to respond to it.”

“If it’s not something you’re prepared to do in an accountable manner, you have to ask whether it’s something you are prepared to do at all.” –Matthew Bidwell

In tattling as in whistleblowing, sometimes it’s the messenger who suffers — especially in cases where the messenger might be a junior-level employee in the power structure, and there are bigger issues at stake. “How much power does a 23-year-old have compared to the person being reported? Can you find some other way for people to observe that behavior? I tell people there is a price they will have to pay, so be clear about the big picture,” says McGrath.

One strategy is to try to report it anonymously, but that, too, can come back to bite the teller. “On the one hand, obviously it reduces the risk to you,” says Bidwell. “On the other hand, nothing is ever really truly anonymous, and I think there is also an argument that if you’re going to do something like this, you should probably own it. If it’s not something you’re prepared to do in an accountable manner, you have to ask whether it’s something you are prepared to do at all.”

No two situations are likely to be the same, says Wharton management professor Adam Cobb, but there are some useful rules-of-thumb questions one can ask in deciding whether to speak up about a perceived infraction by a co-worker: If no action is taken to report some wrong, would the organization be held liable? Is the motive for tattling really personal score-settling posing as something more virtuous? Is there a way for the problem to be corrected by speaking directly to the worker in question? And then there is the question of the scale of the matter. There’s an important distinction to be made between the employee who prints out a few pages of his tax return on the company’s dime, and someone stealing reams of paper to sell on the side, he notes.

“If someone comes to work five minutes late, do you really need to tell the supervisor? In some ways, there are unwritten rules inside an organization,” says Cobb. “When we don’t know what to do, we look to others for cues. Some of it is embedded in a culture. But organizations can also put policies in place to help deal with concerns people have — mechanisms to which people can turn in an anonymous manner, to get advice without fear of reprisal. Some of this stuff you can codify pretty easily.”

Sorting out tattling from necessary truth telling is something for which employees should be able to look to management. “This is where intervention from the HR office can be useful, to clarify for that specific person what is in bounds and what could be left alone,” says Cobb.

The main message is to think carefully about what you say, how you say it and why. Of course, how often you complain is also a good barometer of where the problem really lies. No one likes a serial tattler. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that it damages their credibility as an employee,” says Willey. “You are not going to promote someone who has a history of being a tattler.”