I tried telling her the problem it's causing for the team but got an aggressive response. Should I tell our boss what's going on?
A: Before you embark on such a course of action, it's worth giving a great deal of thought as to how it might be interpreted (or misinterpreted) - particularly by the ill-informed, the envious or the simply mischievous.
In your own eyes, a dispassionate and accurate report to the boss would be an act of sober responsibility, reluctantly made in the interests of the company as a whole; in other words, a wholly unselfish decision showing you to be the possessor of both courage and conscience.
But in the eyes of others, precisely the same act could seem the mean-minded act of a school sneak, anxious to ingratiate himself in the eyes of the boss at the expense of a colleague; and a colleague, what's more, who was doing her courageous best to keep her young family fed and clothed in extremely difficult circumstances. In making this point, you understand, I'm in no way questioning your motives (though I hope you have, to your own satisfaction); I'm just reminding you of the possible rapids downriver.
I believe you should speak to your colleague again. This time, resist the temptation to lead off with the problems she's causing you and the rest of the team: the fact that you previously encountered an aggressive response strongly suggests that's she's already extremely sensitive on this point and is feeling a fair bit of guilt about it. Instead, start with some genuine compassion. Show concern for her husband: are there any signs of hope? Ask if there's anything the rest of you can do to help, such as more flexible working, for example. Point out gently that this is not entirely without self-interest, since it would benefit the whole department if the current imbalance of work could be corrected.
If she continues to be defensive and unco-operative (which I'd like to think is unlikely) you should strongly recommend that she herself goes to the boss and comes clean about the impossible pressures she's under.
If she's a valued member of staff, her boss will want to help her through what should after all be a temporary period in her life. Unless he's an astonishingly insensitive person, it surely won't come as a complete surprise.
Only if all the above fails should you (but not you alone; you should go with at least one other) explain to your boss the concern that you have for your colleague, the stresses that are disrupting the work of your department and the unavailing efforts you've so far made to put things right.
There may still be a bit of bitchy whispering, but at least you will know that you've done everything you possibly could, and in the right order.
And with a smidgen of luck, you might even have done your poor struggling colleague a useful service.
- Please address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP. Or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Regretably, no correspondence can be entered into