Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
If you’ve ever had a slacker co-worker—someone who goofs off all day, getting little done and often leaving other people covering more than their fair share of the work—welcome to the club. It’s a frustration that’s rampant in many workplaces. Even more infuriating is a manager who knows about the problem but won’t act.
Slackers and the managers who enable them are a common theme in my inbox. Here’s a letter typical of many I receive:
About half [my co-worker’s] work day is spent online rather than working. Whether she is clothes shopping, looking at mansions on Zillow, looking at pictures of dogs or children available for adoption, corresponding on Facebook, browsing Reddit, or reading her news feed, she will toggle between working and surfing throughout the day. … My workload does not permit me the luxury of casual internet browsing, nor am I interested in it. When she talks to me or forwards her items of interest, it’s not just distracting, it causes me to feel resentment toward her for her lack of consideration of the time and effort that I put into my job. On an ethical level, I feel that collecting a paycheck for browsing the internet is, in essence, stealing from the nonprofit organization for which we work.
While it can be counterproductive to closely monitor your colleagues’ monitors, feeling like you’re working hard when the person next to you isn’t is understandably discouraging. People frustrated by slacker co-workers often hesitate to bring the issue to their manager’s attention out of a fear that they’ll be seen as “tattling”—a concept from kindergarten that apparently still haunts some of us as adults:
I am fairly close with my CEO, Nancy. She has another full-time job, as this company is a start-up and not in a place yet to support her financially, so she is never present in person but always available via Slack. Our newest hire is our marketing director, Andy, and he is not very productive. He is on Facebook a lot, is messaging his friends back and forth on iMessage, and takes care of personal stuff like banking and taxes. He is part-time and we pay him by the hour.
Andy recently submitted a large project (that he only spent 30 minutes on), and when I asked what Nancy thought of it, she said there wasn’t enough detail and that she isn’t sure what he does all day. She has said this to me numerous times in reference to Andy. I’m not sure if I should say something or if I should keep my mouth shut. … If I should broach the subject, how would I do so without coming off as a tattletale or power hungry?
It’s true that some complaints would be inappropriate to bring to a manager—petty things, like reporting that a colleague takes a few extra minutes at lunch or browses Facebook during conference calls. But it’s not inappropriate to flag a substantive issue that affects a team’s work, especially if your manager is asking for feedback. And even if she hasn’t asked, good managers will appreciate a discreet heads-up when something is having a serious impact.
Of course, not all managers are good managers, and some of them are well aware of the slackers on their team and simply do nothing. Often that’s because they’re afraid of difficult conversations (a terrible, and frankly prohibitive, quality in a manager):
I work at a small printing company. There are only seven of us, including my manager. I am in charge of the newspaper; my coworker is in charge of the print jobs. … My coworker not only procrastinates, but screws around and gets behind in her work. I need to pick up the slack or we will have unhappy clients. If I don’t do her work, my manager does it.
I’ve approached my manager about this situation five times. He says he sees what my coworker is doing and things will change. Nothing has changed. My assistant manager has the same concerns as I do. I finally told the assistant manager I was frustrated and at the end of my rope. He said my manager knows what’s going on, but is not going to say anything about it because my coworker “knows too much.” She’s been there five years. I think my manager is just too nice and doesn’t want to cause conflict. The assistant manager agreed.
So what can you do about slacker co-workers who aren’t pulling their weight? First, it’s smart to get clear in your head on how the slacker’s behavior affects your work. Are you having to step in to take care of work your co-worker should be doing, or is your own work delayed because the person misses deadlines? (If you realize you can’t point to any real impact the colleague’s behavior is having on you, that’s a sign it might not be worth escalating.) Then, describe the problem to your boss calmly and concisely, sticking to objective facts. Don’t rant or add judgment, tempting as it may be. For example: “I’m getting calls from Jane’s clients asking me to help with their accounts because she hasn’t returned their calls. I’ve talked to her about it, but her clients are still calling me when she doesn’t respond within a few days. I wanted to flag it for you, since the clients seem unhappy, and it’s taking me away from projects like X and Y.”
In some cases, it can be easier to raise concerns about a co-worker if you frame it as asking for your boss’s advice rather than requesting a specific intervention. For example: “Since I’ve tried talking with Jane directly, but it hasn’t solved it, I’m not sure where to go from here, and I wondered if I could ask for some advice.” That way you’re not just reporting a co-worker’s wrongdoing but framing it as a problem you’re hoping to solve—and meanwhile getting your boss in the loop.
That still might not solve it, given that lots of managers are conflict-averse and won’t deal with problems unless their hands are forced. But you won’t have to wonder how your boss is missing what’s happening (they’re not; they’re just too wimpy to do anything) or worry that there’s something more you could be doing about it. That probably won’t lessen your frustration … but at least you’ll know where the real source of the problem is.