telling your boss about a slacker coworker

by Ask a Manager on August 19, 2008

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A reader writes:

How do you express concerns about a slacking co-worker to your boss without coming out sounding like a jerk? There is a co-worker in our office who can work hard when they want to, but also likes to spend quite a bit of time visiting with other employees. This same person expects others on the team to “offer” to help with work not finished. In trying to gently point out that if less time was spent visiting and more time working, then maybe help wouldn’t need to be offered, the silent treatment is given and makes for an uncomfortable work environment. This person is also extremely critical of what is perceived as others’ mistakes or not following through on an issue, and is almost always guilty of the same thing. Now this person wants to re-arrange some of the work assignments so their work load will be lightened, but I have a problem with that when if more time was spent working and less time visiting there wouldn’t be a need to re-arrange.

First, excellent job in not giving away the slacker’s gender. However, for ease of discussion, I’m going to decide he’s male and refer to him as such. No slight intended to the men.

Okay, I’m going to break this down into two questions: how to deal with his attempt to push his work onto you, and how/whether to talk to your manager about him.

1. In dealing with his attempt to get others to help him finish his work because he wasted time goofing off, just politely refuse. Be nice about it and don’t try to teach him a lesson by explaining that he created his own situation, but simply don’t let him pressure you into doing it. Sample refusals: “I’m sorry but I’m slammed with deadlines.” “Wish I could help but I’ve got my hands full.” And so forth. By not helping him cover up the results of his slacking, you’ll make it easier for your manager to spot what’s going on.

And along similar lines, who are these employees the slacker is spending so much time visiting with? If they have the same objections you do, can you get them to stop enabling him? Ideally, when he stops by to chat, they’d be too busy to talk.

2. On the question of how to talk to your boss: Some of this depends on your relationship with your boss and what she’s like. (Yes, I’m assigning genders at random.) If you have a good relationship with her and she’s known to value directness over protocol, I’d just tell her straight out: “Hey, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to raise this, but I’m concerned about how often Bob tries to get me to take on his work. I’m happy to help when it’s needed, but I see him chronically spending an enormous amount of time socializing rather than working, and I feel like he wouldn’t need my help if he focused on work more. Can you give me advice about how to handle this?”

Notice that this is couched in terms of asking for her advice on how you should handle it, rather than you dumping it in her lap to handle. If she’s a good boss, she’s going to handle it herself anyway — hopefully by paying more attention to how Bob is spending his time and addressing it with him if she sees that there’s an issue. But by asking her advice, you make it less about “tattling” and more about seeking her guidance.

Of course, there’s still an element of tattling in it. But tattling shouldn’t always get a bad rap — there are some things you should tell your manager about. Even the most perceptive manager won’t see everything that goes on, and when someone is taking advantage of that, it’s nice to be clued in.

Not every manager agrees with me on this, but personally, I appreciate it when a good employee gives me a discreet heads-up about something I might not have known about on my own. Of course, they need to realize that my take on it might differ from theirs, but as long as they’re okay with that, I’m always grateful to be filled in on something that might be a problem.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

{ 22 comments }

BH December 30, 2010 at 10:02 am

I have a similar situation with a colleague, but in my case the manager and this person are very tight, making it very difficult to bring up.

Gen-Y Worker December 30, 2010 at 10:03 am

I was also in a similar situation. My slacker co-worker spent most of her day surfing facebook (and when I say “most”, I mean the entire 6 hours a day she actually decided to spend in the office). However, in staff meetings, this girl would talk up what she was “working on” like she was curing cancer in her cubicle or something.
After first trying repeatedly to move desks (since mine was adjacent to hers and I had to have her blatant slackerism shoved in my face all day long) and being turned down by my boss, I made the decision to let my boss in on the real story.
While my boss addressed the issue right away and my co-worker vastly improved her performance, I think that ultimately my boss held it against me during review/promotion time, citing my “immaturity” as a reason I wasn’t ready to be promoted.
I stand by what I did because I still think it was the right thing to do, but there were definitely consequences to my actions.

bellejarre January 19, 2012 at 10:07 am

I have a colleague who is exactly like that. The bit about them speaking like they were ‘curing cancer in their cubicle’ summed it up perfectly. It’s infuriating because I prefer to work rather than talk about it!

keyboardtrotter December 30, 2010 at 10:03 am

Different personalities draw inspiration in different ways. Some people process their work by sitting quietly at their computers. Others think better when they can bounce ideas off of someone. if this person can work hard when they want to, I wonder if their social time might have more to do with clearing their brains so that they’ll concentrate better afterward, or with collaborating or finding out what matters to colleagues?

Anonymous January 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm

you sound like a slacker. .all you people need to get off yr butts and go to work.. quit making excuses..

almostgotit December 30, 2010 at 10:03 am

Chances are Very Good that your boss already knows about this “slacker,” and tolerates him/her for his/her own reasons. I tend to be a little skeptical that any good will come from tattling, but a great deal of good indeed might come of your doing your damnedest not to further enable or assist this slacker.

Also, I’d assume that if this person is spending lots of time with other people instead of working, she/he is not the only one slacking off, either. What makes this person’s slacker-ness worse for you than the others? Assumptions that you will jump in and do the person’s work for him/her? And how is this person empowered to rearrange YOUR work load? What else is going on here?

obstacles December 30, 2010 at 10:04 am

I am currently going through a very similar situation where a co-worker and our boss are firends so she gets away with things no one else would even image. She will just go to our boss and say well I am so busy then next thing I know I have more work and no one has even asked if I have time meanwhile she takes long lunches, comes in late, leaves early and is on the internet a lot while I am very overloaded. I ask the same thing, What else is going on here?

Kurr_Mudgeon December 30, 2010 at 10:05 am

I would urge caution. People like that tend to get promoted and you don’t want them for enemies.

I asked one skater how he managed to move up the corporate ladder so fast and he told me it is a question of creative inactivity. If you’re doing a good job, he said, they will never promote you because they don’t want to lose the good services you are performing. But if you aren’t doing anything they don’t have anything to lose by kicking you upstairs. He moved up by telling his boss he was totally worthless and challenging the boss to motivate him. Each time a promotion failed to motivate him, he asked for another one and got it. There were several people on that company who did quite well for themselves using that strategy.

A couple of years later on another project I worked with a fellow from Afghanistan (before Bush invaded the place) who told me he was tired (at 49 years old) and just did not know how he could keep up this frenetic pace. He solved the problem by getting his check direct deposited and going home. Next thing I knew he was my boss. I left later, but by then he was moving up the corporate ladder like a bottle rocket on the fourth of July. He probably owns the place by now and he has never worked a day in his life. If he did anything he would not get promoted.

In other companies I have seen people who were foolish enough to work hard fired so the skaters could jump up and take credit for whatever they did. Credit is like money; it doesn’t matter who earns it.

The way to move up is to conserve your strength by not working and conserve time you can use for office politics, which is what companies are really all about.

Ask a Manager December 30, 2010 at 10:05 am

Kurr_Mudgeon, it sounds like you have worked in some awful places. I’m not naive enough to think that bad companies and bad bosses don’t exist, but your experience is an outlier as far as bad bosses go! What you’re describing is the extreme. At plenty of places, those people would be fired, not promoted.

This is why it’s so important to do your own investigation before accepting a job — find out what they really value, how results are rewarded, etc.

Georgie December 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

I ratted out a co-worker today. They only work two days a week and most of the time they call off or are late. I couldn’t stand it anymore. When they don’t show up, I have to stay until a replacement arrives. Additionally, this individual talks down to other co-workers who will not stand up for themselves. I know it is not my place to protect other people, but my telling on them was my response to their negative and domineering personality.

SisterTech December 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

Where I work, each person at my level must proactively take on their own work. Though the results are tracked, there are ways to “cheat” the system and everyone knows he does it. My boss is incredibly busy, and I think as long as the stats line up he’s not paying too much attention. But I just couldn’t take it anymore. I sent my boss an email letting him know that while the majority of the individuals on my team were responsible and proactively took on as much work as we could handle, this individual is not pulling his weight. We shall see how it ends up, but I’ve got a good relationship with my boss and I am certainly not sorry I pointed this out to him.

Amy December 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

I have the same situation that my manager and the person are very tight, have you found the way to talk to your manager?

dobedobedoo December 30, 2010 at 10:07 am

Some of what you see as slackers might be people who are protected under the ADA laws for being mentally ill or learning disabled…

sometimes, a boss will protect them by ignoring any complaint brought to the boss about the slacker – and turn it around to being about the person who complained

or perhaps even elevate them to get them away from their department

Ask a Manager December 30, 2010 at 10:07 am

dobedobedoo, ADA does not require employers to keep employees who can’t perform the essential functions of the job.

Rich December 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

I have the same situation that my manager and the person are very tight….
the problem is one individual who breeds slackness and a playground type environment where joking and slacking and surfing facebook are the hardest things he does all day.
Normally, I just ignore this type…but I depend on the slacker to do my job and meet my deadlines. I cant tell my boss, because he is a student of avoidance management 101, and would rather maintain his little work friendships than foster an environment of productivity etc. I agree with another poster, its like in the movie “Office Space’…those who seem to do very little, or who are incompetent often get promoted up the ladder because it is assumed that this person is just bored or unchallenged. In my experience with this individual, it is a case of laziness and incompetence, and a total lack of work ethic. I’ve raised this with the boss after reaching the end of my leash, and I can tell you, if your boss and this person are buddies…it will do you no good, quite the opposite actually. My advice, ignore the person (this slacker in my office comes by my desk 15 times a day to ask ‘what’s shaking’…so I dont even turn to look, I just say not much). I also delay my action and responses to this person for work related requests (which is hard because I like to address things right away and am a naturally proactive worker).
To make everything worse….my manager is a slacker right along with him….so what is one to do besides look for another job or group to work in within the organization.
Ultimately, there will always be one or two of these slackers in the office…and sometimes the manager is aware of it, and really has no idea how to fix it or doesn’t want to rock the boat. Unfortunately, a lot of managers dont get where they are by being proactive and hard working, that is what the grunts are for….they get there by passing the buck and thinking primarily of their careers and what they can do to further their own agenda.
Its hard to do, but try to not let this person affect your work in a negative way.
Me, there are some days I want to drop kick this guy….but in the end I just tell myself he is the one loosing out, and ultimately the looser.

Lori Cunningham December 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

right now i work with a part time employee who is not doing her job when she is there. Like some others have said, this lady also tends to either call in sick alot or find a replacement to cover her shift. When she is at work I have no idea what she does do for the 8 hrs we are there. I rarely find any evidence that she did anything at all. We are required to write certain reports and sign certain books each shift, she never writes her reports or signs the books. Last time we worked together she napped for 45 minutes. And again did nothing else!!!

We are both nurses. She is an RN and I am an LPN. While this whole situation bothers me, the fact she makes about $5 more an hour than I do really hits below the belt. And I often wonder if when she is supposed to be passing medication to our patients if she is doing that. Usually if I suspect a nurse of not giving her meds I count pills and keep track but because she only works a couple days a week I am unable to do that with her.

It’s frustrating for me. It’s hard to sit back and be a spectator to someone who is not doing her job, especially when you wind up having to pick up some of her slack. Recently we split shifts, she did first half and I did last. What happened was she did nothing for 4 hours and I did 8 hours work in 4 hours time. Because we split the shift each of us were responsible to make sure all duties were done. So it became my responsibilty to do what she hadn’t done. It really makes me mad.

I am considering approaching my boss about it. I could care less if she thinks I’m tattling, cause I will be. And the boss should be quite aware of the problem anyway. The lack of nurses notes, important documents lacking signatures… evidence is there. The main problem I have with talking to the boss is I do not do confrontation well so it will be awkward and uncomfortable for me. And because of this I worry I won’t stand strong behind my convictions and speak my mind, and/or will just cower and accept it if the boss makes excuses for this employee. I have thought about putting it on paper and giving it to my boss instead of doing it in person. I think I can be more direct that way.

I dunno, its a problem that needs to be stopped. It’s unethical.

Guest December 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

I am in a VERY similar situation and it is SO frustrating!!! I see that you posted this 6 months ago…how are things going now? Are you still at this workplace? How about the “what’s shakin’” coworker?

My coworker, who started working here after me, was very close with our boss. That boss has since “mutually terminated” from the company, and we are all reporting into the VP until a new Director is hired. This VP knows nothing about my coworkers’ severe lack of data integrity/accountability…I have documented plenty of occasions where my coworker has made errors/bad decisions, and I can’t decide if I should bring it up or not. My mid-year review is next week so it would be the perfect opportunity, but I don’t want to cause more harm than good.

It also fuels my fire that she and I have the same job title, I have more experience but she makes $20K more than me…but I won’t bring that up in my review. :)

Anonymous May 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm

I work with a guy that comes in late (when he knows the boss won’t be here) but leaves early almost every day even if the boss is here. We work a regular 8-5 job and he scoots out of here around 3 -3:30 most days. I am pretty sure the boss knows about it because his office is right next to hers. I asked if I could take a 30 minute lunch and leave 30 minutes early one day and I was told to take it out of my vacation time.

Anonymous April 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Yup, I used to think if you kept your head down and worked your ass off that you would be rewarded for it. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. What really irks me are those coworkers that know how to work the system/boss/manager/supervisor. You know the one…the one that could take a hot steamy dump on a plate and present it to his boos and say ‘look what I did!’ and the boss would be all like ‘aww, that’s beautiful…nice work Drew, keep it up!’

Frustrated October 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I like the original post and the follow-up posts. One thing I would like to see, though, is how to deal with a boss who is NOT known to value directness over protocol.

Ask a Manager October 15, 2012 at 4:29 pm

That kind of boss falls into the “dealing with a bad manager” category, which means your option is basically to deal with it or leave.

Annoyed December 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I am in a similar situation, Is there a way to indirectly let the boss know about this person ?

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