update: my coworker keeps missing deadlines and it impacts my work

Remember the letter-writer whose work was being impacted by a coworker who chronically missed deadlines? Here the update.

While I was mulling over the moral/karma implications of calling out my colleague (Cecil) for his lack of accountability, I also started work on Plan B. There is another project I’m working on that happens to use similar data for a different purpose, and I’m working with a different analyst (George). George and Cecil work in the same department. It was an easy no-brainer to modify the business specs of the report George is building so that it could replace the work that Cecil does (and – bonus – will be automated!).

I mentioned this to my boss on Friday, as in “By the way, the next time Big Project rolls around, I won’t need Cecil to help me anymore because I can just use the report I’m building with George.” Then I added, “…and just so you know, it’s been really, really hard to work with Cecil, so having this new automated report from George is a real coup for all stakeholders…” And before I began to describe why it’s hard to work with him, my boss interrupted me to say “Oh, I know. I have had to work with Cecil in the past and it is a nightmare. I have spoken to Cecil’s boss (Fergus) boss about him numerous times. He is well aware of the problem, but is reluctant to dismiss him because [blah, blah bureaucracy, hiring freezes, HR, etc.] but this is an ongoing issue that Fergus will eventually have to resolve.”

I was so deeply relieved by my boss’s understanding, and that the problem was already well-known (and not just impacting me). I do feel like I dodged a bullet here – both because I found a workaround and because I wasn’t throwing my colleague under the bus – he was already living under that bus.

I realize that I may not be so lucky in the future, and that the time may come where I need to raise a flag about a colleague to upper management. When that time comes, I will be circling back to the advice of your readers: (1) Ramp up project management tactics, document everything, request acknowledgement of deadlines, check in multiple times; (2) when deadlines slip, consult colleague to determine whether the project has been de-prioritized, and if so, work with senior management to free up time for colleague to complete tasks, (3) if it’s truly a case that coworker isn’t holding his/her end of the bargain, let colleague know that I am planning to let my boss know. And then let my boss know. Even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. NickelandDime

    This update…was unsatisfying, but realistic. I’m glad the OP found a way to work it out.

  2. Meg Murry

    I think if George and Cecil work for the same boss, it might be a good idea to send an “atta-boy” email about George, and a complaint about Cecil (probably is 2 separate messages). It might be that Fergus needs some more ammo against Cecil to fire him, and your complaint could add to the pile.

    In a related note, apparently this was a thing at one place I worked – only it wasn’t that the department employees were terrible, only short staffed. After busting their butts to do the work of 4 people with only 2 when one person quit and another went out on leave and the boss wouldn’t hire a temp (to keep their budget low and him looking good), the employees finally threw up their hands and started doing only what they could accomplish in a reasonable day with no major heroics, and when things didn’t get done they said “please file an official complaint with our boss. We’ve been told no one minds if this process that used to take 2 days now takes a week and so we don’t need more people.” After enough people complained to the boss (and bosses boss) that department finally got the temp they needed, and the authorization to re-hire the vacant job.

    1. Kyrielle

      I wouldn’t complain about Cecil at this point, OP’s boss can if he wants. But a thank-you note to George cc’ing his boss and saying how wonderfully helpful he had been will be good for George *and* contrast with Cecil’s known issues, without saying anything about the latter directly.

      1. Ineloquent

        Plus, recognition for good work done is always a good thing, and George may not be getting enough of it from his current boss!

        1. OP

          Yes – I am definitely inclined to give props to George. If Cecil’s boss knows that he is a problem and has already heard about it from my boss, I don’t see the need to pile on.

      2. LQ

        I agree. Directly saying something positive about George to his boss will be great. And the boss will know that you’ve been working with Cecil and not sending something positive about Cecil. Stick to the positive, especially if you can be specific about it. “George is great. He’s always on time with the data, he understands what the project goals are and brings up relevant and useful points and something else…”

  3. Menacia

    I don’t know that it was unsatisfying, I think the solution took initiative and ingenuity and was in fact better than the alternative of just complaining which would not have resolved the problem. I’m always looking for resolutions that can be implemented and bring those to my boss as a solutions to a problems I am experiencing. I’ve always thought that’s what our bosses *want* us to do. ;)

    1. OP

      Thanks Menacia – that’s really nice of you to say! I think it was more coincidence/luck than ingenuity on my part, so while I’m pleased with the outcome, I’m not expecting to get off this easy next time.

      I think the bigger question I’m asking myself is: given that I work in a big, bureaucratic organization where people don’t get fired very often, am I better off complaining about a slacking co-worker, or is it simply more efficient to find an alternative solution that bypasses the weak link?

      1. Observer

        I think that it’s almost always more efficient to find a work around, if it’s possible. That’s not the case, though.

      2. Jennifer

        My alternative solution is “always do that person’s work for them.” Because that’s what’s gonna happen anyway.

  4. sunny-dee

    And at my place, there’s also step 4 — have the employee’s supervisor laugh and say, “oh, you know how Cecil is!” And then just never get the work you need. (Seriously — still waiting for an ETA on a small but critical project that was due three weeks ago, should have taken two weeks to do, and he “spent” three months on.)

    1. NickelandDime

      That’s what bothers me about this. The real problem isn’t resolved. Cecil and his manager are still there making problems for people, problems people are forced to solve on their own.

      1. AnotherAlison

        I kind of feel like George is the one who needs to be forcing the issue with Fergus at this point. The OP is in another department and found a solution. George is either being overly burdened with work because people come to him directly to avoid Cecil, or he is devising solutions that make Cecil obsolete. Now, how George gets Fergus on board is another problem. I lived through a very George-Cecil-Fergus situation where I was George, and my boss was pretty much I know, I know, bureaucracy, blah, blah, too.

        1. Anna

          Keep in mind that this isn’t actually adding to George’s workload. George already produces the report the OP is using. She’s just modified a small aspect of it so that it provides the information she needs for the other project. However, it still doesn’t address the problem and it might carry more weight coming from George if he told his boss he had to make changes to X because Cecil wasn’t providing the information needed.

          1. AnotherAlison

            Right, I was just extrapolating what happened to the OP to other scenarios that could be happening with other internal clients. If everyone knows George is the best, they will do what the can to avoid using Cecil.

      2. Stranger than fiction

        Unfortunately, though, it happens every day. Bad employees are protected for some mysterious reason that nobody knows (well HR or a high level person might know)

        1. Charityb

          I always assume it is some kind of evil pact with the Prince of Darkness. It’s the only explanation for how good people can be laid off in bad climates but these guys somehow cling to big companies like barnacles.

    2. NicoleK

      I can totally relate. I finally said to my boss, “I’ve spoken with her (new coworker), I’ve spoken with you…I don’t know what to do anymore. Tell me to drop it, and I will drop it”. Boss replied, “It’s reasonable for you to have expectations for a colleague”. That’s when I knew that my manager sucked and it wasn’t going to change.

  5. IWorkInSockFeet

    Do people actually verbalize phrases like “so having this new automated report from George is a real coup for all stakeholders”. It sounds like something a Martin Short character would say.

    1. Jerzy

      I may not say that in a rather informal, one-on-one conversation, but in a formal presentation? Sure.

    2. Ife

      The handful of times I’ve said “coup” out loud, I was so self-conscious that I was saying it wrong (coo? coop? cue? do I need to do some kind of funny accent??), or that the person I was talking to would have NOOoo idea what I was talking about (which they never did). I avoid it at all costs now!

      1. Meg Murry

        Yup, I feel weird saying “coup”, and “coup for all stakeholders” sound more business-speak jargony than I prefer. I could see myself saying “will be a real win for everyone” however.

        If OP needs more data from this department, I would push for more automation in general when possible. That is one thing that surprised me about the original – did Cecil write every request from scratch? Or was he able to pull up what he did 6 months ago, change the dates and re-run the query? After a while, our old IT department used to keep track of all our queries -because 90% of the time, someone who asked for a query once would ask for the same thing again in 6 months, often with only 1-2 small changes.

        1. Witty Nickname

          “Stakeholders” is a pretty common term in project management though, so it wouldn’t be out of place coming from a PM. I don’t know that I’ve ever called something a coup, but I refer to stakeholders all the time on my projects.

        2. OP

          You ask a great question Meg Murry, and one that I don’t know the answer to. It seems to me that once Cecil wrote the query the first time, he would just need to re-run it every 6 months, which shouldn’t be a 6-week ordeal. But our databases are vast, archaic, complex and completely mysterious to me. I don’t understand Cecil’s process, and maybe I should have taken the time to learn more.

          If I am truly honest with myself, the reason I didn’t try to understand the root cause of the delay was for two reasons:
          1) Our data systems are vast, archaic and mysterious and therefore learning how they work feels totally overwhelming to me
          2) I was afraid that even if I did harbor some understanding of our mysterious databases, there would still be such information asymmetry between Cecil and me that he could give me any BS excuse he wanted to, and I’d be unable to verify it. This was how I justified not bothering to try.

          BUT – maybe what I should have done was to make Cecil more engaged in developing the project plan in the first place, and have him include detail about the steps he has to take to get to the final product. (All you seasoned project managers out there are probably thinking “Gee whiz, Captain Obvious! How did you ever reach that brilliant insight??”)

          Live and learn, I guess…

          1. TootsNYC

            make Cecil more engaged in developing the project plan in the first place,

            I don’t think you ever had the power to do this. You can’t “make” people be engaged.

            You can entice them, sure. But you can’t “make” them.

            I think what you did was almost the only solution available to you.
            Your boss has tried all the other ones, probably, and the problem is clearly Cecil.

          2. Blurgle

            Not sure if I would fire someone for using the word “stakeholders” (unless we were somehow filming an episode of Buffy) but I’d probably find it hard not to laugh at them.

            1. Brooke

              Like Alison says, depends on the company culture. Using the word “stakeholders” wouldn’t be the least bit out of place where I work.

    3. OP

      I can’t remember exactly which words I used – in my e-mail to Alison I was being a little bit tongue in cheek with the business jargon.

      But I don’t think “Coup” is that pretentious of a word — “Coup de Grace” maybe – especially if pronounced with a French accent…

    4. LQ

      I wouldn’t say exactly this but I’ve certainly gotten close in presentations. Both in a tongue in cheek way to the right audience, and in a very direct and I mean it way to a different audience. It can both be funny and true.

    5. Clever Name

      I dunno. Often I’ll default to very formal language when I’m trying to say something without getting too personal or when trying to be as circumspect as possible.

    1. Clever Name

      Ha! Although, while I’m no fan of Goofus, I did think Gallant was kind of namby pamby when I was a kid…

  6. Jerzy

    I generally find that if you are a competent worker and you’re having trouble with someone who does not share your work ethic, chances are, it’s been noticed by other competent workers. I’m not surprised your boss already knows what’s going on, though it probably would have been nice for you if he had broached the subject by asking how this project was going and if you’re getting everything you need. He didn’t have to throw Cecil under the bus either, but maybe the two of you could have worked on a solution, rather than you stressing about it all on your lonesome.

    I’d also like to add that the number of people I’ve seen who are lazy/unqualified for their positions, but their managers can’t/won’t fire them is, as the meme says, “Too damn high!” This is especially true in government organizations where firing can be next to impossible, and the incompetent and the lazy are treated exactly the same as the hard-working and the innovative. Talk about a morale killer!

    1. Stranger than fiction

      Yep I was just saying this upthread a bit. And actually, I have a coworker who I’m constantly saying is incompetent and asking myself why they’re still here. The only answer I can come up with is that they’re really a “yes person” and that is needed for that role. Otherwise, ugh, they can barely turn their computer on by themself and pretty much spends their day asking everyone for everything. Great so you can delegate good for you.

      1. Jerzy

        I once worked with a receptionist who refused to answer the phone if she was, say, opening the mail. Seriously.

        The worst part: This was a government office, which means tax dollars were paying her salary.

        The ironic part: She and the politicians in the office were all Republican, and no one batted an eye at this complete waste of tax dollars and general goldbricking.

    2. Brooke

      Yep. People think I’m an freakin’ EXCEPTIONAL employee because I do my job reliably and accurately. The bar has been set so low that I really don’t have to go above-and-beyond in order to be thought of as walking on water.

  7. Mimmy

    and because I wasn’t throwing my colleague under the bus – he was already living under that bus.

    That part gave me a chuckle!

    If nothing else, knowing that your boss and Cecil’s boss are already aware of the problem validates your concerns.

    1. Not So NewReader

      People do worry about throwing someone under the bus, but I think there is a balancing point after which it becomes covering up someone’s incompetence. But this is one of those things that it’s not always clear where the balancing point is. Particularly, if you do not know the history of the person or know what other people are experiencing.

      1. Judy

        I guess I see “throwing someone under the bus” as an act of blaming someone for something that is at least partially your fault, not factually noting that someone didn’t do their job.

        So if a manager told me to do X and then claimed no knowledge of me doing X when a superior asked about it, that’s throwing me under the bus. Or, even worse, if they said they explicitly told me not to do X.

  8. BadPlanning

    I know this doesn’t seem that satisfying to the readership, but I say, good job, OP! Some people would just get stuck in the complaint cycle and not seek a solution around it.

    1. interesting

      Agreed. I’m not sure how to address my current lazy coworker that has currently convinced management to let her work from home. When she works from home I end up doing her job as well when she is not here, so… yeah this is better than not saying anything for sure.

    2. Not So NewReader

      Actually, OP made lemonade here. OP took a tough situation and found a way to shine by presenting a good idea that the company can keep using.
      This makes me chuckle, because people who don’t do their jobs do not realize how it is an opportunity for someone else to show their abilities and creativity. Nature abhors a vacuum, someone will fill in the empty spot a non-working cohort has created.

      1. OP

        You guys are really kind, but I think you are giving me a little too much credit. The George solution was fortuitous, and I was lucky that I happened to be working on both projects. I’d bet my hat that in an organization as big and bulky as mine is, there are dozens of instances where two different analysts are creating the same report for different people and no one realizes it.

        As I’ve read through the responses to this post and revisited my own thinking, I’m seeing that there were opportunities to be a better project manager that I didn’t see at the time.

        But I appreciate the kudos – and the sound advice. There’s a good reason why I check this blog like 15 times a day…

        1. TootsNYC

          Don’t sell yourself short. Sure, you had to be in a position to see George, but you DID see that solution. And you implemented it. Plenty of other people wouldn’t be proactive about it.

          Also, sure, those opportunities are there, and you missed them. But you have to be in a position to see them. You started thinking, and that’s why you see them now. It’s just that you found your solution before you needed those other ones.

      2. TootsNYC

        I agree–And this is great problem-solving. Put this on your list of “why I deserve a promotion, or at least a very good percentage for my raise.” And on your list of “problems I solved” when you go interviewing for the next job.

  9. Jessie

    I think the OP handled this like a pro. Instead of just bringing the problem to his/her boss (i.e. “Cecil isn’t doing what I need for me to get my work done”), he instead brought him a solution, while still making sure to highlight why a solution was necessary. Kudos.

  10. AE

    Rather sad that it’s a known problem and affecting other people, but good for you for coming up with a workaround. I have had a couple of coworkers who just plain didn’t care about my piece of their job and focused on something else. I have used different tactics but eventually it comes to my boss talking to their boss. I can handle not being the top priority all the time, but sometimes you just have to be the squeakier wheel.

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