incompetent coworkers

Two readers write in with the same problem.

Reader #1 writes:

I have a co-worker who has been here for a period of 8 months, and we are part of a team — she loads items to be placed onto the site that I work for (and is the basis of our company) and I keep in touch with the publishers/accounts. Since this past November, she has not been taking notes, placed the wrong items on-site losing sales for the company and discrediting the company’s reputation, and is general a hassle to work with.

I have made some of these items known to my manager this past November; however, I am ready to take a more detailed approach to my manager in hopes of being re-teamed with another member of the team or getting this co-worker some additional training. I don’t want to seem like a tattletale or pointing fingers, but I’m a hard worker and it’s bringing my efforts down.

Any thoughts on how I should approach my manager and still seem a team player (and have the best efforts of the company in mind)?

And Reader #2 writes:

I’m a communications coordinator and am having difficulties working with my web person/colleague, J. J. does not report directly to me (or my supervisor) but because a number of my projects involve the web, I find myself working with her often and in a project management role.

This past year has been very difficult and distressing in working with her. Firstly, her skill level is far below what is required in her position. What this has resulted in is many web projects that go through a “trial and error” process (reply forms not working, poor design/navigation, broken links, “page under construction”, etc.) – often for as long as a year. The quality of her work is not an accurate measure/reflection of my work, and this is what I’m most concerned about. I’ve been assessed as a top performer in my department and have worked hard to gain credibility among my directors. However, I fear that my work suffers whenever I am paired with J. And, as this is the web medium, much of the final product is viewed publicly, more often with my name attached to the project rather than hers.

Her performance standards are also lacking in her punctuality (late for meetings), missing priority deadlines (she will miss important deadlines or provide them at 4:30 pm on the day it is due), and there is a general feeling of resentment in the department (not from me, but others) that she is unfairly granted extended vacations when she does not have the seniority (or the performance record) to do so.

I have researched and produced a business case study outlining my needs for having a web person with considerably higher skill qualifications to achieve my communication plan goals and objectives. The proposal is sound, with the input and support by others outside of my department who have also struggled in working with J’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, we are not in a budget position to create a new position, which means she’s not going anywhere fast. I have also resorted to documenting our emails and tasks in order to make sure that I’m covered when it comes to deliverables that she has said she would complete in time, which often expends a lot of my time and energy away from my own workload.

Complicating matters even further – J’s boss is completely passive and avoids conflict resolution at all costs. He asked me to provide comments on Js performance review earlier this year – and I reiterated my business case proposal and cited specific examples of where I felt she needed to be coached/supported in either correcting her mistakes or producing deliverables in a timely fashion. That was eight months ago and nothing has improved, and I’ve been asked again to provide a performance review as she approaches surpassing her midpoint salary grade.

What can I do in a situation like this? I can see no end in sight of having to work with her and with more large (and visible) projects looming in the next year, I’m becoming increasingly agitated by her performance. Also, this is preventing me from adding projects to my own portfolio and in submitting my work for industry awards, because the end product looks like crap.

Okay, this is one of my favorite topics. First, I want to note that the standard advice when you have a crappy coworker is to keep your mouth shut unless the coworker is interfering with your ability to do your job and get results. As it happens, in both your cases, she is. However, since we’re discussing it, I want to mention that I don’t always agree with that limit. As a manager, I want to know if my people are getting demoralized by a coworker’s shoddy performance, even if it’s not impacting their work directly. And I want to know what they might be observing that I haven’t picked up on, so I can pay closer attention. To be clear, I don’t want to hear about it repeatedly, but I do appreciate a one-time heads-up, delivered in a discreet, professional way, if it comes from a solid employee. Does every manager share this stance? No, of course not. But I believe plenty of the good ones do.

Okay, back to the questions. In your cases, the coworkers are affecting your ability to get good results, so this is pretty clear cut. Go to your manager with specific examples of the problem (feel free to take notes in with you to keep your thoughts organized). Keep it impersonal and unemotional — keep your tone even and measured, not frustrated — and explain that you feel uncomfortable bringing this to the manager but it’s affecting your own results and the company overall. Ask her how you should handle it.

For Reader #2, your nemesis has a different boss from you, and he’s passive. That’s fine — that’s where your boss comes in. Your boss can address the issue with the other boss directly and if she doesn’t get what she needs, she can escalate it to her own boss. (And when you talk with your boss, make sure to mention you’ve provided feedback to the other boss in the past and it hasn’t made a difference.) If your own boss shies away from confrontation, you may have to nudge her — but hopefully you have a decent boss who will do her job and address this crap. And if you don’t, honestly, get out — if you have a passive boss, you’ll never be able to get what you need.

By the way, as a side note: In some situations I’d advise talking to the coworker directly first and seeing if you can solve anything that way. But I’m becoming increasingly convinced that incompetence of this sort rarely changes, at least not without some extreme hands-on management by a vigilant boss.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Lisa*

    The gem of this post is right there at the end:

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that incompetence of this sort rarely changes, at least not without some extreme hands-on management by a vigilant boss.

    Me too!

  2. The Engineer*

    In the second case I would definitely stop doing the performance review for the “other” supervisor. Five will get you ten that the comments you provided last time are exactly what was written on J’s last performance review. I don’t think an obviously passive supervisor is looking to incorporate you unique insights, rather they are looking for an easy out.

    If I gave any feedback it would be a short email stating that she has made no improvement and her performance is below expectations. I wold cc my boss and talk with them about the problem. That conversation should have already happened but it is mandatory now.

    In both cases you need to do more than document the problems with the other employee. You need to document how you tried to help, coach, etc. Yes that is unfair, but you are part of a “team.” At a minimum this issue will be raised by the other employee since all poor performers seek to place the blame elsewhere.

  3. Onehealthpro*

    Call me an idealist, but my question is where are the managers of these incompetents? Too many organizations fail to use appropriate recruting techniques, fail to train what they do recruit, then when their recruits don’t perform, the organization repeats the above formula leaving great employees frustrated and actively searching for new employment.

  4. Productivity Guy*

    I agree with most of the suggestions. As a manager, I want to know if someone is underperforming, even if from someone who doesn’t report to me.

    That being said, the talk about having a “business case” laid out seems over the top. As a manager, if someone came to me with a prepared business case, an alternate hire ready to go, so on and so forth, the abruptness (assuming I wasn’t aware of the issue) might cause me to get slightly defensive. I’d rather hear that one of my employees sucks rather than get hit with a carefully prepared list of why that employee sucks and how they can be replaced – sounds odd, I don’t know how to explain it. :o)

  5. Sandy*

    Regarding reader #2’s comments,

    “Also, this is preventing me from adding projects to my own portfolio and in submitting my work for industry awards, because the end product looks like crap.”

    In broadcasting, I know what was submitted for awards had to have been used “live” at one time. Even if not used on-air, commercials either too edgy or not liked by the client, but still excellent examples of someone’s talent could still be found floating around in the industry.

    Since the awards and portfolio are personal goals and rather than feel helpless to this person, are you able to simply improve on your co-worker’s flawed areas and submit them as retouched?

  6. Sandy*

    P.S. Can you ask a web design colleague who’s work you like to help you off the clock? As well, when applying for jobs and your bosses see your portfolio and then the live version, I’m sure then they can see your true work level.

    Additionally, as a programmer/web developer in training myself, I’m sure any veteran programmer boss worth their salt can probably separate your work from the web designer’s.

    For the maybe-not-technical HR person, you can give them the improved portfolio as a better introduction to your work.

    It’s tough. I understand your concerns. Few non-technical folks realize the depths of effort and training that go into even a bad website. I myself have spent $40,000 in student loans so far. A professional site can represent almost $250,000 of technical training! ..And in 30 seconds, people are on to the next site. :-?

  7. Anonymous*

    This situation really sucks! I am currently in the same boat, having a coworker with whom I share data analysis work. She is in way over her head, and I started out trying to be a mentor to get her up to speed. The funny part is that I’m the newbie in this company, and I’m trying to teach her how to understand the work she’s been doing way before I came aboard. Our department bonus is based on a team survey, and she consistently brings in the low scores. Our boss thinks she’s doing a great job, but she spends most of her time getting help from 3rd party support. So basically she’s getting paid to ask someone else to do her work for her. She has tried that one with me several times as well, and I’m not doing it anymore. I’ve tried the mentoring, but she just can’t comprehend logic. And in these situations, it’s usually “me or her”. Since my boss is passive, I think I’ll be better off moving on.

  8. still anonymous*

    I also have voiced my frustation to my boss who is admittedly unsure of how to handle this. Could that mean that she’s ready to let her go or demote her and bring in someone wit skilz? Or is she thinking about how to diffuse me without taking care of the real problem?

    In regards to the 2nd case, a business case is really overboard. But I give you props for being prepared. As a manager, I would want to know if my staff is underperforming…but then again, I wouldn’t need someone to tell me, because a good manager already knows. In fact I just had to let someone go a few weeks ago for being a slacker. How did I know they were a slacker? Poor turnaround on projects, multiple mistakes in every single project, and lack of communication.

    The point is, I was paying attention and was not afraid to address the situation. The problem with most managers here is that they just don’t care enough. They’re just too complacent. This country’s work ethic has gone to hell.

  9. Anonymous*

    Very interesting, but this does only make sense if the manager cares about the competence of staff.

    In my own case, there are two levels of managers above me and incompetent coworkers. The "nearest" manager actively protects the incompetent because the coworker is less of a "squeaky wheel" than those who really want to make the department work better. The manager above takes a very hands-off approach and will not get involved in directly managing employees.

    In order to get things better, the competent staff have had to continually cajole management into taking action, and when we have to do so, the manager begins to either defend the problem workers, or avoid the issue entirely, or snap at those who actively try to make the workplace more efficient.

    Posted anonymously because I don't want this coming back to me in the workplace, though I welcome the advice.

  10. Chambeeze*

    My advice is “live you life” a job/career is a means to an end (hopefully) family is more important. Incompetent people are EVERYWHERE and in this country no one wants to correct the problem so great employees become apathetic (like me!). I used to care, I would take issues to my Manager. I would address the issue with the person directly and you know what happened?? I became the “problem”. What I learned was at the end of the day, I’m just a number and have no authority to “change” anything so I just document what isn’t my fault and sit back and let the chips fall where they may. If something get’s screwed up by the incompetent waste of space, I just make sure to be no where near it or at least show that it was out of my control and that seems to be working fine. Managers generally don’t like dealing with conflict and want you to “work it out on your own” my solution to that is “avoidance”. I come to work, do my job and GO HOME!! This is why the US is failing by the way, we are more interested in saving peoples “feelings” than making people productive and competent. But what do I know?

      1. Me Too*

        Chambeeze has nailed it. Avoidance is my strategy as well. Unfortunately our company is small and I feel like our incompetent waste of space is bringing our whole company down. The boss harps on everyone about being more efficient and making fewer mistakes, yet this person that screws up everything she touches is still working at the company, has been there longer than anyone, and will probably be the last one let go. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we will be closing soon. I just hope I can get some time off with worker’s comp when it happens.

  11. Vigilant Boss*

    “I’m becoming increasingly convinced that incompetence of this sort rarely changes, at least not without some extreme hands-on management by a vigilant boss.”

    That, too, is demoralizing for the boss. I feel like I have to totally infantalize this person who knows the job but has no ability to plan, make decisions, or take responsibility. I didn’t micromanage at first, but I’ve found that nothing gets done if I don’t and nothing gets done right if I don’t check behind him. Plus, he lies to me about his accomplishments. He will tell me everything has been done when it clearly has not. I had to find this out the hard way by people coming to me with problems, or filling in for him on his days off. It’s not “tattling” if the incompetent person has one competency: looking good for the boss.

    1. Vootstar*

      I agree — it’s the manager’s responsibility to fire the incompetent employee. I am at the point where I don’t want to work with my coworker any longer, but I’ve already complained once, and it got me nowhere. The level of incompetence I must deal with day to day is shocking and saddening. If it were me, I would see the problem and lay off the incompetent employee already because it’s so demoralizing for those who really do try hard to do their jobs with quality and commitment!

  12. Vigilant Boss*

    I’m piling up the documentation but my own boss is reluctant to move in that direction. She wants me to “rehabilitate” him but he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes or from my coaching.

  13. Ronnie*

    I work in a care home so everyone needs to pull thier weight and also have some level of experience of looking after people, yet i am constantly having to show/explain and shadow new staff who have no prior experience or cannot speak or understand english properly, as a result my workload is constantly increasing and find i am rushing things and not giving the clients quality time, also new staff realise they cant do the job due to the pressures and demands and so leave, and that leaves me starting the cycle again of new staff who dont have a clue about the job, my manager has even said she employs staff because she thinks they are caring people and not on experience, which is stupid, if targets are not met she goes mad and asks how and why this can happen, blaming all us employees for her incompetence, i am constantly frustrated at work and i work for minimum wage caring/nursing elderly people with dementia

  14. Louse*

    This is absolutely rediculous! There are any number of ways a manager can investigate and verify an employess claims about a coworker rather than dismissi it if they decide. When people bring this up they are already demoralized. A clever manager can quickly come up with a plan to substantiate the claims. Not dong that, and leaving it to the workers to “work it out” that just bullshit management.

  15. Brazil Manager*

    It’s a tough world for incompetent employees as well.By the time their poor performance starts showing its face, these people are beat-weary of the difficulties in this cruel and crazy world.

    Ask me, I manage construction projects the developing world where incompetence can sometimes seem like the norm instead of the exception. Do I fire everyone? Do I just leave?

    At work- just like in real (and) personal life-things are just not clear cut and easy answers (this guy is incompetent) neither make a difference nor make practical business sense.

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