reasons why your awful coworker still has a job

It’s the great workplace mystery:  How does your slacker coworker who does almost nothing at the office still have a job when you know tons of great people who are out of work?

There’s a simple answer: Your manager is too lazy or too scared to do her job. And she’s not alone – many managers allow their desire to be nice and to avoid difficult conversations to trump the fundamental obligations of their job. Among the most basic responsibilities of managing are holding a high bar and expecting people to meet it, warning them when they’re falling short, and taking action when that doesn’t change anything.

Many bad managers, when faced with an employee who needs to be warned in clear terms that her job is on the line if she doesn’t improve, instead take little or no action at all. Their reasons, weak as they are, are as follows:

1. They can’t bring themselves to have a hard conversation. Because it is hard. Telling someone that they’re in danger of being fired is really difficult. It’s also a manager’s job and they’re paid to do it. Managers who don’t are neglecting their most basic duties.

2. They’re worried about how much time it will take to find and hire a replacement. This is a terrible excuse, because strong performers will get up to speed quickly. But even if this weren’t the case, a good manager would choose a short period of downtime followed by an all-out stellar performance, instead of years of mediocrity.

3. They feel sorry for the employee. It’s only human to feel compassion for someone who may be losing their job. Managers should feel compassion. But managers who handle the situation directly make sure that the employee knows what the problems are, knows that their job could be in jeopardy, and has a real chance to improve. That’s far kinder than not being honest and instead putting her at the top of a layoff list one day.

4. They’re hoping the employee will leave on her own. This is a terrible approach; after all, if sales numbers were down, the manager wouldn’t just rely on wishful thinking to get them back up. A good manager, when confronted with a problem, makes decisions and takes action – especially when it comes to something as crucial as having the right people on her team.

5. Misunderstanding the law. Some managers think they can’t fire anyone who’s a member of a legally protected class (i.e., race, religion, national origin, pregnancy, etc.). This is a horrible misunderstanding of the law, which simply says that your reason for firing the person can’t be their membership in that legally protected class. In other words, you can’t fire someone for being pregnant, but you can fire someone pregnant for being a low performer.

So if you have an awful coworker who somehow seems to hang onto her job despite poor performance, the blame lies squarely at the feet of your manager.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Great post, Allison. I’d like to offer another possibility, that is, that the co-worker is excelling in areas that are visible to the manager but not to other employees. I was actually in this spot in a previous job, where I was behind on some tasks on one project, but was working on another project that brought in substantial revenues. Some co-workers saw only the first project and, for various reasons, were less informed of the value of the second. Of course my bosses and other key co-workers knew what was going on and emphasized that my priority should be the second project, but I am sure I was on the receiving end of some gossip.

    1. Ask a Manager*

      This is very true. I once worked with someone who annoyed the hell out of all his coworkers and in some ways really made their jobs more difficult. However, he was immensely talented at the core work he did and brought in more money than almost anyone else on staff. It was a bitter pill for everyone else to swallow, I think.

    2. Jamie*

      I agree – and I really try to make this my default assumption on this. Unless I definitively know otherwise I assume that the people who are sub par (imo) where their jobs intersect with mine are awesome in other areas that I don’t see.

      Whether true or not it cuts down the whole festering in resentment thing.

    3. Anonymous*

      Doesn’t this kind of go along with the “treat others as you would like to be treated” idea. If you yourself are this snarky, what are the others thinking about you? After all, the odds are 50/50 that you are a below median employee…right?

  2. KellyK*

    I’m going to guess that it’s because it can be difficult to fire people, so it’s easier to put up with mediocrity than get rid of it in a lot of cases.

  3. Anonymous*

    “Slacker” is a term that is used a lot, but familiarity doesn’t make it nice. However, I will freely admit I loath snark, and sometimes see it when it isn’t there, or when it isn’t intended to be there. I’m fussy that way! It is probably one of those generational things, you dagnabbit young’uns! :)

    “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
    Thumper, quoting his father

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, you’re talking about my post, not the commenters! In that case, I stand by my description of some people as slackers. I mean, I could have written “low performers” or something, but then this would be a whole different blog. :)

  4. Hannah*

    All the points in the article are true but it definitely assumes that the employee is, in fact, a slacker. A lot of people mix up attitude/personality traits with productivity. If an employee knows he is doing good work he will be comfortable and relaxed at work. If another employee has to race to make every deadline, she might get the idea that she is working harder than anyone else. It’s the manager’s job to have a full perspective of the situation, so unless/until you get promoted and have that scope, you should avoid making judgement about who’s a slacker based on what could be the completely wrong criteria.

    1. Anon*

      I’ve fallen for this one actually. A few years ago, I had a coworker who was really laidback. I didn’t know him very well and my impression of him was that he was a bit lazy and didn’t work as hard as others. Then, our schedules changed a bit and I worked with him more and realized he was great at his job. I’ve never been a flailer myself, but mistook his comfort with the job and laidback attitude for someone who wasn’t working as hard. If anything, he worked smarter, not harder (to borrow an overused phrase). It was a good lesson for me and one I try to remember.

    2. Anonymous*

      When I had my first child, I was working in an office with a lot of single 20 year olds. They would drift in late, take long lunches, socialize in the break room, and then they’d stay late “working overtime” (though just as often as not they’d actually be playing networked video games). I would get into the office two hours early and focus on my work to get it done so that I could leave “early” (it was actually the time I was scheduled to leave), but because I wasn’t putting in the face time at the same time as my coworkers and wasn’t socializing with them during the day, the gossip was that I was now a horrible slacker–even though I was actually working longer hours than the majority of my coworkers. The frustrating thing was that I didn’t have management support because they saw all the other workers putting in OT, and they assumed that I was leaving my coworkers in the lurch rather than helping out with the workload. The managers didn’t understand that the OT would not have been necessary if the other employees had actually worked steadily throughout the day.

  5. Anon*

    My Mom’s boss does all of these except for #5, she’d probably do #5 but she’s so fond of #4 that it never gets to #5.

    In the 12+ years my mom has worked for her, they’ve only fired 1 employee, out of several really bad apples. And that employee worked for them for over 4 years before she could bring herself to finally start documenting her poor performance so they could fire her. Imagine 4 years of working with someone whose grasp of her job functions was on par with a particularly slow new hire but who got so defensive about asking for help (she always needed help) that she would just try to guess on her own and got it wrong just about every time. A very nice person, but terrible at her job. She cost them money, goodwill with customers and made everyone else’s jobs more difficult because you couldn’t trust her with her own job duties.

    Right now, my mom has been dealing with a coworker who lies and tries to get other employees (including my mom) in trouble. This employee has actually grabbed coworkers by the arm to drag them over to an area where they made a mistake, to berate them. She has yelled at coworkers when they’ve made mistakes and tries to involve everyone in her dramas. She makes no effort to help with general duties (even answering the store phone) during busy times, but does not hesitate to stop others from doing their jobs to help her when she’s busy. Luckily, she’s been looking for a new job and finally found one last week.

    These are just 2 examples of the chaos that reigns in the store, because my mom’s boss doesn’t want to do the more difficult jobs as a manager. She’s great about letting people off to deal with family issues or having fun in the office, but she doesn’t like to do the tough stuff. Currently, she doesn’t like for 2 of the hardest working employees to be off at the same time. If they are, then stuff doesn’t get done that day. So instead of managing her other employees, she makes it difficult for her two best employees to use their time before it expires. :eyeroll:

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Exactly — managers who are afraid of tough conversation with their bad employees end up losing their good employees, who end up getting frustrated and going elsewhere.

  6. Joey*

    Some managers I’ve seen, especially when they hired the person, are reluctant to fire because they dont want to accept that they failed either in hiring, managing or both.

  7. Anonymous*

    Hmmm, let’s analyze how my coworker gets away with a fire-able offense.

    1. I have been saying this for a long time now. When he deals with an upset customer, his face turns red. You can see it; the redness crawls up his neck, into his ears, and into his face. So, if he can barely stand talking to a difficult customer, how is it he can talk to an employee with a problem.

    2. I am definitely in a field where it doesn’t necessarily come easy unless you have worked in a different company of the same field. However, the employee works the fewest of hours so while it might be inconvenient, the paycheck for me will go up for a time being.

    3. Sorry? Sure, this employee has had it hard in life for a while, but, not to sound unsympathetic, how long can he remain sympathetic. And yes, I get what you mean by feeling sorry for losing a job and perhaps not adding it to whatever else might be going on in someone’s life. But let’s feel a little sorry for those who actually do our jobs properly and don’t exactly get acknowledged.

    4. Leaving…well, this person does have other jobs, but still hasn’t left yet. I doubt it’ll happen anytime soon.

    5. This doesn’t petain to my coworker.

  8. Katia*

    I’m probably going to get some angry responses, but here goes:

    It’s also a very real possibility that union membership, or overly-protective, convoluted HR policies make it almost impossible to fire someone.

    I work at a university, and it is extremely difficult to fire people here, even when they do things that would be an automatic ‘fire’ in the private sector. You basically have to do the same EXACT thing wrong 3 times to be fired. You could do 50 different horrible, outrageous, offensive things two times each, and still not be fired. You could even have consistently low performance and not be fired, as long as you’re not written up for similar ‘instances’ of low performance. It’s maddening. Not just because the “slacker” employee is still working here, but because it’s part of why the general population has a somewhat low opinion of public employees. Firing us is hard, and to some extent, it fosters an environment of laziness. (That said, I really have to emphasize that I work with some extraordinarily talented, hard-working people – we’re not all lazy schmucks!).

    And unfortunately, many employees here are members of unions that are extraordinarily protective of even their lowest performing members. So it’s tough to see bad workers not only keep their jobs, but get automatic raises.

      1. Joey*

        Here’s the real problem. Managers don’t do their part so they don’t get to fire people. That is they don’t do evaluations, give feedback, enforce policies consistently, take corrective action or you know manage. So its tougher to justify firing the employee when the manager didn’t give them every opportunity to succeed.

        And you have to always remember that unions have to represent all of their employees not just the good ones. Its sort of like the public defender who has to represent the guilty too. Theyre still obligated to get what’s best for their client.

    1. Cassie*

      I’m at a university too, and I don’t think anyone has ever been fired from my dept (as long as I’ve been there), but I don’t think anyone has done anything egregious. There are definitely some under-performers. Two things usually happen with these underperformers: 1) they get their workload lessened by asking for tasks to be given to other coworkers or 2) coworkers naturally avoid going to them to get stuff done and find other staffers to take care of issues, thereby reducing the problem staffer’s workload for them.

      The biggest problem is that management is so loathe to provide useful, actionable feedback – both in annual performance evaluations and on a daily/regular basis. It would be one thing if these employees were doing good quality work and at a good volume, but they’re not. They definitely could do better (these are not “dumb” people”) but they are getting by with being lazy. On top of that, one of the managers at the top is friends with these underperformers.

      There was one staffer who was struggling with her tasks. The managers tried to figure out what to do with her – they couldn’t let her go (they technically can, but they didn’t want to) and they couldn’t move her to other duties (they didn’t want to deal with actually making changes). They decided to meet with her to discuss her performance – I suggested to them that they be specific – paying attention to details was very important for that job. If she’s entering appointments wrong on the calendar, bring it up. If she’s sending out announcements with typos, print it out and show her. That sort of thing. I wasn’t in the meeting with the staffer, but I doubt they followed my suggestions – they instead thought I was being mean(!) just because I wanted them to be specific!.

      Anyway, she ended up quitting without notice one morning. So that problem was resolved (but she ended up leaving a bunch of unfinished work – some of it she hadn’t even started to work on, even though she had been sitting on it for a couple of months!).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ugh. This speaks to such a lack of clarity from your managers about what they’re there to do. While you certainly see it in every sector, I’m convinced one reason you see it more in academia is because the mission isn’t as clear as in other sectors. In for-profit businesses, the bottom line is obvious — profit. In nonprofits that know what they’re doing, the bottom line is impact on the world. In academic settings, results are harder to measure and so it’s easier for managers to get away with this mindset that “nice” is more important than effectiveness.

      2. Anonymous*

        Wow. I used to work for a public university with the same exact union issues and I am relieved that I am not alone in my frustration. In one department, I witnessed a coworker criminally threaten another and as punishment this person was merely transfered to another department. Another coworker ran a side business selling greyhound coats (yes, greyhounds wear coats)…and she ran this business during working hours at the university and with supplies paid for by the university. Her punishment? There never was any. These are just two examples. It was maddening.

    2. GeekChic*

      While I can sympathize with this sentiment I would note that being in a union by itself has very little to do with making it difficult to fire someone – it just places rules and procedures around firing.

      If managers do not use the tools available to them (even in union environments) to progressively discipline employees and even get rid of them – that is not the fault of the union, that is the fault of management.

      Also, management is an equal party to all union contracts. If they don’t like certain provisions of the contracts – they shouldn’t agree to them. And I say this as a former manager.

  9. Beth*

    Another factor that might be the case is that the employee is a master at the whole water-cooler networking thing that most people with a strong work ethic eschew. I used to be one of those people. No matter what my job was, from my first job at Kmart to my current job at a school, I went to work to work. It’s not that I was rude to other employees, but I focused very hard on the work I was given and didn’t get drawn into conversations or workplace drama.

    I’ve learned the hard way that this is rarely a good way to get ahead at work. I have been noticed for my work, but not a heck of a lot more than the socializers even in the best cases. And the rest of the time, I’m actually treated with less consideration because those socializers became buddies with the manager. Believe me, the BFF drama did not die after high school.

    I’m trying to strike a balance now between doing good work and being involved with my co-workers. It’s very hard for me because I’m genuinely not interested in who broke up with whom or whose kids are in soccer, etc. But it’s amazing how much less resentment I feel when it’s not just me plugging away and them standing around talking. And I don’t overdo it; I still don’t stand around for half an hour shooting the breeze, but a few minutes here and there goes a long way, and my work still gets done. Sometimes I even think it gets done better because I pick up ideas from other people.

    Anyway, it’s still a manager problem if she’s such good buddies with the slacker that she absolutely can’t see his faults, but I had to point out that when the playing field isn’t level anyway, sometimes you have to play their game a little to get ahead. When nepotism determines who goes and who stays, knowing you were a good employee isn’t going to make unemployment easier.

    1. Cassie*

      I am the same way as you – I’m just not interested in standing around and discussing the best horror movies of all time. Or every minute of your trip to Vegas. And definitely not what happened on last night’s episode of The Bachelor.

      It’s one thing to discuss issues with coworkers and try to brainstrom, but I think chatting about personal stuff should be held to a minimum. Obviously, we shouldn’t feel like we’re being censored, but my coworkers tend to be really loud (volume-wise), and they seriously stand there for like 10 minutes and talk. There needs to be a balance and I wish people would be considerate and mindful of that so no one has to police them.

      And it definitely is about playing the game – even if you don’t want to. There is one staffer who pretty much keeps to herself on a daily basis, but she does join in the birthday and holiday parties, and she’ll bring back small trinkets or treats when she gets back from vacation. I personally wouldn’t go that route (it’s okay if I’m an outcast, because my boss thinks I’m amazing), but it’s a way for her to stay out of the crosshairs without wasting too much of her work day.

  10. NikkiN*

    AAM- what are your thoughts on response from the manager to the complaining staff? What if the employee under scrutiny does excel in other areas? Do you suggest sharing that? Or how would you handle letting them know that the employee in question is being handled without violating privacy of HR processes?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve said stuff like “I know he makes your life harder in this area, but he’s hugely valuable to us because of ___.” I think that kind of candor is okay in most contexts. There are other times when the manager needs to say, “I appreciate the input and I’ve considered your points, but I’m asking you to focus on your own work and trust that I’m looking at the whole picture.”

      When the employee IS a problem and the manager is handling it behind the scenes, one option is to simply say, “Thanks for bringing me your concerns” (in a tone that doesn’t convey the opposite) and leave it at that. The complaining employee will eventually see that the manager did take action, when the person is either fired or fixes the problems.

  11. Dawn*

    Here’s another possibility: HR is scared of firing someone in a protected class and thinks the company will be sued; therefore, nothing is ever done about the slacker employee. This happens at my husband’s company all the time. There are two particular employees who have been there for 20 years each and are extremely lazy, sleep on the job (security on the 3rd shift), etc. Nothing is ever done about it because when the manager or HR says something, these guys pull the race card and say they’re being discriminated against. HR won’t let anyone fire these two guys so it just goes on and on.

  12. Goofy Goober*

    Here’s another reason: the co-worker has some sort of dirt on your manager, and are using it as a means of blackmail to keep their job. No matter how stupid or silly it is, some managers are terrified of what the co-worker may know, and this fear causes them to look the other way when disciplining them.

  13. Anonymous*

    I think my manager has not fired one of my coworkers because of his age. He is 62. I’m not sure if she is hoping he will retire soon or if she just feels sorry for him because if she lets him go he will be stuck looking for another job at his age. He has been here less than 2 years and I know he was not her first choice when she was hiring for the position. He first choices ended up not accepting the offer.

  14. Anonymous*

    Ugh this article hits home. I have a remote manager that refuses to even discipline a fellow coworker when I have brought MANY things to his attention.. including: completely unbalanced workload, the coworker going and doing his own thing and causing headaches for all other employees in the department, lack of team qualities, lack of forward progress, sleeping on the job (just recently, haven’t brought it to my mgr’s attention), etc. and the manager stands and defends him, saying he works hard (he really just puts on a hard-working face since the manager is remote so he has no idea what goes on here).. Frustrating. :( What’s worse is his lack of motivation and work ethics directly affects our productivity, via morale drop AND him not pulling his own weight with projects, leaving the rest of the team to pick up the pieces when deadlines get closer, as my manager is one of the “I don’t care who does it as long as it gets done” type of bosses..

    1. Jamie*

      “as my manager is one of the “I don’t care who does it as long as it gets done” type of bosses..”

      Your manager should hang on to that sentiment when he loses his decent employees to companies with effective managers.

      I know it stinks to be in your position, I know it first hand, but trust me their free rides don’t last forever; it just seems like it. A management change, restructure, someone resigning and work load shifts to where it can no longer be ignored…eventually those people have to buck up and work – and many of them can’t.

      1. Anonymous*

        The coworker in question has been here for 6 years and makes almost 6 figures. I don’t see that ride stopping for quite a while, unfortunately. The manager is going to lose most of us soon, but being 2 time zones away I guess he doesn’t realize it.

        He’s ignored work load shifts for the 3 years I’ve been here… we hired a new employee who is more of a junior level person, but him and I take on 90% of the work while the guy making double what we make takes on 10% and skates along.

        Oh well.

        1. Anonymous*

          Oh and the manager in question actually was promoted to a director’s position because of “how well he manages his team”

          I can’t roll my eyes enough.

  15. Anon*

    I second, third and fourth all of the above. How frustrating it is! I often think that if I did any of the things listed above I would be automatically fired, no questions asked but I am not that kind of employee. Rolling my eyes with you!

  16. Supervisor D*

    I had a person working for me that was unwilling to learn how to use the software properly to perform his duties.

    He was re-hired over my vehement protests after leaving in a lurch as management thought he was pivotal in developing the database. In reality, it was so poorly done that it was nearly unusable and I spent 3 years redeveloping it from scratch.

    After repeated complaints about his performance, even after I spent considerable time explaining the concepts and showing him how to implement, management grew tired of hearing from me and informed me that technical expertise was not as important as the interpersonal relationships between departments. Talk about fishing, sports, and camping trumped performing your duties.

    Fortunately for me, the individual was laid off. Unfortunately for me, if business picks up in the near term, I will have to do whatever it takes to get the job done by myself to prevent management from bringing the slacker back.

    This episode has made me lose all faith in management here and I’ll be leaving soon.

  17. Donna Bishop*

    It’s nonsense that these slackers, the REAL slackers, have some magical skills we don’t know of. Talking on the phone all day with your friends isn’t work. I couldn’t have been jealous or envious, whatever, of this person’s skills because I was too busy doing the work on THEIR desk!
    Also, some people are never fired or disciplined because they play some very political correct cards. I know this one spiteful, jealous person. I’ll call her Dianna B. Very limited, very conniving trouble maker. Lies to her own “friends” and gangs up on other people. When she wasn’t taking off fridays (somehow she was never in mondays and fridays, particularly payday fridays!), she was at her desk complaining about how hard she worked. Yeah, right. She was also sore because she wasn’t very bright yet was very envious of those who worked as supervisors.
    She was very open about playing the race card. Yes, there are people who do that, as I know it’s very politically incorrect to say so!
    Well, at least her make-shift position was scrapped and her trouble-making butt was transferred to another department. But rumour has it, she is still as envious and trouble-making as before! Good riddance!

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