dealing with a coworker who hoards all the work

A reader writes:

I perform the same job functions as a couple other people in my office. There’s one person who consistently does more work than the rest of us combined. She works late into the night, sometimes late into the next day, she gives up most of her weekends and always makes sure we know how stressed and busy she is and how much she’s working.

My problem? I want to do work, too! I like to be busy. But she hoards almost all of it. I’ve asked her for stuff when she complains about how stressed she is, but she says she has trouble delegating.

I also have let my boss know that I’m low on work, and I have also let her know that I am free and available and eager to take on others’ work to lighten their loads. Nothing really changes, though.

The part that kills me is that the hoarding colleague gets all of the praise for sending emails at 3 a.m. on Saturday or for the very long hours she works and her incredible rate of output. I don’t even have enough work on my plate to put in those kinds of hours. And frankly, it also seems like she’s being rewarded for something that is completely unnecessary. She’s working such long hours because she won’t pass off work that others could tackle for her. It’s starting to make me feel both angry and not very valued here. I go home having little to show for my days sometimes.

At this point, my boss is risking losing two people: one of us will burn out, and the other will leave out of boredom.

Is there anything you could suggest I do? Or is this just one of those things that won’t change? Maybe I need to start looking elsewhere? I’m tired of spending my days surfing the internet and trolling the office for tasks while my colleague drowns under a mountain of work and gets praised for it, while I feel like a useless slacker.

I should also add that I am good at my job and knows that my boss thinks so, too. This isn’t because I’m seen as incompetent (at least, to my knowledge!). This colleague has just been here longer and has a far deeper understanding of this place. I’m very happy here otherwise, but if this continues, I feel like I may need to think about other options.

Talk to your coworker, and if that doesn’t work, talk to your boss.

To start, you need to lay out the problem more directly for your coworker than you already have. Don’t just ask for work when she’s complaining about being stressed — that makes it sound like you’re offering to help her with a problem she has, and that it’s up to her whether she wants help or not. Instead, you need to make it clear that this is a problem for you — and that’s the crucial distinction.

Schedule a meeting with her — and possibly with the other people performing the same function as you two, depending on where they stand on this — and say that you’d like to discuss a better system for dividing workload. Then, be explicit. Say something like, “I do not currently have enough work to keep me busy, and it’s very frustrating to me. I need more work to do. At the same time, Jane, I see that you’re very busy. Since we’re all charged with performing the same work, we need a better system to divide workload so that it’s more evenly spread between us.”

If she resists, say, “My job is the same as yours, and yet our workloads are very different. And while I understand that you prefer to do this work yourself, I need to take some of it on, both because it is my job to do so and because it is my strong preference to have a fuller plate.” (And frankly, if you’re willing to, you might consider adding in that you’re at the point where it’s affecting your satisfaction with your job, because you are and it might be helpful for her to hear that.)

Come to this meeting prepared to suggest a new way of dividing up work. For instance: “My thought is that I can take everything related to A, B, and C, while you handle D, E, and F.” Or if the nature of your work doesn’t lend itself to that, “Let’s meet at the start of each week and figure out how to evenly divide that week’s projects.” Or just simply, “I’d like to start handling A, B, and C.” Or whatever — just come prepared with a proposal and share it.

If she argues with your proposal, then say, “Okay. What division would you prefer?”

If she absolutely won’t come around, then you say, “Okay. I think we should talk with (manager) about this and see if we can figure out a better solution.”

Then you talk with your manager. And you should be fairly candid about the fact that you’re frustrated with this, and that you’ve tried to solve it to no avail. That’s something your boss needs to know. After that conversation, you should have a better idea of whether this is going to change or not.

One other thing, though — it sounds like there’s a dynamic where you’re asking your coworker to share work with you, and she’s talking about not wanting to delegate it to you. But if you’re equals, how is she getting all this power over the work to begin with? How is it hers to delegate or not?  I don’t know what type of work you do and how it’s assigned, but it’s worth looking at how it’s all ending up with her in the first place. If someone else is assigning it directly to her, that’s an issue to tackle too. Or if it’s up for grabs but she gets to it first, you may need to change your habits in that area. It’s hard to say without knowing how the work is generated in the first place, but don’t neglect this piece of the issue.

Good luck.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. The OP*

    OP here. I’ve been so frustrated with all of this, so I want to thank you for giving me practical ways to change this situation. I hope to be writing a happy follow-up soon! Thank you, Alison.

        1. Sarah G*

          To me, it’s not the “Is this legal? ” questions; I actually find many of those quite entertaining. It’s the, “The hiring manager said ‘X’ at the end of my interview. Does this mean [I have a good chance, or I’m out of the running, etc.]?
          Those questions tend to be a lot more redundant, IMO. :)

  2. Mike C.*

    I have a coworker similar in many ways to this. He hordes all of the high visibility projects he can, excludes team members from high level meetings and emails, works crazy hours at times and goes so far as to take credit for others work. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of work to go around! The most irritating thing is that he’s genuinely a smart guy and does good work, and he’s great to shoot the breeze with. Just so long as I’m not working directly with him!

    While I see not all of this is the case in the OP, I do understand your frustration. A major part of job satisfaction comes from doing the actual job, and developing in your role as an employee. Being held back from that is a serious issue.

  3. DA*

    It sounds like you are working with a brown-noser. As a result, I suspect you will have very little luck dealing with your coworker (who despite constantly complaining about being overworked, basks in the limelight of management’s praise).

    Your only chance at things changing are with your manager. If things still don’t change, get out.

    1. AG*

      I agree, but at least if she follows the steps above she can tell her manager she honestly did her best to try to resolve the situation herself.

    2. Anonymous*

      Exactly. It’s not complaining. It’s bragging.

      OP still needs to go to the coworker and be direct about what she needs to change. I have a feeling, though, this is going to be something the manager will need to get involved with on, though, and if management is reluctant to handle the issue, then it’s a lost cause.

  4. Carrie in Scotland*

    OP I sympathise with a lack of work to do at work. This is the reason why I left my last job (not for the co-worker part though, just because it was a very…leisurely paced job) I hope that Alison’s advice helps you!

  5. Another Reader*

    OP, you’ve just gotten a lot of good advice on how to handle this. From a cynical point of view, I’d just add that your co-worker sounds as though she gets a lot of strokes from management for the current situation and probably has a vested self-interest in maintaining the status quo. Don’t be surprised if you reach an agreement and she drags her feet on implementing it. More cyncism: is she really that efficient or is she taking longer (and making more fuss) about doing the same workload others handle?

    1. Sydney Bristow*

      I agree with this. The coworker is the one that looks good here in the eyes of management, not because they are doing the best work or handling it efficiently, but because management sees the 3am emails as impressive. Hopefully the suggestions will be helpful to get the workload split, but if you have to go to your boss about it at least they will (hopefully) see what is really going on and that its to as impressive as they previously thought.

      1. CoffeeLover*

        I never understood why someone would be impressed by a coworker that seems to stay at work WAY more than people in similar positions. It makes me think there’s something wrong with the way that person works. Whether it’s that s/he has terrible time management, can’t delegate tasks, or can’t effectively communicate with others.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Me either; or it makes me think they have workaholic issues.

          Also, this kind of praise for killing yourself is very anxiety-provoking: the killee will always feel she has to work this hard to keep her standing, and other workers like the OP will feel as though they don’t measure up. All the while, everyone is wasting their energies on impossible standards.

        2. Sydney Bristow*

          I definitely don’t understand it either and it can be harmful to everyone involved.

        3. Kou*

          Totally agree. It’s that whole thing where people think seeing someone working long and hard is more valuable than learning how to manage their time/work better or, more importantly, a good output.

      2. BeenThere*

        Everyone needs to realise is that you can set your email program to send an email at a designated time. It was common practise to do this at a former workplace that valued face time over real deliverables, the group of us who did it thought it was hirlarious however it did have the expected impact we were percieved as the hard working go getters. sad really, we would have been more productive but gotten less recognition if we spend our time plotting emails on actual work.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          Wow, this hadn’t even occurred to me. You’re absolutely right of course; I’ve used this feature when sending emails overseas. (In my case, I wanted the message to arrive during business hours instead of in the middle of the night.)

          Can you imagine the co-worker deliberately setting their email account to send messages in the middle of the night to demonstrate their (exaggerated) hard work and commitment?

          1. tcookson*

            I hadn’t thought of that, either. The only time I’ve used it is when I don’t want to forget to send an email to a co-worker, but I know they’re the type to answer all emails immediately whether they’re on sick leave or what. I’ve set emails to go to them about an hour after start of business on the day they return.

        2. Tiff*

          I was just thinking that. Although I would use it for the opposite – I never wanted people to know when I was working really late because I thought it reflected poorly on my time management skills. I’ve got a co-worker who works late into the night and the general thought is that she is a nut.

    2. Cindy*

      I had a coworker exactly like this person. Part of why management loved and coddled her was that everyone believed that she was doing the work of two or three people, so if she got mad about something and left, they would have to make multiple hires during a hiring freeze.

  6. Julie*

    While I don’t know your coworker, one thing to also keep in mind is that she just might be inefficient at what she does. What takes you an hour might take her four. Therefore, you may have a similar amount of work but it just takes her much, much longer to do hers.

    I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, and even if it were, you should still come up with some more equitable way of managing the work. But it’s something to think about.

  7. VictoriaHR*

    Ah the martyr complex. I’ve dealt with it before. I think Alison’s suggestions here are spot-on.

    I like to be busy too and my job is cyclical – crazy busy one day, dead the next. So I sympathize with you wanting more work to do! I can’t take on more because then when the bidness hits the fan, I’m strapped.

  8. Jamie*

    Why oh why can’t the OP work with me?

    I do disagree with the comment above – I don’t think we have enough information to know the co-worker is a brown-noser. Some times you just get in a pattern and it’s easy to forget that it’s okay to slow down.

    Agree with Alison in that asking to help is very different from asking to divide the work. If you see me swamped and ask if you can help I typically say no, because it’s not worth taking an hour to train someone to do something I can do in a half hour. But if you wanted to be involved and take some tasks on regularly, out of needing more to do or an interest in the work I’d be all over that.

    But if it feels like a favor I decline most of the time, too.

    1. fposte*

      This is a good point. When I’m in the stressful place, it feels like more work for me to manage a task transfer than just to do the task myself.

      It also helps if your suggestion is something specific, like “How about I take over the receipts” or “handle N to Z?” rather than “How about I take some of it over?

    2. some1*

      “If you see me swamped and ask if you can help I typically say no, because it’s not worth taking an hour to train someone to do something I can do in a half hour.”

      I could be wrong, but I got the feeling the LW and her co-worker are counterparts, thus, LW is already trained on everything. This is work that should be shared between them but is not.

      1. Hmm*

        That’s what I was thinking too.

        In my personal life, I definitely tend to overwork myself because I don’t want to teach someone else to help me. It’s just easier to do myself.

    3. Kou*

      Agreed. She may also be afraid that giving away any of her work will reflect poorly on her and make her look lazy.

    4. tcookson*

      I’ve had trouble letting go of work before, too.

      Part of it was being stressed by having a new boss who is in a higher echelon professionally than others I’ve worked for (he has a successful private practice and has attained the highest possible academic rank). I thought that because he works pretty much 24-7 that, as his assistant, I had to be constantly available. I’ve since learned that I can answer his 10pm texts the next morning.

      Another part was not trusting myself to be able to communicate my complex thought process sensibly to another person who could help me. It wasn’t that I thougth they couldn’t do the work; it was that most of the work involved a moderately complex, if-then sort of decision-tree style of thinking that I implemented in an off-the-cuff manner. I couldn’t imagine being able to communicate that to someone and have it make sense to them. I was able to let go when a higher-level assistant MADE me give some of my lower-level tasks to the receptionist, and the receptionist actually understood how to take them over.

      I hated lettign go of my work, because I didn’t know how to. But when someone made me let go of specific things, I was so RELIEVED!

  9. Chinook*

    I dealt with this at one job and it was actually a way for her to control the other admins. It ended up costing the company money in the form of overtime but her supervising partner believed her when she said she was the only one capable of doing it. She would back this up by sabotaging anything she did delegate by giving incomplete information. Higher management did know about the problem and even forced her to share work, just like AAM suggests, but then she got less stealth about her bullying. She was eventually allowed to retire and everyone, except the admins, we’re surprised at how efficient everything ran when she was gone – not only was everything done competently but with little overtime.

    From that, I learned you have to have supervisors that back you up and then be willing to put up with fact that that type of change can take a long time to happen.

    1. Anonymous_J*

      This. Exactly. I worked with this same type of person. Unfortunately, managemement didn’t WANT to deal with the problem, so they made ME the problem, and I had to scramble to find another internal position before they laid me off.

      This woman is STILL in her role, and she is STILL an ogre.

  10. Gobbledigook*

    It sounds to me like your co-worker has issues much deeper than just “delegating work”. I would suspect she enjoys the praise she gets for doing the lion’s share of the work, is maybe even addicted to approval and is very insecure that approval will go away if you all do equal amounts of work. In her head, I would suspect, her value as an employee has become almost entirely built upon doing more work and putting in more hours. This could be because underneath this she’s afraid if her work is judged on an even playing field with yours, there will no longer be something making her “special”. The other thing is that she probably now feels she’s built up a precedent of what’s expected of her and now she cannot go back and do “less”.

    I’m very curious OP: Did she used to do this job by herself? She absolutely needs to hear you address this using suggestions like Alison’s. I think with these sorts of issues, she’ll keep going full-tilt ahead straight even if it causes a breakdown as you said. I suspect though, that it may take her hearing her manager’s tell her to actually do less work for her to have any sense of security that she can in fact break her own precedents and still be highly regarded and that in fact, her desire to do more, is causing damage. But I suspect there are serious control issues here. As frustrating as this is, try to have compassion. Her mind is probably a complete mess right now.

    I really hope this situation shifts for you, especially since you are otherwise very happy at your job which is more than many people can say. All the best to you and let us know how it goes.

    1. Jamie*

      The other thing is that she probably now feels she’s built up a precedent of what’s expected of her and now she cannot go back and do “less”.

      This is a very astute point. Whether or not it applies to the co-worker, it definitely is applicable to someone reading this.

      I am giving the co-worker the benefit of the doubt because this used to be me. Not in the sense of refusing to share – but being the only person in my position in the company and having a serious case of Imposter Syndrome when I first started I worked round the clock if I had to and I was not going to put something off if I could possibly help it. So everything got tended to asap…and people got very used to that. To the point of jokes about “working half days” if I left after 9-10 hours.

      I truly didn’t know how to ratchet it back without hurting how I felt I was perceived. It was like being stuck in a loop and even though it was a vicious cycle of my own making I didn’t know how to break it.

      Once I did break free I realized that while people still do not love to be told they need to wait – that they (and my reputation) will survive.

      Once you’re in that place, though, it can be hard to break out.

      1. nicole*

        I can relate to this. I tend to be an over-achiever and want to tackle all the tasks immediately which set up a certain expectation from coworkers. Not only that but I put this expectation on myself and felt like a slacker if I did the work in a regular speed. Needless to say I will do my best not to make that same mistake in future roles.

  11. Ann O'Nemity*

    I used to be a workaholic like the one the OP is complaining about. I can’t say I was in the exact shoes, but I wanted to offer my perspective. I graduated during the recession and was damn grateful to be hired. I was eager to take on new projects and really wanted to prove myself. Slowly, I was assigned more and more (and more!) work. My response to the boss was always, “Sure, no problem!” After almost a year of this, I was doing the lion’s share of work for my department. Since my boss was assigning the projects, I didn’t feel like I could delegate even if I wanted to do so. I started resenting my colleagues for surfing the web all day and leaving before 5, while they resented me for getting the best projects. (Frankly though, I was assigned the problematic, “shitstorm” projects just as often as I got the high profile ones.) It’s not like I set out to be a brown-noser, office martyr, or work bogarter – but that’s how the situation seemed to evolve. My solution was to schedule a sit-down “prioritization” meeting with my boss. It took about 6 weeks in total, but I’d say that at least 20% of my workload was transferred to other employees and we worked out a better system for determining who gets the new projects.

    1. Gobbledigook*

      I’m glad the situation worked out for you :-)

      The main difference I see here is that you were assigned more work and had a hard time saying no, whereas the OP’s co-worker (from what we know) seems to be self-assigning. I don’t know that you were comparing the two situations, I just thought that might be a worthwhile aspect to point out.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Good point. We don’t know how the work is getting distributed in the OP’s case – whether it’s self-assigned or assigned by the boss. Either way, the boss may not be fully aware of the disparity in workloads. Even in my case, I got that sense that my boss did not really consider capacity when assigning work, at least not in a systematic way.

  12. Just a Reader*

    This is tricky, culturally, as well. If the company values all the extra/personal time she’s putting in (red flag), there may be a perception of less work getting done on the team if she slows down or stops sending emails at obnoxious times.

    However, this type will typically find ways to let people know she’s working ridiculous hours and on her own time, so I wouldn’t anticipate that going away. OP will just need to find his/her own way to showcase work and results.

    1. Jamie*

      Some people have a perception that there is an issue with sending emails at odd hours, like it’s deliberate to make a point.

      I wouldn’t want to work in a culture where this was seen as more than it is – which is just the time I happen to be sending an email. If I can’t sleep and do a little work in the middle of the night instead of watching tv I should be able to send email without people thinking anything of it. Or if I get up at 3:00 AM to go to the bathroom I always check my email so I may reply before heading back to sleep…it’s just a matter of sending stuff as you think of it so others have the question/info whatever when they get into the office.

      I know some people think it’s all about kissing up – but a lot of workaholic behavior has zero to do with anyone else – for some people it’s just their nature or a cycle they are in. To steal an awesome phrase I learned here (from Rana or fposte?) they aren’t overworking “at you.”

      1. Just a Reader*

        It must be cultural–in all the jobs I’ve ever had, that’s been a red flag for not being able to manage your workload. My personal rule of thumb is no emails after 7pm unless it’s an emergency, because there’s a difference between working hard and training people to think you’ll be available at all hours.

        It’s very different for people in leadership positions. In my current company, leadership emails at all hours. But we are appropriately staffed, so nobody below executive level should be working in the middle of the night on a weekend.

      2. Tasha*

        Some nights I just can’t sleep at a reasonable hour, so I’ll finish a significant chunk of a project, draft an email at about 2:30, then leave it in my drafts folder until the next morning. If it’s just a quick response, though, I’ll often be on email at odd hours; universities are used to students who stay up late or get up early, and that attitude generally extends to non-student communications.

        1. Liz T*

          Yeah, it’s definitely dependent on the environment. (And now I’m smiling because I’m remembering the time I emailed a professor at 1 a.m., expecting to hear back in the morning, and got a response immediately.)

          1. Rana*

            Yeah, academia is an environment where a lot of people end up keeping weird hours, because the work tends to be task-based rather than time-based. If the work needs to be done, the work needs to be done.

            (Thank you, by the way, for not assuming you’d get an immediate response. When I was teaching, there were always a few people who’d freak out if they didn’t get an immediate response to an email sent at 3am about a complex project due the next day. Poor planning, much?)

            1. Tasha*

              Definitely. I just went through a three-week period where I was wrapping up work every night around midnight or 1, then getting up at 3:30 or 4 to start all over again. For the month before that, it was dead, and now there’s barely anything on my plate. On average, my hours are reasonable. It’s the standard deviation that gets annoying :)

  13. jill*

    So, this is only a related question, but answers might speak to the OP’s issue as well. I work in an environment where everyone is passionate and committed, but also very committed to the “crazy busy” narrative and falling on the sword of overwork. It’s my perception of my workplace that most people are not working in a very strategic way – just fighting fires as they come up rather than providing for long term planning that makes the whole operation more efficient, and often missing the prioritizing and saying no step in building out their responsibilities. There’s also just a culture of college-freshmen-competing-over-the-worst-finals-period. Everyone is always just SO FRAZZLED, and it can be a really frustrating, tiring environment to work in.

    Has anyone ever had success in coaching people out of this stress spiral way of thinking? I don’t manage very many people, so I’m wondering about the questions/conversations one might pose to discourage the “CRAZY BUSY!1!111!!!” mentality. Any thoughts?

    1. Just a Reader*

      As a manager, I never indulged that. The crazy busy complaint would result in a meeting to go over priorities and deadlines and shift work and timelines as needed. Not as a punishment, but as a coaching exercise.

      My team eventually learned to quit freaking out and started coming to me with proposed plans for rejiggering the workload to make it manageable and high quality.

      It worked well and helped us all not cave to the “OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!” culture that surrounded us. We were snipers instead of firefighters.

    2. LMW*

      I’m battling this in my current environment. Everyone keeps telling me “It’s always a fire drill! Better get used to it!” And I keep saying “Well, that means we’re doing something wrong. It’s either the workload, the planning or the deadlines. Let’s fix this.” “Nope. Just the way it is.”
      My current approach is to make them justify their deadlines and constantly saying things like “That’s the day such-and-such is due. We can finish this the next week.” I keep hitting roadblocks in the form of people saying they need things ASAP, and I just keep asking them why. Most of our deadlines are based on a desire to please, not on a realistic idea of how long it takes to do things. And a lot of the time people are just saying yes to any and all suggestions that come their way instead of evaluating the projects and figuring out if it’s worth the time and money. Since I’m the traffic manager, I’m trying to get them to justify all this up front. Uphill battle.

      1. Holly*

        Sounds like my workplace. Unfortunately there’s no logic or reason behind deadlines – and it’s really common for something random to suddenly appear and take precedence on what was previously the MUST HAVE project, and now that new thing is must have. You have to change gears constantly and there’s no reason for it, but it’ll never, ever change.

        1. nicole*

          That sounds extremely stressful. I’m all for being busy at work, lest the day drag, but working at 100% all the time all day is just too much.

      2. Esra*

        It’s definitely an uphill battle. When I started at my current role, I would ask which projects were priority and management all the way up would say “All of them!” and laugh because, haha, that’s how it is at Organization!

        My office politicking is… not what it could be. So fairly early on, I said, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Which got a stern eyebrow raise from the director in a meeting who asked me to elabourate and so I did. If we can’t place an order of priority on our projects, or determine a system of importance, then none of the projects have priority, then none of them are most important. Sometimes you have to hold management accountable as well, as utterly awkward as that can be.

        Anyway, it took a while, but things are slowly getting better.

      3. Rana*

        Oh, god, this. One place I worked at was on a six-week cycle for certain projects, and when I was first hired it was so bad that the VP (the owner’s wife) actually went to far as to hand out plastic fire hats during the crazy period in some misguided attempt to motivate us.

        The thing is, once they hired me, and my two supervisors, and another person who knew what was going on, we figured out pretty quickly that the craziness was not inherent. Rather, it was the result of waiting until the very last minute to do things that could be (and should have been) addressed on an ongoing basis. There would always be a slight crunch at the six-week turnover mark – that was inevitable – but the difference between having to work a bit harder than usual and having the entire place virtually shut down while everyone rushed around frantically putting out long-neglected fires was night and day.

  14. AMG*

    I’d be curious to see how this pans out. It feels like a glory-hoarding, insecure martyr to me. When I worked with one of these, he was so invested in his job for validation that he absolutely would not/could not let go of any work. If that’s the case here, you might as well leave (assuming the manager won’t do anything). My manager didn’t; he was very weak and avoided confrontation at all costs. Good luck!

  15. Victoria Nonprofit*

    It’s a problem, too, that their managers are praising the coworker for sending emails at 3 a.m. on Saturday. I’d hope that at the least they’d respond neutrally – and I wish that they’d check in with the late-night sender to see what was up with the workload.

      1. DA*

        That’s why I called the work hoarder a brown-noser. All they seem to be going for is the praise of ‘working hard’ when it’s probably more smoke and mirrors than anything else.

  16. Wilton Businessman*

    I agree with the others that sometimes somebody who is crazy busy and lets everyone know they are crazy busy isn’t really efficient at getting things done.

    I think this is more of a management issue than anything else. The manager who is responsible for doling out the work needs to step in and make sure everyone is busy. I think you should do directly to your manager and say “I have some bandwidth to do additional work and would be happy to help out in any way I can.” I wouldn’t mention Jane or her workload, I would just indicate that you would be happy to take on more work. That’s usually a signal for good managers that says you’re not being utilized fully.

    I might also suggest to my manager that I do a project to run some statistics on the number of projects/tasks/etc. that everybody is doing. When you come in with statistics that says Jane handles 55% of the cases and everybody else handles 15%, that is going to wake some people up.

  17. Yup*

    I wonder if your coworker has trouble with teamwork or breaking work down into component parts? Some people — particularly those who’ve had bad experiences with lousy colleagues — don’t like to give up their perceived control of a workstream because they’re afraid the quality will suffer and create rework for them. So the coping mechanism is “I’ll just do ALL the glazing myself so I know it’s done right.” If you feel like this might be the case, tools like shared status sheets, centralized work queues, and procedure manuals can go a long way in helping your coworker to let go and be reassured that yes everyone is doing their jobs and all is well.

  18. tangoecho5*

    Well I have to assume this coworker is an exempt employee. I find it hard to believe a business would be ok paying lots of overtime on a constant basis. But some have no problem. So one thing to consider is if she is non-exempt, her extra work hoarding may be a way to earn more income.

  19. Steve G*

    OMG I am passing along an interesting project to my newer coworker right now just because of this post!

  20. Laura*

    OP, are you sure she’s actually working during the work day?

    Years ago I worked for the Controller at a dot-com startup. The company was growing very quickly and everyone was quite busy, there was an IPO on the horizon, and so on.

    My boss would do the same thing — work until all hours of the night, sending emails, returning phone calls, and so on, and then the next day people would be saying, “Oh my goodness! I got an email from you at 3AM! You poor thing!” At first I made the same sympathetic noises as everyone else, and offered to help her out if she wanted to hand something off to me. I had plenty to do myself, but I was not working around the clock like she was.

    After about 6 months, I realized that she would be at the office by 8 every morning, just like everyone else, but then would spend the entire day socializing with people, rather than actually working. She had relocated for the job, so she had no social life outside the office. Then, at about 4:00 she would go into her office, close the door, and work until 3 in the morning. It was a pretty good scam for martyring herself and making people praise/pity her for the excessive hours she worked.

    She was one of the craziest people I ever worked for. She once told me about spending 10 minutes at the Taco Bell drive-thru window arguing with the poor guy working there that the tax on her order had been calculated incorrectly and overcharged her by 4 cents. She was also very particular about how things were filed — to the point of once treating the entire team to a class in Remedial Hole Punching when she found that the sheets of paper in one of the monthly workpaper binders were out of alignment.

    1. some1*

      I worked with a guy who claimed to be very busy all the time, too. I and others would be waiting on him to be able to complete the next step of a project, but he was always, “too busy” to get back right away, but he seemed to have plenty of time to spend on the internet all day.

    2. Lexy*

      The thought of working for a Controller who doesn’t have a functioning concept of materiality (4 cent tax overcharge [possibly]) makes my stomach turn

    3. LMW*

      I worked with an editor like this. Except he also came in late – so late he often missed our 9 am team meeting. He was never in his office. His projects were so overwhelming they were months behind. Yet we never saw him in the office working during normal hours. And then he would be in the office until 11 pm sending emails. I’m still amazed that he wasn’t fired…and after he left it was suspected that he was having an affair with a colleague on another team and they were both staying really late to “work.” Cleaning up the mess he left behind was the most stressful period of my entire career.

      1. Jamie*

        I can’t speak to the affair part – but some of this can be when business needs you there at certain times, but your personal biorhythms don’t kick in for solo work until much later in the day.

        I’ve been getting in at 5:15 am lately and you’d think I’d be able to kick out tons of my development projects early morning because the office gets busy. Nope. I cannot nest a subreport or write an accurate formula to save my life that early in the morning. So I do it from home at night – the math part of my brain doesn’t even wake up until much later…so I let the paperwork, necessary but rote functioning part of my brain take over until the interesting part wakes up.

        Seriously though – some people are just better at doing certain work later or earlier and it can be REALLY hard to force yourself to work outside of the confines of your own bio-schedule.

        1. AL Lo*

          YES. Times ending in “A.M.” and I don’t get along — unless I’m seeing those times before I go to bed. It’s just the way my body is wired. Thankfully, my workplace is incredibly flexible, and I’m rarely in before 10:30. Both my husband and I are that way (him even moreso than I) — when the planets align and we have a few weeks where our work schedules are completely our own, we’ll almost immediately default to staying up until 5 AM and getting up at noon or 1 PM. We still get (and need) the same amount of sleep as a “normal” schedule; it just works better, we’re both more rested, we sleep better, and we’re happier when we can bump those hours back.

          My husband does a lot of composing/arranging/sound design, and that part of his brain mostly wakes up after midnight. He gets most of his composition work done between 11 PM and 5 AM — and woe to the workplace that asks him to do that kind of work (which his does) and still expects him to keep a 9-5 schedule (which thankfully, they are mostly flexible with). It just doesn’t work, and that kind of creative thinking and schedule can’t be turned on and off just because everyone else works best in “normal” office hours.

        2. Meg*

          Definitely. I’m in the office by 8-830am (we have flextime – must work 8 hours and those 8 hours must overlap our ‘core’ time of 10am-3pm) because I have to work around a daycare schedule (roomie’s kid) AND public transit (I drive, but not to work). Because I’m usually one of the few people in before 10am, I’ve got about an hour and a half before I really get productive, but I use that time to check emails and work orders, support tickets, etc. Make sure I know what I’m doing all day. Read AAM a little bit and some news, get some breakfast in me.

          By 10, I’m ready to really work, and I get things done pretty quickly so it doesn’t really hurt if I spent my first hour or so gearing up.

          1. Jamie*

            You’ve mentioned your schedule structure before and I really like that.

            Mine isn’t formal stated, but that’s essentially what I have as well. Unless I’m out of the office I need to be there for the lion’s share of the work day – but if I want to work 5:00 am – 1:30 pm or 9:30am – 6:00 pm it’s fine.

            It doesn’t work for every position, some need stricter hours because of needing to sync schedules with others…but when it’s doable I think this is a HUGE perk that employers overlook. It costs nothing and generates a ton of goodwill knowing I don’t have to burn PTO to go to a parent teacher conference or a doctors appointment.

            What I have seen is this being denied to employee A for whom it would totally work (some IT, analysts, accounting, engineering – more autonomous positions) because it “wouldn’t be fair” to the other positions where it wouldn’t work (reception, managers who manage shift workers, etc.)

            That I think sucks – because people have different salaries, different perks and headaches depending on their jobs…for some reason people get touchier over the schedule thing than most things. Maybe because it’s very visible?

            1. Laura L*

              I know that people get annoyed when they can’t work a flexible schedule, but there are a lot of people who need to work set schedules who wouldn’t get upset over that.

              I’ve been in jobs where I’ve had to work set hours for various reasons and I understood why that was the case. I was slightly jealous of the people who could work flex schedules, but it wouldn’t have worked for my job and I knew that.

              Employers should give there employees more credit for being reasonable people.

    4. Elle*

      Seriously, I could have typed this (minus the TBell part).

      I think its particularly dangerous when exec levels get caught up in this mess. I’ve heard the poor so and so so many times that I’ve started to respond with “its sounds like its time for so and so to ask for some help.” I think some people feast off of the need to hear the noises, as someone else mentioned ,and they can’t imagine what it would be like to have a successful work life balance and be rewarded for that.
      I think its hard for people not to get swept into that and it eventually becomes a habit that people are scared to break.

    5. nicole*

      Yes! I used to have a coworker like this. What she called a 10 minute break would turn into 30 and then she’d bemoan how she’d have to stay late. Tough sh*t. She did it to herself so I didn’t feel sorry for her. If she stopped goofing off during the day she would have been able to leave on time.

    6. Anon*

      The old, “Are you working hard, or hardly working?” It’s an important question to ask with these types.

    7. Ann O'Nemity*

      Aw, I felt a little bad for the lonely controller, so starved for social interaction that she’s using work time for socialization and using her empty personal time for work.

      Then you told the Taco Bell story, and my sympathy turned to, “Um, no.”

      1. Laura*

        Ha! Technically, probably the most competent boss I’ve ever worked for in an Accounting function — the woman could recite GAAP and FASB publications in her sleep. On a personal level, she was crazy, and would just work all the time. It got so that closing down your desk on a Friday started feeling like making a prison break. If she heard you gathering your stuff together, she’d pop out of her office and ask, “Are you coming in this weekend?” I would always say no, that I already had plans. She didn’t know that my plans were to do nothing more than sit on the couch and watch movies (or whatever) but they were still plans. So we all started being very, very quiet on Friday afternoons and creeping out of the office in stealth mode to avoid the guilt trip.

        She was one of those people who would kind of push you around until you stood up to her, and after that she would respect you and treat you much better. I learned that the hard way. Then she hired another guy to supervise the AP group, and was doing the same thing to him. He was a bit timid, and could not muster up the nerve to stand up to her. I advised him to do the same thing, but he just didn’t have it in him. The poor guy got so stressed out that he developed a twitchy eye while he was working for her! Needless to say, he did not last long.

  21. Kristi*

    In addition to being held back or missing out on new projects/work experience, no one enjoys working with a martyr. And I certainly wouldn’t want to compete with one because I’d rather have a life outside of work.

  22. some1*

    Another part of the co-worker’s issue, besides the martyr thing, is that she might be one of those Type A’s who, for whatever reason, don’t think the job will get done (or done well or done well enough) if they don’t do it themselves.

  23. anon attorney*

    Bear in mind too that the coworker may not be a brown noser or bad organiser or whatever – she may be avoiding being at home. I once managed a guy who would not let go of projects nor stop working crazy hours and it wasn’t till I realised he was on the brink of a divorce and basically desperately wanted to avoid going home that I was really able to tackle the issue – he would give lip service to what I said about priorities and time management, then just carry on. If something like that is driving her, logical plans for dividing workload aren’t going to help. Just something to bear in mind?

    1. Anonymous*

      I am reminded of the stock saying of many a bar owner at closing time… “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”

    2. Jamie*

      This reminds me of something that happened to me a long time ago.

      I went from working in the plant offices to corporate and went from my first boss and amazing mentor to the boss I would quit within 2 months (yes, sometimes you don’t quit jobs, you quit bosses.)

      I tend to overwork, but I’m fine when that’s my choice. In this new hell I needed to be there at 6:00 am due to communications coming in from overseas partners and the time difference between us and China (compiling all that came in overnight into one communique) and I couldn’t leave until the final communication went out for the evening usually by 8:00 pm. And my metrics were hit (which affected my bonus in a very real way) if X wasn’t done by 7:00 PM when my boss would give the PMs until “whenever they were done” and I was told not to hound them about the deadline. If the deadline is arbitrary then don’t tie my money to it, but I digress…

      Anyway mentor boss stopped by and had a chat with me and horrible boss about my hours. He said, and I will never forget it, “There are three reasons people never leave the office: They are too stupid to get their work done in a normal work day, they are avoiding something at home, or the job is badly structured and there is more work for anyone to do in a day. I don’t know what you’re reasons are for being here all the time (actually poking horrible boss in the chest with his finger as he said this) but I know with her (me) it can only be #3.”

      Now, while I do think there can be more than those three reasons (habit, work cycles, ego, etc.) I have never been happier to have someone stick up for me. That job was breaking me – and it wasn’t the first or the last time mentor got a little ugly with horrible boss for both his treatment of me and his total incompetence at his job…so yeah – while nice to overhear I don’t miss the stress vomiting and daily crying.

      1. JessB*

        Wowsers. Jamie, those three reasons from your mentor hit me like a ton of bricks. I came back to this post after the update from the OP, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve been working back lately, a lot- so much so that my manager intervened and asked me not to do that again without explicit permission. I’ve started to get better at delegating, but those three reasons are getting printed out and stuck just to the right of my monitor.

        When I get the chance, I might even cross stitch them into a sampler!

        Thanks so much for sharing, for some reason your story really hit home with me, more so than a chat with own manager did.

  24. Apple*

    Been there! One thing that comes to mind is that given the economy, etc. etc. etc., everyone feels the need to be (and look) extremely productive, so that if layoffs ever occur they’ll rise to the top of the “must keep” list because they’re so productive/valuable to the company.

    I work in a client-services-type industry, so it’s very transparent who is working how many “billable” hours. When the clients and work fluctuate, and there’s not quite enough work to go around, everyone starts “hour grabbing” — because if new work doesn’t come in, there WILL be layoffs, and you don’t want to be the person at the bottom of the productivity list.

    So, maybe part of your colleague’s problem is paranoia about the security of her job? People act crazy during desperate times, especially if they’re the breadwinners for their families. I know that after I was laid off during the recession, at my next job I was pretty darn quick to volunteer for every project that was so much as mentioned in passing.

    Anyway, I don’t know what type of industry you work in or how stable your company is, but just a thought that maybe this behavior is coming from a place of insecurity and fear.

  25. Liz T*

    I had a coworker who did this on a WAY smaller scale, but it could be relevant. We were interns in the same department, with the exact same jobs. She always worked through lunch, bringing in a sandwich and eating it in the office, insisting she had too much work. SHE DID NOT. Our supervisors were very clear that we should get the breaks we were due, and very little of our work was on a deadline. It annoyed me.

    I later found out that at the beginning of her time there, before I had started, she had gotten embarrassingly drunk at a company party and very publicly thrown herself at a staff member. She got a talking-to afterwards, and I think she spent the rest of her internship trying to make up for it, and to show just how responsible she could be. No one (including, I learned, our supervisor) was particularly impressed.

    So, it’s possible your co-worker is trying to compensate for something. I have no idea if that’s the case, but it’s worth considering.

  26. mel*

    Part of me also wonders if she is in some kind of situation in which she is desperate to be away from her home. Who knows?

  27. Smithy*

    1. Does the co-worker ever take holidays?
    2. When you and she are not actually working – lunch breaks – water cooler chat – how does she seem? Frantic? Normal?
    3. I know you said she gets stressed, but does the co-worker seem – generally – to be happy with all the work she is doing? Or is she complaining about being overworked?
    4. I presume that there is some form of security present at your workplace – because otherwise the place cannot be locked and alarmed if someone is still present.
    5. Does she ever actually go home? Anon Attorney’s colleague avoided a tense domestic situation, but do you think she could actually be living in the office having lost her flat or something?

    1. Anonymous*

      Do you guys work on anything “sensitive” (like large amounts of money)? In areas that do deal with this kind of thing, people who take on crazy amounts of work and/or never take vacations are the first place auditors look. People who are up to something shady can’t hand things off to their co-workers halfway through because the co-workers would notice something was wrong.

  28. Cindy*

    Did I write this letter? I had a job like this for several years, early in my career. In my case the martyr-hoarder was slightly above me and I had no power to wrestle my own tasks away from her. I’d like to encourage the OP to get our asap if things don’t change after the meeting. It’s hard to explain in interviews why you don’t have experience doing basic things that someone with your job title and experience would have, and it sucks to know you wasted time that you could have been racking up achievements and experiences.

  29. Jeff*

    I would love to have a co-worker like that! Let her work herself into the ground, while I could enjoy being able to do a very thorough and quality job on the work I have with a reasonable workload. And as a bonus, I would get to do all my internet surfing at work and get paid for it instead of wasting time doing it at home.

    The co-worker gets to look good for working like an idiot, and the OP gets to look good for doing top-notch work. Win-win situation. I can’t understand why someone would complain about being in a situation like this, just enjoy it while it lasts.

    1. Anonymous_J*

      Have you ever BEEN in a situation like this? It’s fine for a couple of days, but ultimately, it SUCKS.

      You begin to wonder if people think you are a slacker. You worry about your job security. You get plain, old bored.

  30. Cassie*

    Hopefully the OP’s manager will step in (if necessary). We had (have?) a similar situation at work, partly due to the fact that one worker has been w/ the dept for 20 years so people know her and go directly to her. As for the other worker, many people either don’t know her or are not sure what her job duties include.

    For the past couple of years, there have been discussions between the workers and the manager; at one point, their manager asked them to divide up the work within the next two weeks or else she would do it. They didn’t, and she didn’t – everyone just moved on to complaining about other stuff. (For the time being; these types of things tend to lie dormant until someone needs to weapon to fight with). It’s purely bad management.

  31. sai*

    Am surprised mainly because, your manager seems lousy – it is their imperative to ensure people have equal amt of work..also be honest in appraising yourself on whether you can handle what’s on her plate- if you are, I would suggest you talk to your manager with a plan on how to manage that pieces (do not criticise though) and ask for them directly…

    Btw, have noticed that staying late is more of a habit with a lot of people..if they once had a boss who asked them ‘what on earth were you doin here at 3 Am?’ instead of praising her for that it would be so much better for her!!

    1. Anonymous*

      Yes, I agree. My first thought was, “How does this manager not realize this is a problem? Isn’t that his/her job–to manage the workloads of their employees?”.

  32. Tiff*

    I think the best way to differentiate yourself is to work smarter, not harder. While she is bent over her desk doing tasks, figure out a way to make the process itself easier and more efficient. Having a convo with her could help, but I think the success with that will really depend on your co-workers attitude. She may be stuck in a habit that was formed out of necessity but is no longer needed. She may be avoiding something at home. She may just have no social life of her own – no significant other, few friends, no kids, pets or hobbies. I know I was willing to put in a lot more time on the job before I got married and had kids.

    I have one of those types at my job. She works until waaaay late in the night, staying at work until 5am sometimes. It’s ridiculous. At first, our boss would do the whole “aren’t you working hard!” thing, but it wore thin, especially since the rest of us were actually getting MORE accomplished working normal hours – and without the martyr song and dance of how stressed and busy we were. The icing on the cake was when our Director came by her cube and said jokingly, “I’m starting to think that you don’t have a home! HAHAHAHA!” Finally we got a new manager, who told Ms. Martyr that her “overtime” (we’re salary) would no longer be approved for comp time. That ended the tension between Ms. M and the rest of us (she was being rewarded for her inefficiency with comp time, which we of course resented). But more importantly, Ms. Martyr found a way to get her work done during normal business hours.

    1. Jamie*

      Comp time? Holy crap, I know tons of people who would work those kind of hours if they could rack up comp time for it.

      For me comp time is limited to system maintenance/upgrades that have to be done on weekends with no users in the system and time worked over shutdown for the handful of us who do inventory accounting while the system is locked. Oh – and emergencies where I have to physically show up (like at midnight to get stuff going after a power outage, etc.)

      Everything else is on me – out of the goodness of my heart or as a result of my own lapse in time management – but if we did comp time for all time over 8 we’d have people making up reasons to work OT just to bank for vacation.

      1. Tiff*

        Yeah, the rest of us on the team were pretty livid about that. The way our pay system works those comp hours would build up, once they reach a certain level they’re transferred to sick leave, and eventually if not used can be put towards retirement.

        But I really don’t think my teammate was intentionally padding her comp hours, it was a side benefit of not having to go home for her. She was very unhappy. Now she has a pet, she HAS to get out of the office at night and she smiles a bit more. Winning all around.

  33. Jax*

    OP, you and I are living the same life! My senior co-worker is supposed to be my partner in our department, but she thinks she’s the head and I’m the assistant. For months I got a small trickle of work while she horded everything and LOUDLY stormed around the office huffing and acting stressed out. It was a big show that fooled no one and just made the office hate her.

    I went to our manager several times asking for advice on what to do, and luckily I have a manager who is on to her game. He was able to facilitate department meetings and tell her point blank that he wanted to see a better division of work and that we are equals–no one delegates to the other!

    She still slips into hording and delegating, but I’m learning that it’s up to me to be proactive and not let her get away with it. I get here early and grab a stack of work before she can. I have clients email me projects directly. I’m quiet about problems that I’m running into because I want a chance to battle through them on my own instead of having her snatch it off me.

    It’s ridiculous to have to work like this, and the only thing keeping me here is my co-worker’s pregnacy. She will soon be out on leave (BLISS!) and there’s talk of moving her to another department post-baby. If that wasn’t on the table I would be looking for other work.

  34. Xan*

    I have a question to pose to the crowd:

    I have the reverse problem at work. I’m an analyst with programming experience working on a concept development type assignment. Our team has a ‘real programmer’, and this person is always bothering me to help code. This would be great, but he doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do, and has even joked he doesn’t want to learn.

    How do I rebuke his advances for ‘help’?

Comments are closed.