my coworker keeps leaving his desk to do schoolwork during our shared shift

A reader writes:

I work at the front desk of my university library and on a few of my shifts, I have a coworker. He’s constantly leaving the desk to go do other schoolwork while still on the clock. It’s not a huge issue in that I get slammed with extra work, since we aren’t that busy, but when he’s gone, I can’t leave the desk to use the restroom or anything since he’s not there to cover for me.

The main shift we work together is a Sunday so our supervisor isn’t here. My question is, do you think this is something I should mention to her? It just feels sort wrong that he’s doing this while still getting paid to work at the desk. The job is great since we’re allowed to do schoolwork while sitting at the desk but he’s not even here. I know we’re adults, so it feels dumb to tattle on a coworker, but at the same time, it’s a great job for students and I know a bunch of classmates who would like the job and would actually perform it the way we’re supposed to.

It’s absolutely appropriate to mention this to your manager — but before you do that, have you tried saying anything to the coworker directly?

That’s the place to start — both because it’s the professional way to handle it and because your manager is likely to ask you if you’ve tried speaking to him about it yourself.

So start there. Say something like this: “Bob, when you leave the desk to do schoolwork, it means that I don’t have any coverage when I need to use the bathroom or otherwise leave for a minute. Could you stay up here while you’re working?”

If that doesn’t change anything, then at that point you can and should alert your manager.

That doesn’t mean that you have to go to your boss and say, “Bob leaves the desk the minute you’re gone.” You can use the old “frame it as asking for advice trick,” by saying something like : “During our joint shifts, Bob is often away from the desk for a good portion of the shift in order to do schoolwork, which means that I can’t leave the desk to use the bathroom and we sometimes end up with a line of people waiting to be helped. Could we ask people to stay at the desk during their shifts?”

The idea with that language is that you’re not just reporting wrongdoing; you’re framing it as a problem to be solved, and you’re doing it in a collaborative way.

And that’s always a good way to look at this kind of thing, rather than “tattling.” In fact, “tattling” isn’t really a concept that applies in the workplace, at least not with things like this. Yes, you shouldn’t be running to your manager with petty complaints about things that don’t affect anyone’s work (“Bob leaves two minutes early every day” or “Jane will not stop whistling”), but when something has a real impact rather than just being mildly annoying — and this one qualifies as that — a good boss will want to know about it.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Betsy*

    Is there a reason the coworker feels he needs to leave the desk to do his work? OP says that they’re allowed to do schoolwork while at the desk; I’m not sure why he’s leaving at all. It feels like either a miscommunication or an issue with the kind of work he’s trying to do.

    Seconding the advice to talk to him about it.

    1. Sascha*

      He could be going to look up books or use other computers in the library. Not an excuse, just a reason. He still should be at the desk if that’s where he needs to be, on the clock.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I bet he’s doing it because he can. Flash drives are cheap; he can load his school docs on one and plug it in while he’s working (I’m assuming they have computers at the desk). He can PDF web pages he needs to refer to and save them on the drive. He can bring a stinking book bag with him.

        IF that’s what he’s even doing. I think maybe the boss said “You can do schoolwork at the desk,” and he decided “I can go do whatever if the boss isn’t here; if anyone asks where I am, I’m doing schoolwork.”

    2. Ruffingit*

      Or maybe meeting another classmate for a group project or something. There’s any number of reasons why he may not be able to complete projects at the desk, but regardless, he needs to be staying there as that is the job he’s been hired for.

      1. OP*

        Ruffingit, that’s exactly what’s happening, last Sunday he was gone for over an hour. I’ll definitely try talking to him but I’ve worked with him in other contexts with other student organizations and he’s not one to take feedback well from other students which is what made me hesitant to bring it up to him in the first place.

        1. fposte*

          Wait–he’s literally making appointments to do team projects during his work hours? Yeah, no.

          As a supervisor, I’d definitely like to hear that you’d brought it up with him first, but I’d also want to know. For one thing, the guy is probably going to want a reference from me, and I would want it to be truthful and accurate.

        2. Sarah*

          OP, I’d let your manager know about the small groups during work time, especially if it happens often.

        3. Jessa*

          Is it at all possible for him to do whatever he’s doing in view of the desk? I get that what he’s doing is annoying, but if it’s genuinely not having a knock on to the actual work being done…the way to parse this is not “OMG you’re doing all this stuff,” but “Hey, we have to work something out so that if I get swamped or have to go to the loo, I can get you back here asap. I can’t sit around waiting to go to the loo and the work has to get done.”

          If that doesn’t work, then follow all the tell the boss advice everyone else has given.

      2. fposte*

        Or he’d just rather work in a carrel and has convinced himself that the freedom to do work during these hours makes that permissible.

        Which it isn’t, but neither is meeting with other students. I’m a little indignant about this on my student employees’ behalf, because they would *never* mistake the coursework privilege as license to prioritize that over the job they’re being paid for.

        1. Jessa*

          This. Yes. I think part of the problem is he doesn’t see it as prioritising one over the other, but that he doesn’t get the limits of “work at desk,” vs “work and do what you want as long as the work is getting done.”

        2. College Career Counselor*

          Some years ago, I was told of a former student worker in our office who essentially got very huffy when asked to put away her books and do the work the office manager assigned her. Turns out, she thought “work-study job” meant that she was supposed to be paid to do her homework (and nothing else) in an office setting. I can’t remember whether they were able to convince her that, no, she didn’t get paid to do homework or if she quit/they let her go.

      3. Betsy*

        I totally agree! I wasn’t trying to suggest that the kind of work he was doing would be an excuse for not doing his job.

        I was only thinking that if the employees had been told “you can do your coursework while on the job”, and he has coursework he can’t do from the desk, he may just need a reality check that says, “Okay, when we said coursework, we meant assigned readings or math problem sets you can do from the desk, not chemistry experiments in the bathroom.”

  2. AnonAnony*

    I had a sweet gig just like this when I was in college. It’s pretty much the best work study job on campus. You literally get paid to study while you’re at work. The caveat is that you have to be available for working, too. It’s not a scholarship, it’s a job!

    (Oh, and you have to be able to put up with students wait until five minutes before their term paper is due to try and print it, and the email won’t download, and the printer is out of ink, and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT. That part was less awesome.)

    1. tcookson*

      Me too! I worked an evening gig at the circulation desk as my work-study position in college, and all we had to do, other than wait on patrons, was to walk through the building (every hour, on the hour) and record a count of the number of patrons in the building.

      The “waiting on patrons” part involved using a rubber date stamp to stamp the date due in the book . . . ah, nostalgia :-)

      1. Chinook*

        I too had a job at a college library (with the added perk that there was a men’s dorm on the top floors!). Other than typing up cards for the card catalogue (it was the last library to be computerized) and checking out or shelving the odd book, it was a great place to study and store (with permission) my athletic gear.

    2. Flynn*

      As a student/librarian who is literally sitting at the desk taking a break from coursework: absolutely not okay. Coursework and internet and all that is fine, as long as it does not interfere in anyway with actual service.

      This means instantly putting it aside to issue a book, sacrificing most of your evening to *argh* helping a student who had a virus ridden USB try and rescue their assignments (which they’d saved to the USB because “that was the safest place”), to ALWAYS BEING ON OR NEAR THE DESK. It also means no headphones, I’m looking at you fellow part timer, dammit.

      The coursework stuff is a bonus. A sensible bonus, because sitting at the desk with little to do is mindnumbing, but it’s a bonus and absolutely not the reason he is there. Much as I like getting my work done, if I’m too busy, that’s just how it is. I’m not entitled to study time *at work*.

      It doesn’t matter how little you need to help someone, or how willingly you put your work aside, if you aren’t even there then there is no way to ask you for help. That is not okay. Quite aside from the coverage issue.

      We have a couple of slackers who like to disappear into the back room when they aren’t specifically scheduled on desk. We haven’t quite gotten through to them that they are still being paid to work, even if they aren’t on desk, but suddenly everyone starts finding jobs for them. And I remember once ending up with four casuals for a special project who went “eh, we’ve finished/it’s going to slowly for us to be needed, and no, we don’t like shelf checking, we’re just going to use the computers…” (I was trying to find enough work for four people, insisting they had to go shelfcheck when people came looking for them because it turns out that there WAS work for them to do). And then there was the guy who was sociopathic in his abuse of privileges and attempts to persuade everyone that it was fine if he borrowed the course reserve book for a week/got a staff key/wiped his fines/stole money… he did not last long.

      What I’d do is pretty much what AAM suggested, with some variation depending on how independent/tightly regulated/interchangeable you are.

      – tell him he’s supposed to be staying on desk. Because he is. And hey, maybe he’s an absolutely entitled moron who assumed that cause he did it once and nobody complained, that it was okay.
      – tell him it’s inconveniencing you/why he’s meant to be on desk (optional, but much more diplomatic, especially if he genuinely thinks you’re fine with it).
      – remind him once if necessary.
      – if he keeps doing it, even if it’s “less” than normal, head to the manager for advice. It might be that he gets a talking to, or it might be that he’s switched out so that he works with someone he can’t just ignore, or just gets called in for fewer shifts (now or in future), or that he’s actually disciplined.

      – it may make no immediate difference, if there isn’t anyone else to call in and he’s all trained and scheduled and stuff. But schedules and staff change.

      We go through a LOT of casuals where I work, and I always feedback to my manager on whether they’re good to work with (and how/why). Which also means I can state a preference for the first ones to ask for new days, and that the less good ones… just drop out slowly, because they’re too much work, or aren’t scheduled unless they aren’t on their own and can be given a bunch of grunt work.

  3. chris80*

    So, going by the AAM example, a coworker that whistles constantly isn’t a valid reason to complain? I happen to have one that does this, and after several hours of his whistling while I’m trying to concentrate on work, it sure feels like more than a “mild annoyance”! :-)

    On all other points, I agree with Alison’s advice.

    1. TL*

      I think her point is, that’s something you should deal with coworker to coworker; it shouldn’t be escalated to the manager. Whereas this should be.

  4. Ann Onymous*

    I agree with Betsy. Maybe “Bob” doesn’t understand that coursework doesn’t include leaving the desk to look things up, work with a group, etc.

    I’ll disagree with Alison a bit here, though. I work in a library as a library technician, and I just can’t imagine one of our student workers confronting another one about something like this. We’re all rather encouraged to go to our manager about everything. Maybe that’s too “micro-manager-ish,” or maybe it’s just me. I don’t like confrontation, actually. So I could be wrong. But I do think it’s the manager’s problem, not the OPs.
    Just my 2 cents. :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, it’s definitely the manager’s problem. But the OP is going to look more professional to her manager if she can say, “I’ve talked to Bob about this, but the problem is continuing, so I wanted to bring it to you.”

      (And yeah, I do think that if your manager wants you all to come to her about everything rather than trying to talk to people directly first, that’s indicative of something strange. Although maybe it’s a function of having a lot of student workers and not wanting to hold them to the same professional expectations you’d hold others to.)

      1. Ann Onymous*

        Well, my manager has said more than once that she doesn’t expect the students to be at the same standards/level the staff is at. Kind of like, “Well, you know, they are students, after all…we can’t really expect them to act like adults. Besides, if we push them too far we might lose them.” On the other hand, she’ll point out what a cushy gig it is (as some of the other posters here have) and how lots of people want to work in the library. It’s confusing.

        1. Forrest*

          If you work at a college, then they are adults.

          I don’t think a “hey, can you not leave the desk” is really pushing it or a confrontation. But I guess I was a ballsy college student.

          1. Jessa*

            I don’t even think that “you can leave the desk sometimes,” (as in a couple of minutes to go get a reference book or something) is unreasonable, but you have to keep an ear out for a line at the desk, and you should check back frequently to make sure the other person doesn’t have to get up for something.

            The point is to SHARE the job and that means you have to respect the other person on the desk.

        2. fposte*

          I’m underwhelmed with your manager.

          They are adults. Of course they can be expected to act like them. People their same age are handling tanks and aircraft in the armed freaking forces. I think they can manage to stay at the desk for three hours.

    2. fposte*

      I wouldn’t consider it “confrontation”–maybe that’s where the issue lies? I don’t think the communication of an issue is necessarily confrontation–it’s just communication.

      Admittedly, my student workers are grad students, but I supervise in pretty much this situation, and I would definitely expect them to discuss this with each other before it came to me.

      1. Anonymous*

        The other student knows he is abusing his privilege to the other student’s detriment. The OP isn’t asking this guy to stop some minor act that he might not be aware is inappropriate. I really don’t see how he could possibly not understand that he is shirking his work. She is calling him out on bad behavior; it is absolutely a confrontation. It is possible that he will simply shape up after being called out; however it is also possible that he will continue the undesirable behavior.

        OP, if you are worried about the confrontation, skip over talking to him and go straight to the manager. I think the initial confrontation is the mature and professional thing to do. I also think it will be ineffective, and thus is merely a polite check box to mark off to signify that you “gave this guy a fair chance” and make you feel better about yourself if he gets fired.

        1. fposte*

          It’s not the end of the world to go directly to the manager, but no, it really doesn’t have to be calling out or confrontation to say Alison’s “Bob…” line from above. Calling out is more than just saying something the other person doesn’t want to hear or asking them to do something different, and honestly, this isn’t all that different from the receptionist-coverage issues that come up here and that do indeed start with the employee talking to the co-worker. Having a manager doesn’t mean never having to address anything your co-worker does yourself.

          1. Anonymous*

            I agree. I think it’s kind of funny when people say they don’t like confrontation. I don’t think many people do, but there are times in life when people have to have difficult conversations, and it’s better to bite the bullet and do it than to avoid taking to another person about something that’s important to you.

  5. Seal*

    As a librarian who has supervised many student employees over the years, I agree that you should mention this to your supervisor under the guise of “are we supposed to stay at the desk during our weekend shifts?” Ideally, your supervisor will clarify the expectations and your coworker will stop vanishing during his shift. Worst case scenario (for him) is that he gets fired for abandoning his post. The fact that you have to spell simple things like “at the desk means at the desk” out to some people never ceases to amaze me.

  6. Brett*

    How far away does your co-worker go anyway? I would think he could at least carry his cell phone so you could text him to say, “I need you to cover me for 5 minutes. Get back here now.”

    As an aside, is this co-worker possibly a student-athlete who is meeting with his tutor to do schoolwork? That would both be a reason why he is leaving the desk, and also a reason to tread lightly with anything resembling a complaint. He will have a head coach and an athletic director backing him up in that situation. (Normally they will actually come down on him for not managing his time appropriately, but they might come down on your supervisor instead and that could get back to you.)

    1. Forrest*

      Then he can meet with his tutor during his off hours.

      I’ve seen some stuff involving student athletes in my day but I doubt even a head coach or athletic director will take up the case for a student to be tutored when he’s supposed to be working.

      1. Brett*

        Athletic work-study positions are different from federal work-study positions. They are funded by the athletic department, who can yank the funding.
        Yes, an athlete in that situation should be meeting his tutor in off hours. That doesn’t mean a head coach cannot make things very difficult for whoever lodges a complaint, and do it without anything making the student paper.

        1. Forrest*

          Its not an athletic work-study position, its a position in the library. The library does retain the right to discipline and fire student workers, regardless of who’s funding it.

          And yes, the moment a head coach makes it difficult for a student, in addition to the protests of the library, it could very well make it to the media. Hence why we know about many college athletic scandals, regardless of how well coaches try to cover it up.

        2. Forrest*

          Basically, I can’t see any reason why the athletic department won’t just rearrange things. They don’t just sit around figuring out how to make things easy for the third string you know. It would have been a major player for them to risk this and I think the OP would of mentioned that.

        3. TL*

          Depends on the school. At my D3 schools, the only things athletes got leeway on were absences for games or competition. Being an student-athlete didn’t have any pull.

  7. gerti*

    As a library manager who manages students, I would definitely want to know about this and wouldn’t perceive it as tattling or whining. I expect all of my student workers to be at the desk unless they are taking their breaks (of which they should inform their coworkers) or completing tasks in the library (like shelving books.)

    I definitely encourage the OP to mention it so that his/her manager can address it and clarify expectations to all of the student workers. I always appreciate when my students let me know if things are going on when I’m not there so I can take care of them.

  8. PPK*

    What would coworker do if he gotup to leave, and the OP said, “Before you step away from the desk, I have to use the restroom so I don’t get stuck when you’re gone” and then walked to the restroom (a bit leisurely, of course)? Would he stay and wait until the OP returned or just leave?

    If the OP thinks he would wait (and not have a fit because the OP was making him late for a study group or something), then I think the OP should speak to him as suggested. If he just leaves (or throws a fit), then I think the OP should skip to the manager.

    I know this is a bit of a passive aggressive social experiment.

    As for college jobs, I worked in my English dept for 3 years as a student worker. I really enjoyed it. It was a similar job — you could sit and study if there wasn’t any work (which was mostly making copies of things). But it was definitely expected that you sit at the desk in the department so you were immediately available.

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