should you tell your boss about a slacker coworker?

A reader writes:

How do you express concerns about a slacking coworker to your boss without coming out sounding like a jerk? I have a coworker who spends quite a bit of time visiting with other employees. This same person expects others on the team to “offer” to help with work not finished. We’ve tried to gently point out that if he spent less time visiting and more time working, then maybe he wouldn’t need help from us in finishing his work, but he just gives us the silent treatment and creates an uncomfortable work environment. He is also extremely critical of what he perceives as others’ mistakes, even when almost always guilty of the same thing.

Now he wants to rearrange some of the work assignments so that his workload will be lightened, but I have a problem with that since if he just spent more time working and less time visiting, there wouldn’t be a need to rearrange anything. Is this something worth talking to my manager about?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. illini02*

    I mostly agree, mainly because co-worker is trying to pawn his work off on others. If he was just a slacker, personally I wouldn’t feel the need to tell on him. For all I know he is a slacker for 2 hours and crazy efficient the other 6. However, I’m not the biggest fan of the method of complaining by trying to mask it as asking for advice. You want the guy to stop pawning his work on you. Just be an adult and own up to it. This is very valid to bring to management. But when you go under the guise of wanting advice, the problem is, if the boss just gave advice and didn’t handle it, you would be mad at the boss. Just be up front and say what’s on your mind. A simple “I’m not his supervisor, so it’s not my place to handle it, but I would appreciate it if you could” is fine.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      I agree with your post particularly about the part of being more direct vs masking complaints as seeking advice. However, I’m curious – if someone slacks for 2 hours and is “crazy efficient” for the other 6, are they even a slacker or is it just mostly about how they prioritize/focus during their work shift?

      1. illini02*

        Personally, I wouldn’t call that person a slacker. To me a slacker is when someone just isn’t getting their work done. However there are many people who do see the wasting time, playing on facebook, chatting etc and make the assumption that work isn’t getting done. Trust me, I’ve been that guy. If you are in a position like sales, where your metrics are public, its not a big deal. But other types of jobs, people judge you by what they see you doing, not by what you actually produce.

    2. JPixel*

      I don’t think that asking for advice has to simply be a mask for a complaint. Asking for advice indicates that you’re willing to be part of the solution but that there is in fact a problem. A good boss will be able to recognize when to intervene and when to let employees try to sort out their problems themselves.

      1. illini02*

        True, its not ALWAYS like that. However, I think a good portion of the time, people want the manager to step in. Especially if the person never tried ANYTHING to stop the behavior.

  2. Rebecca*

    Going through this now in our office. I’m anxious to see how other managers and coworkers handle this situation, because in my office, our manager takes away work from the slacker and reassigns it to other coworkers. This causes a lot of friction, because the people getting the work are resentful that they’re being loaded down while the slacker has more time to slack!

        1. Journalist Wife*

          Hopefully they give work away until they’ve put themselves out of a full-time job!

          1. Europa*

            This totally happened in my office, although it took years. We had a slacker who held long conversations, coffee breaks, lunch breaks — anything to avoid work. He’d come back from running and immediately take a lunch. Came in late and left early. He pared down his duties again and again until he barely did anything at all. It took a new supervisor coming in to change things. The supervisor saw the slacker didn’t do much and gave him the awful morning shift that required getting up at 4:30. The slacker begged to do something else, but his skills had totally atrophied from seven years of sitting around and he couldn’t do anything else. He finally resigned without a new job lined up.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Unless you’ve been extremely vague and tentative about telling her there’s a problem, the issue is that she’s a bad manager. Bad managers do that thing where rather than confront Parsleigh about her slacking, it’s easier to just dump the work on Wakeen, who has a good work ethic and will get it done. Managers like this are inevitably bewildered when Wakeen leaves for a more functional workplace.

    1. BRR*

      Ugh this is so annoying. The immature person in me would love to just try and throw work back his way. “Since I took the chocolate teapot lid project last week from Bill I have been swamped. Since he has now finished other chocolate teapot example would it be possible for me to hand him another chocolate teapot example?’

    2. KarenT*

      I experienced quite a bit if this on my last job and my manager (who was a good manager outside of this) handled it the same way. The slacker was rewarded with a lightened load and easier projects while the rest of us picked up the slack. At least my manager remembered this when it came to raise, bonus, or promotion time. The slacker always complained about being victimized by our manager during raise time despite many people pointing out the obvious.

      1. LeahC*

        Sounds like we work at the same place! Ha.
        As a special bonus, this slacker’s slack-ness is a large part of the reason that our whole department is now “under review” from upper management (they are announcing this step in a meeting tomorrow), and our department head still refuses to do anything about her. Yes, I’m looking for a new job…

        1. OhNo*

          How frustrating! Does the department head know that this employee is a significant reason behind the review? Do they just have their head in the sand, hoping the whole thing will go away?

          1. LeahC*

            Yes and yes. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow, but it seems he is willing to sacrifice his own position (not sure if he’s considered that it wouldn’t only be his position) rather than explain to upper management that her performance leads to the delays that UM sees as a problem. Of course, he could know something that the rest of us don’t re. UM’s reasoning, that is always a possibility.

        2. staying anon*

          It sounds like you and I work at the same place! Except my office is about 50% full of it.

    3. AggrAV8ed Tech*

      Same thing happened in my office. And my office consisted of me…and one co-worker. Whereas it should have been a 50/50 split of work optimally, it ended up being more like 95/5 (and that’s not an exaggeration in the least). Any time he DID do actually do work, it ultimately got screwed up in some fashion and I ended up getting the blame for “not helping him”, “lack of communication” or some such nonsense. Some employees are just protected in that fashion, unfortunately.

  3. Anon123*

    The links to the inc articles never work on my android mobile. I’ve tried CM browser, Next browser, and Firefox. On CM I get a phishing warning and on the other two, the page just won’t load – even the main website. They do work on my laptop though.

    1. KarenT*

      Strange. I’m reading on android right now without issue. I just use the samsung Internet app, if that helps.

  4. Anon today*

    Did I sleep-write this letter? Because it sounds like my situation … which is complicated by the fact that the boss is the slacker’s father.

  5. Beth*

    Wow, I could have written this email except that instead of ‘socializing with others’ it’s ‘doing online family genealogy research’. (I know what the Ancestry interface looks like, and it’s not part of our job!)

    At least when she’s doing that research she’s being quiet – otherwise she’s on the phone to her adult children 8 times a day.

  6. Lizzie Lemon*

    Big problem is if the slacker is one of the boss’ favorites.

    Result: any good faith effort of pointing out the obvious for the greater good of your company falls upon deaf ears.

    Two options: go about your business and try your best to ignore it, or leave. Neither is good or fair.

  7. Sascha*

    Sound just like a former coworker of mine, including the part about criticizing others for things he does himself. I think that bothered me more than his constant chatting. In my situation, he left before anything was said to our manager…who likely would have not seen this as a problem, because our manager was on of the people he chatted with all the time!

  8. Vicki*

    “If she’s a good boss, …”

    Then there are the other kind. I had a co-worker like this (she was a contract temp, kept asking other people to do the work, never took notes during training, spent a lot of time staring at the webcam view to her house…)

    My manager gave me advice, held onto the conversation, and brought it up again at my annual review to tell me that I was “not helpful’.

    Sometimes, you can’t win.

    1. Mabel*

      Wow, I’m so sorry to hear that this situation exists at so many of our workplaces! Maybe I’m just sheltered. I can’t think of anyone I’ve worked with who was like this. But then, we’ve had a LOT of layoffs over the last 5-6 years, so maybe that took care of the slackers.

      1. CrazyCatLady*

        Sometimes I feel like workplaces are like families – all dysfunctional and weird in their own unique ways!

    2. Ops Analyst*

      Woah. That’s terrible. If she had an issue she should have addressed it immediately rather than holding on to it. There shouldn’t have been an issue anyway, but if there was…

      As to the comment about not taking notes during training, not everyone does that and it doesn’t mean they are slacking off or not listening. Training is a major part of my job and it really depends on the learner. Some people doodle, or play with things in their hands, or eat snacks, or even close their eyes, all of which seem like someone who is not engaged. But in many cases these people are just kinesthetic or auditory learners and are absorbing the material just as well as others who seem more obviously engaged. In my early days doing this I deliberately called on some of these people to bring them back into focus because I thought they weren’t paying attention. I was nearly always wrong that they weren’t listening and they could immediately answer and participate just like everyone else.

      Of course, sometimes people aren’t paying attention. But not taking notes is really not an indicator of that.

  9. Journalist Wife*

    Well, if the slacker is trying to rearrange very much of his workload, it will inevitably require his asking the manager for the thumbs-up on him shifting his duties to others. So if that’s likely at all, I say you get out in front of it by figuring out if any/all of the people he’s trying to shove work off on are the same people he’s chatting up constantly. It could very well be that they wish he wouldn’t socialize with them so long but just haven’t been assertive in telling him that. (We have a lot of people like that where I work, and I put up with it for years before I had the courage to just cut off all body language and response until they wandered away. My office mate and I went so far as to hide the spare chairs in our office when we didn’t have scheduled meetings to cut down on people appearing in our office and flopping down to “sit a spell” and talk.)

    If one or more individuals approaches the manager for advice on how to best dissuade him from his long chats, then she’d have that knowledge when he asks to dump work assignments on others, and she can easily put two and two together. The good part about doing it this way is that even if the manager’s advice on shooing him away isn’t very helpful, it doesn’t come off as complaining about his productivity, but rather concern that their own productivity is being affected by his need to stand in their doorway and chat them up. Then when he tries to pawn stuff off on others, she’ll have a clearer picture on why his own productivity sucks without anyone having mentioned that part.

  10. Amy*

    Sounds like an extravert has an introverted job. I’d advise the introvert to trade extraverted tasks to this person in exchange for the undone work. The boss may already know that the person isn’t a good fit for the job

    1. The IT Manager*

      Eh! I don’t know. Slacker co-worker is most likely an extrovert given how he likes to waste time, but that doesn’t excuse anything else. The problem is the wasting time and not getting work done.

  11. SallyForth*

    Yesterday a friend emailed me the question about the overly dramatic coworker, and today someone else emailed me this one, asking both times if I was the OP! Yes, I have an overly dramatic slacker coworker!

  12. Nobody*

    I think that most managers with even half a clue have a pretty good idea of which employees are pulling their weight and which are not. I would guess that the manager in this case is already aware of the slacker redistributing his work to the rest of the team. Unfortunately, knowing about it and doing something about it are two entirely different things. It is far easier for a manager to rely on the hard workers than to get the slackers to work harder. If you’re lucky, the hard workers will at least get some recognition for their contributions.

  13. Not So NewReader*

    I had a coworker that just dumped work in my space. [Yeah. I hear you. That’s what I said, too.]
    I went to the boss and said, “Did you intend for me to do X, also?” I got back a “hell no” and the work was returned to my coworker.

    My thought here is you could go to the boss and say, “Bob frequently asks me to finish his work for him. I have decided to start telling him no, because he asks often and because no one else seems to be having problems completing their workload. I just wanted to let you know what is happening and why, if you hear about this it won’t be new to you.” (Optional: “If you ask me to finish off something of Bob’s I will.”)

    Typically, managers dole out tasks. If someone was rearranging the work I assigned to people, I would want to know. In passing out assignments, I had a reason for who got what, I didn’t expect that to be changed without asking me first. (Many times I would okay the change if there was a good reason for the change.)

  14. BananaPants*

    I had a slacker coworker for the last 8 years who spent large chunks of his workdays openly moonlighting for his night job as an adjunct professor, surfing the Internet, and playing fantasy sports. He snuck in late and left early with a myriad of excuses (“I have to take my kid to archery” was most-memorable). On the rare occasion a manager expected him to provide a deliverable, it was either very poorly executed or outright stolen from our group’s network drive, tweaked, and presented with his name on it.

    I gave up trying to diplomatically bring this up to our group managers after a couple of years. As managers change every 18-24 months, several of us broached the subject – even to the point of saying outright what was happening, all to no avail. We’d be thanked for bringing it to the manager’s attention, he’d promise to address it, and the status quo continued. I know it’s a sign of poor management that his shenanigans were tolerated for so long, and the fact that he was paid so much to do very little work for so long became a morale issue for the test of the team; any of us would have been on a PIP or fired for doing what he did!

    He recently moved out of our group and no lie, we celebrated when we heard the news. So yeah, managers – deal with slacker employees when other employees bring the issue up! Don’t let it go and hope the problem will go away.

  15. Jaune Desprez*

    I had a similarly awful coworker at a previous job. She spent literally hours each day on loud, drama-filled personal calls with her incredibly dysfunctional family. On top of that, she had a surly disposition that degenerated into outright hostility if anyone presumed to need something from her during one of her personal calls, or at any other time she didn’t consider convenient. Awful Coworker did handle a few important tasks for our small team — I estimated that we probably got about 16 hours of real work out of her in the course of a week — but many of the tasks that that could have been performed by a normally efficient person in that position had gradually been shifted to others. This was especially frustrating given that the rest of the team worked at a flat-out gallop for eleven months of the year.

    Awful Coworker’s issues were visible and audible to all, so I didn’t have to tell our manager about them. Our manager actually came to me privately after some particularly egregious misbehavior of Awful Coworker’s and apologized for not having been able to get rid of her. She said that in earlier years, she had twice put Awful Coworker on a PIP and had painstakingly gone through all the steps necessary to fire her, but that both times our soft-hearted department chair had withdrawn his approval after Awful Coworker had gone to him with tears and pleadings. (Obviously my manager shouldn’t have shared this information with me, but she was very frustrated. Also, she knew that Awful Coworker had been very open about her near-firings and had shared her side of the story with dozens of people, so it was widely known throughout the institution. I did in fact later hear it from Awful Coworker herself.)

    Eventually, it came to the attention of institutional leadership that our department chair’s soft-heartedness had led to a number of messes in various areas, and he was replaced by a new chair with a mandate to clean them up. One of the first things the new chair did was to eliminate Awful Coworker’s position altogether, on the grounds that she performed too little actual labor to be missed. I certainly didn’t miss her personally, but our already-busy team really struggled to absorb the extra 16-ish hours of work each week that we had been able to get out of her. We all felt rather bitter about the way the whole thing had been handled, and it was a contributing factor in the departure of some of our best people.

  16. staying anon*

    This is two of my coworkers. We’re all hourly and we all do almost the same work (it’s way more than one person could handle), but we’re way behind on it. There’s nothing like being told you have to come in when you’re not well to get the work done, multitasking your behind off, while two coworkers combine to do two hours of half gassed work. Can’t ever get rid of them though.

  17. diagoro*

    I’m in a similar situation…..

    I share a job with one co-worker (#2). There are no set tasks, we mutually complete all job requirements. Perhaps I’m spoiled. The position was created several years ago, with myself and another co-worker (#1) being the first hired. She was extremely motivated, and we pushed each other to complete the task in a quick and proper manner. It was almost a competition. Co-worker #1 moved on to another position, and the opening was filled by #2.

    Ever since it’s been a different world. 99% of the time #2 is late 15-20 minutes, leaves early for lunch and returns late, and seems to sit there quietly looking at his phone all day. I literally feel as though I’m completing 70+% of the work. Add to that, there are often basic mistakes. Also noticed he always seems to call in sick on Mondays. After 18 months of this I finally had enough and brought it to my supervisor. I already knew she doesn’t like confrontation. But was dismayed by the response. She basically sat there, listened to my thoughts, and than shrugged her shoulders.

    One day, as often, I noticed that many of the tasks were literally sitting in queues for hours, and I was the only one working. I walked over and quietly stated that it felt like I was the only one making an effort. #2 immediately grew defiant and defensive, but I walked away. A few hours later he requested a private chat, and in private he tried to turn the tables, accusing me of numerous things. I calmly restated my case, listened, than stated there was nothing more to say. While we walked back into the office I accidentally banged the door against the wall (it had been re-greased), to which he made some snide, childish comments. I than spoke again with my manager, stating how poorly the discussion went and left it at that.

    A day later #2 comes and asks to speak again. Now he has a completely different attitude, apologizes for being an idiot, and admits that he had been slacking. I was relieved, and after that point we were again a fully functioning department. I remained guarded though, and in time he has reverted to old habits.

    Much like others here, it really feels like management doesn’t care, or is incapable of actually dealing with a difficult situation. HR isn’t an option either, as that involved going over the heads of my department’s management. In the end, my only options are to live with it (doing most the work), or move on…….

  18. Mr. Professional*

    Response to “should you tell your boss about a slacker coworker?”

    Absolutely not!!!! To be professional is to mind your own business and do your work to the fullest of your capabilities. Follow this Golden Rule in the workplace: HEAR NO EVIL; SPEAK NO EVIL; DO NO EVIL !!!!!!!
    Also bear in mind your boss does not give a damn as to what you tell him/her about your co-worker and HR in any company are there to protect the interests of that company only and they also do not give a damn about the employee as long as they (HR) get their paycheck and warm their seats. Look out for yourself, be sharp, do not be naive and absorb like a sponge in the current position/job to prepare yourself for the next job.

    Why would any professional worth his/her salt want to talk trash about your “slacker (perceived or otherwise) ” co-worker unless the person has harassed you in the workplace and that is when you approach the normally complacent/lethargic HR to file a case. But that is an entirely different matter and i do not want to digress.

    And the last but not the least – I am against outsourcing of US jobs to any other foreign country however i would be extremely happy to see HR jobs outsourced to Foreign countries — See i am digressing here :-)

    Anyways i wish you all the best and please adhere to my advice. I have been working in the industry for the past 20 years in management positions and individual contributor roles.

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