how do I deal with my slacker coworker?

A reader writes:

I am a social worker at a large hospital. I have been working here 3 months. My position is providing a specific service to hospital patients, and in theory, my team should consist of three full time staff and one part timer. As it stands, it’s only me and a coworker who has been in this position 5 years. This position is a good fit for me, except that I’m having a tough time with my coworker.

She has a habit of procrastinating through the day. She comes in 10-30 minutes late daily, frequently gets coffee, takes a 1+hour lunch and then gets a snack in the afternoon or talks with admin staff for a lengthy period. Basically, she spends more of her work hours messing around than actually working. She also leaves work early 2-3 times per week for appointments like massages and facials, or (subjectively) minor medical appointments like getting a wart removed, etc. There are also slight issues of her mothering me (she is 30 years older than I am) by offering unsolicited advice and trying to engage in discussion of overly personal issues.

We have a loose division of duties that leaves me with more work, partially because she is more okay with letting patients go unseen, whereas that makes me uncomfortable. It’s so frustrating because if she were actually working, we could get it all done and maybe even have time to work on long term projects. I’m also concerned about our team developing a reputation that we aren’t reliable from the perspective of hospital staff. I let my boss know about my concerns. My supervisor alluded that this isn’t the first time she’s heard this type of complaint, but that it was useful to get my perspective. I should also note my supervisor is off site and has very little understanding of our job’s details or our day to day operations.

I’m honestly cynical that my boss can or will change my coworker’s job performance. My coworker can come up with fairly good excuses or explanations for how she’s spending her time, and I think she honestly believes she’s in the right and doing a good job. My question is how I can come to terms with this situation and make the best of it, as I find myself losing patience and fighting the urge to act passive aggressive or avoid my coworker because of my frustration level. I don’t want to leave this job, but I’m worried I’ll burn out, and I’m already spending so much time each day ruminating on my coworker’s laziness and the unfairness of our work distribution. How can I learn to live in this situation?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 125 comments… read them below }

  1. GH in SOCal

    I have to say that was some amazing advice. Level-headed and clear. I hope it helps the OP.

    One other thing that caught my eye — the OP says there should be more people on the team. What about approaching the boss to ask about the possibility of hiring another co-worker? Managing the slacker to be more productive might be beyond them — but if they hired another set of hands to help with the workload, maybe OP would be less bothered by the slacker?

    1. OP

      Hi there, I’m the OP. We are in the hiring process right now, but it takes a really long time. I applied many months before I heard back about the position, so it will be a little while before the position is filled.

  2. Nunya

    Maybe the ‘slacker’ is using her extra 30 years of life experience to manage workload in a different way. Maybe she has more leave time built up. Maybe the OP is headed for burnout in a year because she can’t stand down and pace herself.
    20 year old me was all over the slackers at work. 50 year old me has learned a few things about chewing the workplace scenery.

      1. voyager1

        I am more tending to agree with Nunya on this, but we also don’t see anywhere that the LW is doing more work or doing the work of the other person.

        I did find the not seeing patients part disturbing too though, and would like to know more about that. If they have a set number of patients that they have to see or something, then that is the angle I would take with the boss/manager.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Her letter explicitly says that the coworker leaves the OP with more work and lets patients go unseen while she “leaves work early 2-3 times per week for appointments like massages and facials.” She also says they’re understaffed and the coworker isn’t working the full amount of time she’s supposed to be.

          I’m pretty taken aback that with the picture the OP has painted, people are questioning whether her assessment of the situation is actually correct. What kind of proof do y’all require before being willing to believe a letter-writer, who probably assumed she’d be taken at her word and thus didn’t need to provide a full and detailed accounting of the situation?

          1. Catalin

            I have no idea why people are assuming the older coworker ‘knows best’, especially when it’s clear that the person in question isn’t ‘doing things differently’, they’re straight up not there when they need to be. People do not need massages and facials so much that the work day needs to be sacrificed regularly. Coming in late regularly without a solid reason (train, traffic) isn’t being a ‘seasoned veteran’. It doesn’t sound like the older coworker is working ‘smarter, not harder’ so much as doing as little as possible to get through the day without concern for others’ needs.

            1. Brogrammer

              Yeah, seriously.

              “Smarter, not harder” doesn’t even make sense when the job in question involves providing coverage. Either you’re there or you’re not, there’s no way around it.

              1. Lance

                This, all the way. If you’re spending such a percentage of your time… well, not doing your job, even avoiding it (and avoiding being there, no less!) then no matter how you frame it, there’s obviously an issue.

            2. Lily in NYC

              Yes, and I wish we would stop second-guessing OPs about this kind of thing. I feel like it’s been happening more than usual here lately.

              1. Elizabeth West

                Yes, and I know we’re not supposed to call people trolls, but it’s starting to feel like the behaviour is a bit trolly. It tends to derail the threads and sometimes seems really arbitrary.

              2. KG, Ph.D.

                Agreed. Aside from it being annoying, I think it’s also unnecessary, because the answers that Alison gives are sufficiently broad that even if the OP is misunderstanding or misrepresenting the situation, the advice will still lead to a productive conversation with her manager, who can clarify where she is going wrong.

                1. Elsajeni

                  Right, this is one of many benefits to the fact that Alison’s advice is never like “CHARGE INTO YOUR MANAGER’S OFFICE GUNS A-BLAZING AND GIVE HER WHAT FOR” — it allows for the possibility that the answer is “Yep, we’re trying to spread 3 people’s worth of work across 2 until we can hire someone else, and in fact I’m worried that you’re overworking yourself if you ARE getting everything done” or “Yep, I’ve approved a reduced workload for her for Reasons, I know it’s tough but hopefully we can get that third person hired soon” or whatever.

            3. MashaKasha

              People are projecting because many of us (myself included, on more than one occasion) had that one vigilant coworker who has no idea about our work or its quality, looks over our shoulder, assumes we’re slacking off, and takes their concern to the higher-ups. That was my first, knee-jerk reaction too. Then I re-read the letter, paying attention to detail, and realized that this is clearly not the case. Work really is not getting done because the coworker is out getting facials and whatnot.

          2. BRR

            I’m also surprised that there’s this amount of pushback. It feels like people are putting all of their effort into creating excuses instead of helping the LW. For some letters it makes sense but in this one it seems pretty clear the co-worker is not doing their job at a satisfactory level. The manager has even acknowledged it.

            Anyways, I’m wondering when the LW says the team is supposed to consist of three full-time and one part-time staff members what that means. If there is a hiring freeze that is tough and I’d lean towards asking your manager how they would like you to handle the workload. If you’re hiring for the other spots, having everyone do the professional pushing of asking her to help and making sure the manager is aware.

            Also taking the LW at their word is also part of the commenting policy :)

            1. OP

              Hello, I’m the OP. We had someone else leave the position as I came on, and we are hiring for that, and have a long- unfilled part time position.

          3. Nunya

            I have actually read examples here of information submitted by letter-writers being questioned as to potential exaggeration or misperception, like when someone is at B.E.Crackers stage and the ‘infractions’ take on a heightened impact.
            Not saying the LW’s perception is wrong or inaccurate, but that age and experience do affect how workplace habits/practices are interpreted. Obviously this should all be in the context of performing the actual work satisfactorily, esp when patients are involved.
            I work with a wide variety of people and do notice a corresponding wide range in perception and interpretation of the same person/activities in particular circumstances. It is often the case that people who are just starting out in their work path are very gung ho and do more policing of others. And also often the case that older, more embedded workers take full advantage of workplace benefits and ability to self-pace.

            Like I said previously, 20yr old me would be ranty and cranky about a perceived slacker. 30 years of experience lends a more nuanced view of both ‘slackers’ and ‘newbs’. The LW will hopefully gain some nuance as she negotiates this situation, whether it means leaving the job or accepting that different people = different work/slack styles. Sometimes ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’ is the best mantra.

            1. Elizabeth West

              Hmm, no I don’t think so. The coworker’s behavior is having a direct impact on the patients (customers). The manager needs to step in. This isn’t about the OP’s perception or policing of her coworkers; it’s about a coworker who isn’t pulling her weight. To say otherwise is pushing the responsibility back onto the OP, when it really lies with the *yes she is a slacker* coworker and the *wimpy* manager.

              The OP should stop trying to cover for her and let her fail.

              1. JessaB

                Not to mention that hospitals LIVE on their survey results and audit results, if the work is not getting done sooner or later this is going to seriously impact the hospital’s bottom line, maybe then they’ll do something. I also vote for don’t cover for her unless not covering will cause actual real harm to a patient.

            2. Lance

              The trouble is, for one thing, the coworker is coming into work late and leaving early… on a regular basis. There’s no ‘perception’ at work there; they’re very clearly not there when they’re supposed to be. That, among other things, is most certainly a problem.

            3. Lily in NYC

              You are projecting your own work experience onto OP. I was much more of a slacker in my 20s than I am now and could give just as many examples from my early work days showing the exact opposite of what you wrote. I know 20 year old slackers. I know 60 year old slackers. I know 20 year old superstars. I know 20 year old slackers.

          4. TCO

            It’s really stressful to believe that ill patients in need are suffering because your coworker isn’t providing enough care. I can tell that OP cares a lot and is concerned about her patients–and that’s a critical quality in social work. But setting reasonable limits to prevent one’s own burnout, accepting that some things are out of her control, and finding ways to cope with seeing needs higher than you can ever meet… those are critical qualities in a social worker, too. That’s why I encouraged OP below to consider whether her coworker’s patients are still receiving acceptable care–not because I necessarily believe that they are, but because OP can’t assume the worst and take all of that burden on herself, regardless of whether or not it’s true.

          5. JessaB

            Not to mention that depending on what services they provide, many patients will only have to be seen once and then ticked off the list of persons who do not need the service. And it makes a difference if “not seeing patients” means patients who need to be triaged as to whether they need services or patients already marked as NEEDING help. But if the hospital census is large enough to need more than two people, that needs to be addressed also. If they’re able to get in more people, they might be more responsive to actually doing something about this employee.

          6. Terra

            I don’t necessarily think it’s not believing the letter-writer. I think it’s more that social work is a field that’s pretty infamous for high burnout rates. So while I can see why all of the co-workers actions are frustrating to the letter-writer it’s possible that some of them are, if not strictly necessary, then advisable to avoid burnout or possibly recover from it if she was already having a problem?

            I’m not saying that the amount of time the coworker spends not working at her job is good or that the letter-writer should continue to have to put up with it. I do think there’s an argument to be made that the OP shouldn’t necessarily judge her for sometimes talking to coworkers or sometimes leaving early for a massage or facial. Basically the underlying idea being that there’s a possible reason for the coworkers actions beside laziness.

            I’m also a little disturbed by the letter-writer judging the importance of another person’s medical appointments.

            1. Lance

              If it was sometimes, I could honestly see it not being so much of an issue. From the sound of things, though, the ‘getting to work late’ and ‘leaving early’ are frequent occurrences.

            2. Anon1

              Except it isn’t “sometimes” chatting with coworkers, or “sometimes” going to get a facial. It’s coming in late frequently PLUS leaving early frequently PLUS doing it for non-necessary reasons (yes, day spas are open on weekends) PLUS taking long lunch breaks PLUS frequent chatting PLUS not getting their work done.

              I’m getting more than a whiff of intentional minimization from you.

            3. OP

              Hi, OP here. I do think it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t judge the medical appointments of others. Because this situation is frustrating, I make a mental note of things that maybe I shouldn’t. My main concern is that we are expected to answer calls from time X to X and I’m the one handling the fallout and having to tell folks their patients can’t be seen.

              1. AnonEEOmouse

                I got a pedicure between two medical appointments that I scheduled for the same day. Let’s hope context gets remembered. Also, use-or-lose PTO days are A Thing where I work for people with 6+ years of service. Schedules get nuts at the end of the year, and people end up working by necessity and being resentful

                For being the messenger about low staffing, it’s tough not to take the response to the message personally, maybe run the scenario past the manager to see what the message is so this is the message for The Team, due to Circumstances, ideally temporary with the hiring process. You can agree with irate people that it’s frustrating for both sides and are aware that it will be improving, just not in time for today’s situation. Emergency options and grass-roots support (like AA and Al-Anon) are options.

          7. Gaia

            This is classic “anti-millennial” crap that we see all the time. The OP is younger so she must be some entitled brat who doesn’t have the knowledge of the older coworker. The older coworker can’t possibly be int he wrong – look at all the experience she has!

              1. Julia

                And who get told by their bosses that old people won’t change anymore, so boss can’t do anything, but since you’re young, you couldn’t possibly be stressed because you can just get drunk after work.

                Sorry, that’s an example from my workplace.

                1. Dot Warner

                  Besides, your older coworker is going to retire in a year or two anyway! You can tough it out till then, right? [An example from my former workplace… and one of a great many reasons I resigned.]

                2. sstabeler

                  Dot Warner, with the retiring co-worker, the issue would more be that with you picking up the slack, I wonder how much motivation the boss would have to replace the retiring co-worker. ( if you have two people doing a job, but one doing all the work, it’s going to look tempting to just drop the 2nd position.

                  That’s an issue that people need to bear in mind, actually: if the OP essentially does two jobs ( hers and her co-workers) then it’s possible the boss doesn’t realise how bad the situation is- they think that LW can easily cope with the workload, when in fact, LW is running the risk of burning out to keep co-worker’s slacking from affecting patients. (I suspect an element of this is occurring anyway, since the parttime post has been unfilled for a while. Since the workload seems- to them- to be covered by 3 employees, why pay for a 4th? Similarly, it might be why the recruitment process is dragging on- since thye think there is no problem, thye don’t see the need to be quick)

          8. Kate

            I think this might be an age thing. I have noticed unfortunately, that no matter how responsible they are or how they behave, people (general) tend to assume that anyone younger than themselves is less knowledgeable, less experienced, their viewpoints are to be taken less seriously, etc.

            I have had this happen to me many times. From discussing an issue and being told that I will change my point of view when I am older (to their point of view, the correct one of course!); to stating an opinion, having it dismissed, and seconds later having it repeated almost word for word by an older person, when it is then taken seriously.

            I have also noticed that older people tend to view young people based on how they remember their own youths. If they were responsible, all young people are totally unlike them, “Why back in my day!” (I am guilty of this one). If they were less responsible, made mistakes, they tend to expect that all young people are/are going to make the same mistakes.

            I have seen this happen to 20 year olds, 30 year olds, 40 year olds, etc.

            1. Kate

              I meant to add, I think it might be an age thing because the slacker coworker is so much older than the OP, people are assuming s/he is young.

              1. Kate

                It could be a 20 year old and a 50 year old or a 30 year old and a 60 year old or up! Not that the way the OP is being treated would be okay even if they were 20 or so. I have met many really irresponsible, foolish 50 year olds, and quite a few really responsible and trustworthy 20 year olds.

    1. brightstar

      If the slacker co-worker is leaving patients unseen and is generally unreliable as shown by the OP, that isn’t pacing yourself so you don’t burn out. That is just not doing your job in a proper manner and there’s a real difference between the two. Plus, in a healthcare setting you can’t just put someone on the back burner the way you can with a project.

      1. Jerry Vandesic

        It all depends on whether patients need to be seen more frequently. The slacker might be drawing upon years of experience to know how often to see patients, vs a newbie who is simply following the book and seeing them every day, which might be too often.

        1. TCO

          In social work it is entirely possible that two people have very different approaches with clients and still get good results, and experience helps a lot. That doesn’t excuse OP’s coworker at all, but it would help OP to be open-minded about whether or not her coworker is actually getting results for her patients, even if she’s not going “by the book.” She may be burned out from years of working in an understaffed department.

          There’s no excuse for patients to not be getting the care they need and deserve, but I encourage OP to approach her coworker with curiosity rather than judgement, just because it will make the interpersonal relationship less adversarial.

          1. TCO

            After seeing Alison’s comment above, I want to clarify–I completely believe the OP and it sounds as if there is a serious imbalance in work. I’m just encouraging the OP to be thoughtful in the assumptions she makes and the attitude she develops towards her coworker because it can make the relationship easier than going into full-on accusatory mode (I’m prone to accusatory mode myself, so I know how hard it can be to manage relationships while under that mindset).

            1. neverjaunty

              Conversely, being a doormat and gaslighting oneself into making excuses for co-workers’ selfish behavior is not really a good alternative, and will damage OP’s career in the long run.

              The OP isn’t fussing about her co-worker not coming in at 8:30 on the dot or having a different pattern of work. She’s quite clearly describing someone who is playing work chicken with the OP and who is putting her own leisurely pace above the needs of patients. I would like to say that, like AAM, I am astonished at the pushback – but having seen how little many people in patient care in fact care about patients, I am unsurprised.

            2. Anon1

              I’m also pretty appalled at the excuses being made for this slacker. I’m 16 years into my career and fairly burned out at my job, but hell if I will make excuses for someone who doesn’t work the hours they’re paid to work and leaves others to do what they can’t bother to do.

        2. Christian Troy

          Doing something by the book vs. drawing on years of experience is absolutely irrelevant if your work is being determined and requested by clinicians who are actually making initial assessments of the patients. The LW states she is concerned as being seen as unreliable by clinicians, which I assume are physicians or NPs/PAs who are encountering the patients initially. That is a huge thing to be concerned.

        3. Jesmlet

          Exactly. I think in this field in particular, pacing yourself and keeping clients to strict schedules is how you last 30 years. While I want to trust LW at their word, just from experience, you have to learn to set boundaries and when to say no and this might be the difference between the two. It’s hard to say without knowing if the patients are actually suffering as a result or just learning to develop their own coping skills.

            1. Jesmlet

              I’ve always come from the place of, if you get everything done that needs to be done, how you handle the rest of your time is up to you. Granted, LW’s portrayal doesn’t reflect well on the coworker but I think it’s probably more likely an issue of LW being a little too eager and coworker being maybe more than a little too relaxed. I’ve been embedded in a hospital before in a mental health capacity and there’s a pretty noticeable dichotomy in all levels between the young ones and the seasoned ones as far as how they spend their time and their attitude toward work. Doesn’t make it right but it is fairly commonplace.

              1. Temperance

                She’s not seeing all the people who need to be seen, so I’m goign to say that she’s not getting it done.

              2. neverjaunty

                Yes, all kinds of crappy behavior is “fairly commonplace”. That doesn’t mean we should read things into the OP’s letter that don’t exist so as to find some way to excuse her co-worker’s conduct.

            2. Jesmlet

              Also, just dawned on me (duh) that there are many types of social workers in hospitals and not just the ones I’ve worked with (mental health) so my comment may be a bit off base as far as that goes.

        4. Ultraviolet

          This possibility would seem reasonable to me if the coworker was working a normal number of hours at a normal pace, and for instance devoting more time to long-term projects and less to patient visits than OP would prefer. But the coworker is spending sooo much time not working at all that it’s hard to believe their approach is better for the hospital (or department) than OP’s approach, or the expectations of whoever else has complained to the supervisor about the coworker.

          1. Faith2014

            The OP said that if coworker saw more patients, they could get it all done and have time to work on long term projects. So I think it unlikely coworker is doing that already. And if she is, is it what she should be spending time on? I would think her manager would have told OP that.

            1. Ultraviolet

              This sounds like a misunderstanding of my comment. I did not suggest that the coworker might actually be working on long-term projects already. I said that if they were, that would be an example of a hypothetical situation in which the OP should consider the possibility that the way the coworker spends her time is reasonable and informed by their greater experience. But as I said, the coworker is actually slacking off a huge amount, so it’s unlikely that what they are doing is better than what OP believes they should be doing.

        5. Temperance

          Okay, so I’m jumping in her as someone who was a hospital patient earlier this year. My first stay, I didn’t get to see a social worker, and I needed one. I’m sure some “seasoned veteran” saw my age in my chart and assumed that I was just going to bounce back. I needed help that I did not receive.

          My second stay, a very nice, very young social worker made it a point to check in on me. I didn’t need her help that time, but made it a point to thank her, let her boss know, and inform them that I needed help the first time and didn’t get it.

        6. OP

          We often can only see a patient one time before they discharge, so that’s one of the reasons I feel pressure to get them seen.

    2. Cookie

      Having worked as a social worker in the past, this kind of complaint sounds very familiar. New grads go into their first job overly eager and a little overzealous, meanwhile looking down on more experienced social workers who understand the importance of self-care and avoiding burnout. In about a year, the newbie will get it.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Are you really saying that leaving work early for spa appointments 2-3 times a week and not working a full-time schedule despite being in a full-time role week after week, while work goes undone, is normal self-care? I have to think people didn’t read the letter thoroughly or something because that doesn’t make any sense.

        1. Ultraviolet

          My reaction is similar to yours.

          I don’t know anything about social work, so I’m just guessing here, but I wonder whether the way work is assigned, or services are requested, is different in OP’s case from what is typical in the field. I’m getting the impression that commenters who are familiar with social work believe the coworker is exercising reasonable discretion in triaging requests and letting some go unfulfilled, whereas OP believes it’s unacceptable for any requests to go unfulfilled. And I think it’s more reasonable to assume OP’s specific niche is unusual for the field than to assume that they’re totally wrongheaded about it, especially since the latter assumption entails believing it’s okay for the coworker to spend half her work time not working.

          (Also, OP keeps getting described as a new grad, but all I’m seeing is that they’ve been in this job 3 months and are 30 years younger than their coworker. Unless I’m missing some other detail, that narrows OP’s age to about 23-36ish. They could have several years of experience already.)

          1. OP

            Thanks for this. I’m the OP, and I do have a few years experience prior to this job. I may be a touch overly ambitious, but my coworker definitely spends very little time in the day doing work.

        2. Milton Waddams

          Social work is not a normal job.

          The odd part here is that upper management hasn’t worked the older lady’s schedule into the workflow, since it’s not her schedule but a lack of planning around it that is causing the problems; might there be something political going on? Perhaps she is salaried, but the official hospital stance is that salaried workers must work 40 hours a week, no exceptions, even though the nature of her work makes a more flexible schedule necessary for long-term success.

          The minor medical appointments is probably the more worrying part, as those might imply that she is looking for a new job — on the other hand, at her age medical appointments of any sort become more commonplace, so maybe that’s not an issue.

    3. animaniactoo

      You know, I could go with that if the OP was talking about the co-worker insisting on taking their full breaks even when there’s a line of people, or leaving on the dot of when they’re scheduled to be there.

      That’s not what the OP is talking about at all – OP literally says this co-worker spends more time on the clock finding ways to NOT do their job than they spend actually servicing clients.

      Networking is great, particularly when it provides you with a mental/stress break. But when your networking takes up more time than speaking to and directly servicing the clients who you’re supposed to be taking care of, that’s a problem. It’s a slacker problem. As is feeling fine to swan out the door for completely non-urgent personal care appointments during hours when you are supposed to be servicing clients.

      If anything, I’d say older co-worker is not managing her time better – she’s the one who is burntout and is avoiding her job. And the effects of that are going to burnout somebody who maybe could do work-life balance but is overcompensating to try to keep their office’s problem from being their patients’ problem.

    4. Crazy Canuck

      It is also possible that the older co-worker thinks she is irreplaceable, and that she is deliberately doing as little as possible to avoid being fired. If the older co-worker has more leave time built up, you would think the manager would say something instead of saying that there had been similar complaints before, right? The biggest slacker I ever worked with in my 25+ years working was a 62 year old woman with major entitlement issues.

      Reading this comment thread, I think a lot of people are putting themselves in the older co-workers place, and not reading the OP with an open mind. I’ll leave it at that.

      As for the OP, Allison is dead-on in that you don’t have a co-worker problem. You have a manager problem. Her advice is good, and I strongly reccomend taking it, if you can. If you can’t? You need to tell your manager that. Tell your manager that you are struggling with patients not getting the care they deserve because of your co-worker, and ask if they have any advice on handling it. You can’t fix this, only your manager can. If you don’t get the vibe that they are taking it seriously, then ask for a reference and move on.

    5. Anonymous Educator

      I’m not a social worker, but I’ve been a teacher and currently work in schools with teachers. Burnout is a real thing. I, like most teachers, quit within the first five years. That said, some of the most amazing teachers I know are 50+ and have been teaching for decades and aren’t slacking off at all on their teaching duties. I don’t think being old is an excuse for slacking off. Does that mean you have to be chugging at 100% 100% of the time? Nope. You do what you can to avoid burnout (at any age), but that isn’t at all what the letter-writer is describing.

    6. Sarah

      Given her supervisor’s response, it sounds like the OP’s analysis of the situation is accurate.

      In addition, using the “My 20 year old self thought and now my 50 year old self thinks” argument, or any personal experience argument, is illogical. You’re using one single personal example and from that making inferences about another situation, which is both poor logic and biased. Just because you were/are conscientious does not mean the woman the OP works with is as well. Also, none of us are perfect at knowing how we come off to others; perhaps you identify with the OP’s coworker because you are less productive than you need to be and you used to be better when you were younger. I’m not saying that’s the case – I’m just demonstrating one reason why extrapolating from a single example, especially when it’s yourself, is not strong logic. That’s actually commonly called an anecdotal logical fallacy.

      Lastly, as with any letter here – really we have to assume the letter writer is accurate and base our advice on how to handle the situation as described by the OP.

      1. Augusta Sugarbean

        I understand what you are saying but when a dozen people chime in saying “X is my experience also” then it goes beyond one personal example and is worth looking at.

        1. Candi

          How about this one?

          At my third job, I was a mall housekeeper, a physically stressful job that required pushing a heavy cleanup cart around. The lady who had been there second-longest was a management favorite and in her 50s. All she did was empty garbage and wipe up spills. She didn’t sweep, clean out the plants, clean the bathrooms when she had that section, search corners for garbage and dust bunnies, or anything else on our official list of duties.

          The woman who had been there the longest did all of that, and she had forty hours to Favorite’s thirty.

          But when I complained, I was the problem.

          It’s too often not about age or level of burnout. It’s too frequently about age and entitlement, and bad management.

          And a read through of the archives and the comment threads, so far, seems to put the slacker coworker in the majority, not the time-managing experienced whiz.

    7. OP

      Hello, I’m the OP. While I’m willing to bet that I’ll have a different perspective in 30 years than I do now, I don’t think that’s the difference between my coworker and I. I’ve worked with coworkers along the age spectrum, and I haven’t encountered this issue before in previous positions.

  3. TCO

    OP, I know that you’re concerned about your team’s reputation (which is often a good thing!)–but as Alison points out, just focus on your own reputation, not your team’s. If you keep being great at your job the hospital staff will come to see you as great and your coworker as not-so-great in contrast. You don’t need to drag her along with you to keep your own reputation intact.

    1. JessaB

      The problem is that the reputation is not just solely about the OP. If the hospital survey says “Did you see a social worker?” and “Did you feel that you got the help you need?” And the patients say NO, it doesn’t matter which social worker was responsible for the lack. The whole department takes that hit. Nobody is going to remember that OP did all her work and Coworker did not. They’re just going to care that patient x did not get served.

      1. Temperance

        +1

        I was hospitalized twice this year, and this question absolutely came up on my surveys. You’re absolutely right.

  4. Red Reader

    Frustrating indeed. At a previous job, I was in an department structured for five teapot designers, we had three, and one of them “worked from home” all the time, by which I mean she didn’t do any work, answer her phone or check her email for literally weeks at a time (and then would send replies to emails that had been answered by someone else three weeks prior), and the manager basically just shrugged it off. She finally left after doing this for a year and a half.

  5. Alice

    Well, I agree that your boss is not managing things, and there’s no long-term solution for that except a new boss.
    But also – if the department should have 3.5FTE, it’s probably not going to be possible for two people to do everything that needs doing. As long as you are understaffed, I don’t think it would be possible to do everything even if your coworker were great.
    In fact, since you mention that your boss may not understand what you do and by extension why your work is valuable. Maybe that problem is even worse than the failure to manage the slacker.

    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, I agree with this. While it sounds like OPs coworker has probably taken it too far, there is a point where the only way to show you are overworked and need more staff is to only do what you reasonably can do in a day and let the boss know that the only way to [see more patients, have a faster response time, whatevre the metric is, etc] is to increase the head count. It’s hard in a position like OP’s though, where you aren’t talking about teapots going unpainted or shipments going out late but rather humans waiting for help.

      Before OP was hired, was this employee on her own for a while? If she was one person who was asked to do the work of a 3.5 person department alone, perhaps she’s now using up some banked leave or comp time?

      I think OP needs to focus on “this is what I can do with the patient load I have now, if I had a reduced patient load I could work on long term project X” and then discuss options with the manager for reducing her patient load – whether that be the co-worker taking on more, hiring another person, etc.

      However, I do think the advice to worry about *her own* reputation and not the department reputation is a good one. People will figure out that she’s someone that gets things done – and she can let the department reputation be the worry of the management choosing to understaff it.

  6. NW Mossy

    As a manager, I will sometimes say “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that feedback” when one of my staff brings an issue with a peer or a counterpart in another part of the org, and I wanted to give some context about why I use that phrasing:

    * It’s often true! For example, if someone is late on fulfilling a request, they tend to be late on multiple requests for different people, so it’s unsurprising that more than one person has the same beef.

    * It’s a way of saying “I am not writing you off as crazy or misguided; instead, I see your statement as part of a larger pattern with Fergus and it’s totally reasonable that you’d raise it.”

    * When both the feedback-offering employee and the co-worker are on my team, I try to keep my comments more neutral and avoid getting in a discussion with Wakeen about how horrible Fergus is, or vice versa. “I’ve heard similar feedback about Fergus” is a way to keep my own opinion out of the discussion, since the first person to hear of my opinion of Fergus should always be Fergus.

    And to Alison’s larger point, I typically won’t get into details about coaching/feedback I give about a direct report to another direct report – it’s just not appropriate in most cases. I’ve flat-out said that to one team member who’d gotten into a bad habit of dragging one of her colleagues in conversations with my predecessor, and she quickly realized that I wasn’t going to join her in a maligning party. I will be somewhat more open when they’re giving feedback about someone I don’t manage, but even then, I tend to put it more on the level of “I’ll discuss that with Lucinda’s boss.”

    It’s really important to me for my team to know my reserve on this stuff is not because I don’t care but because it’s a gesture of respect to allow people to both give and hear critical feedback in a safe environment. Keeping a neutral tone and not oversharing are a big part of creating that environment and helping make sure that feedback gets shared in the first place.

    1. KR

      I agree with this – when people raise issues with me about coworkers I don’t want to tell them specifically what’s happening because they aren’t responsible for supervising them, I feel like the person is owed some privacy, and I don’t want the person to get conflicting assessments and instructions. I’ll often use this phrase or something similar to say “I understand what you’re saying, you’re not the only one saying it, I don’t necessarily disagree with you but I’ll take care of it.”

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Absolutely. But when the behavior isn’t changing in any way, it’s not unreasonable to assume the manager isn’t taking sufficient action. (Or, alternately, the employer has overly rigid and onerous procedures that require you to give people months and months of warnings before taking real action.)

      1. NW Mossy

        That’s definitely true, and something I run up against when I go manager-to-manager in my org. It pains me when I bring feedback about someone else’s report and I get the “yeah yeah yeah I’ll deal with it” and then no change! Our culture is somewhat feedback-averse on “don’t hurt people’s feelings” grounds, although I’m doing my part to subvert that by giving it when it’s warranted and constructive.

        I will say, though, that I try to be candid with people about how long I think it’ll be before there are results to see and how much influence I have over them. Things that live on my team alone are generally fast, but if I’m trying to influence another team, it can take a lot longer and the results harder to see. Right now I’m working on trying to build a better partnership with a team of 60 people with a different management chain located in various sites nationwide, and it’s an uphill climb. I know I need to do it because the impact on my team is huge, but I had to be realistic with my people that this one isn’t a quick fix.

        1. SophieChotek

          You had some good points, I appreciated hearing. Like AAM said better than I, I think the most frustrating this as the person complaining and seeing other (perceived) “slackers” (funny how a WW1 term for men who refused to enlist has come to mean something more general), not change their behavior or seem to suffer consequences for not changing your behavior. But I do thank you for your perspective, because it’s a good reminder there are so many other factors at play. [unrelated, to the actual letter above, where, for the most part it sounds like the OP’s colleague really isn’t pulling their weight).

          1. Annie Moose

            Actually, it’s a bit older than that according to EtymOnline! It has the earliest attested usage as all the way back to 1897, and the verb form (“to slack”) has been around since the early 1500s. It was indeed used in WWI for draft dodgers, but it was just a specialized use of a word that already existed in the general sense.

    3. Gaara

      But if it’s a continuing pattern, then you aren’t doing anything about it, and at that point listening is meaningless. As a manager, you absolutely have the ability to tell people they have to stop slacking or else you will replace them — and then follow through.

  7. Merida May

    It’s so tough in a position like the OP’s, because letting the work lapse translates to patients going unseen. Could you go back to your supervisor and frame your concerns around your workload and impending burnout? Maybe in the first meeting the supervisor heard ‘generic slacker complaint’ and disregarded it, but perhaps OP saying ‘I’m starting to get overwhelmed with the current work distribution as is’ might have more of an impact?

    1. OhNo

      That’s a good idea. It might also be worth bringing the ‘patients going unseen’ part to the manager’s door as well. Like, “I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to do (list of your work and coworker’s work). I noticed that Coworker seems to handle this by not seeing all of her patients. Is that something you’d like me to do, too?”

      That also gives you the bonus of learning if her habit of letting patients go unseen is slacking, or some kind of alternative working style or anti-burnout measure (as mentioned above). If it is just her slacking, you’ve now brought it to the attention of your boss.

  8. Dave

    Yeah, as a former healthcare worker, who’s job was directly affected by the output of the hospital social workers: OP, your hard work does not go unnoticed, and is always appreciated.

  9. Michelle

    I agree with the advice about asking to hire additional staff, since you said you are supposed to have 3 full-time and 1 part-time person. The fact that the person supervising you has little understanding of your job’s details or day to day operations seems odd to me. How can you manage people if you don’t know what they do??

    I understand your frustration. I felt like that when I first started my current job. We have a few staff members who really stretch the boundaries and take advantage of our flexibility. It used to drive me nuts. It has taken time, but I have learned to do my job really well and let their slack show. I now have a reputation of being well organized, discreet, well-mannered, dependable and completing projects in a timely manner. When we have update meetings, the slackers flounder to come up with something to show they have progressed or try to double-talk their way through things and I can show clear movement on my projects. I wish the director would push them to be more productive, but as long as he lets it go on and it doesn’t interfere with my work, I let it go. I still struggle with it occasionally, but I remember that it reflects on them, not me.

    I worry a little about your situation, though, because if you work with patients and some of them are not being seen, I wonder how that affects their ability to heal and/or get the things they need to feel better.

    1. Candi

      It can absolutely affect their ability to access mental health and financial resources. When I was on DSHS TANF, DSHS operated as a clearinghouse in referring cases to more specialized agencies. If the LW’s work is at all similar, the coworker’s slack could mean that timely referral isn’t happening.

  10. Former Retail Manager

    I’ve been in OP’s situation and she sounds young, ambitious, and shouldering the weight of the world. Keep the ambition. Stop shouldering the weight of the world. Alison’s advice is great all around, but I’ve been in too many of these situations and the sad reality, for me at least, was that virtually nothing was EVER done about the slacker for a variety of reasons. If this woman is 30 years older than you, how much longer does she have until retirement? I’ve known many people in the slacker’s age range that are just left alone because it’s easier to wait for them to retire than to deal with the problem.

    Overall, I believe the best thing to do is to continue doing a great job with your patients and put in an honest 40 hours. While it may bother you that patients go unseen, if you’ve notified management that it’s happening, there is really not much more for you to do. You are one person who can only do so much work. Management has a function and, as Alison said, the manager in this situation isn’t doing their job. Also, while I don’t know much about social work, if the patients going unseen has any potential negative consequences for you (say in the form of some sort of investigation down the line), I’d politely and tactfully express my concerns to the manager in writing and save a printed copy of the e-mail for your records.

    1. Natalie

      “While it may bother you that patients go unseen, if you’ve notified management that it’s happening, there is really not much more for you to do. You are one person who can only do so much work.”

      This is important to learn. You shouldn’t set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.

  11. Kyrielle

    OP, I will point out that if the team should have 3.5 FTEs and has two – and presumably at a point prior to your coming onboard had one? – your coworker may be dealing with a bad, bad case of burnout. This does not make her behavior okay – but thinking about it that way may make it easier for you to navigate. If she has had to carry that load (or rather, fail to carry it, because no one person could) on her own, or as half of a tem for a long time, she may be overwhelmed and exhausted.

    Which doesn’t make it okay to come in late, cut out early, and otherwise not buckle down. But keeping it in mind may help you approach her/work with her less adversarially, and it may help keep your stress level about her behavior a tiny bit lower, which might improve your days a tiny bit.

    1. ginger ale for all

      On the other side of the coin, perhaps there is turn over in the office because of the slacker? Then the slacker had a hand in creating the situation where they were the only one in the office.

  12. Ultraviolet

    I want to echo Alison’s advice about giving your boss quantitative data about how much work you’re doing, how much your coworker’s doing, and how much is going undone–and asking for advice on how to handle that. This could be really helpful, especially if you didn’t have any numbers on hand when you first approached your supervisor about this, and also because you were very new in the position when you first did it. Your opinion might carry a little more weight with your boss (or be more likely to move them to action) now that they know you better and you’ve been doing so well.

    Also if your department is understaffed, these numbers could help your boss make the case for more hires.

  13. A social work adjacent professional

    Whether or not the slacker is strictly a slacker or some mix of slacker and “wisdom of experience” I think the same things can help with the underlying problem, which is that OP is feeling overworked.

    1. Track what you do all day. Your job probably only requires you to clock in and out and to input chart notes. But keep track for a couple weeks of what you do from the moment you clock in until the moment you clock out.

    2. Use that info to quantify your workload. How many referrals did you get from clinicians. How long does it take on average to meet with patients? (This may need to be broken out into categories depending on the nature of the referral – I’m guessing some take longer than others.) How much time to you spend per day on administrative tasks or in meetings? What things do you just not have enough time to do?

    3. Talk to your boss again and go through the data you’ve gathered. Ask if there are ways you can handle your job more efficiently? Is the workload high enough to warrant hiring an additional social worker? Does having it broken down like this make it easier for boss to push coworker to do more work?

    1. Sensual Shirtwaist

      I think this is a good idea, and I would add – don’t forget to add time for mistakes!

      The tendency when doing an exercise like this is to estimate how long each appointment ‘should’ take, if every thing goes right. Everything never goes right. Every day will contain difficult patients, and patients who are asleep when you try and visit them, and difficulties accessing charts/writing reports. build that in so that your estimate of what you can get done in a day is what you can get done on a mediocre to bad day.

      And then stick to it! give your whole attention to each patient you see, and clock out when your shift is up. Document how many patients you were unable to see.

  14. animaniactoo

    OP, I really like the advice to approach your manager about your inability to handle everything and what’s going left undone as the issue that really needs solving rather than how much your co-worker is slacking. It’s more than just you taking up her slack that allows your manager to ignore her slacking (if it is being ignored), it’s your lack of making an issue about your increased workload. It’s easy to dismiss something as not really being a problem because the end result (the work) is basically being handled and nobody is complaining much about it. But if the person who is doing the work is raising complaints about their workload, it acts as increased pressure.

    fwiw, I worked in a position that wasn’t as sensitive as seeing patients, but was crucially deadline driven and I understand completely the impulse, the internal imperative not to make the clients suffer for your office’s problems. I had the same issue, and because it was a problem that came from the very top I ended up leaving because *I* – the me that I am – always felt responsible to the clients and I don’t think that’s something that will ever change. It’s a core piece of me. So for me, the only way to solve the problem of not being able to say “no” (and “sorry”) to the clients in that situation was to say “no” to the whole thing and go find a place which was managed better.

  15. Gadfly

    I wonder if this is in part a problem with hospital culture. As described to my by my RN husband, the staffing a job for three and a half with two was almost standard. And he got in a lot of trouble at one point for taking the time to do everything correctly (as a new nurse, chomping at the bit) and was extremely frustrated by older nurses telling him to not do everything he was supposed to do in order to get things ‘done’, especially charting ‘shortcuts’. In situations like that the burn out result tends to be to eventually give up. For a while you try to do as much as you can, and then at some point you realize you never can do enough and you’ll never get the support you need to come close to doing it and you will get done what you get done and do what you need to.

    Not saying that the coworker is right, but that happens with nurses. And I have seen it elsewhere. When everything is treated as being first priority, eventually nothing is urgent. It all cancels out.

    My other question is if she is taking vacation time for the early days? Depending on her seniority she may have enough time to burn. She may want to use it that way instead of a trip away (which she may not feel able to take whole days or weeks off given the understaffing.)

    1. Gadfly

      To clarify, they wanted my husband to use unofficial shortcuts like copying over journal entries. Saves a lot of time but is also a care issue. Kind of a Wells Fargo sort of situation. They were forbidden from doing it and encouraged/almost required to do it simultaneously.

      And there is a depressing possibility that the older coworker might be really hitting her numbers in some way that the boss might care more about than actual service and care. If she is doing things by the numbers and doing only those things that count rather than the things that matter…. Ugh, it sucks but that is a social work and caregiver industry problem too.

    2. Julia

      The OP’s co-worker isn’t taking shortcuts or anything to get more work done, she’s simply not working much, Very big difference.

  16. Christine

    OP, I’m wondering if there is a high turn over in your office. I bet that office has a low employee retention rate. If I was hired into a new job, worked my butt off and saw a coworker wasn’t doing the bare minimum I would be frustrated as everything. The boss may not even be aware that work isn’t being done, there may not be a system in place to monitor performance, volume of output, patients seen etc. If there is no monitoring ignorance is bless to some. Does a report go to your boss listing the number of patients seen, etc.?

    I’m beginning to suspect that people do not stay in the OP’s department long and that the supervisor hasn’t put the pieces together; or just doesn’t want to think about it much.

  17. AFRC

    I also struggle with balancing the “stepping up and being a great worker so you can build your reputation” with “stop covering for them and let them fail.” I think the discussion with the manager is good for that, but I have also experienced the slacker making excuses or oddly blaming me (or in this case, the OP) when THEY make a mistake. This person seems to be a seasoned excuse-maker. It’s just hard and sometimes exhausting to be in this position, especially with the negligent boss, and large (probably bureaucratic) system where low performers may be able to get away with this stuff more easily.

    OP, I’d also encourage you to possibly seek advice from other colleagues – since your boss is pretty negligent, she may also not notice how hard YOU’RE working. Maybe you could start by asking how others manage workloads within their teams, etc. Talking to others who do see your value can really be helpful in moving up and out of this position.

    Good luck!!

    1. neverjaunty

      Yes, this is an excellent point. When you start to cover for a slacker, the perception becomes that you were responsible for their share of the work all along.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        Yes, exactly. And if you’re dealing with a “seasoned excuse-maker” (great phrase!) it can be difficult to set your own limits without feeling like you’re doing the same thing they’re doing.

        I actually kind of think that’s why we’ve been seeing pushback on this: it can be really difficult to distinguish between excusemaking and “working smart”/setting appropriate limits. I’ve work with at least one person who’s learned how to pass off the former as the latter.

  18. Prismatic Professional

    Just wanted to express support for OP. That is an extremely frustrating situation on top of an already stressful (but really needed) job.

    1. Rachel in Minneapolis

      Yes, thank you to OP and all hospital social workers. My brother is hospitalized and in a coma-like state. The hospital social worker has been an amazing gift to our family. He knows all about applying for assistance, guardianship, etc. He has gone way above and beyond to help us in this difficult time.

  19. doreen

    What does “We have a loose division of duties that leaves me with more work” mean? Does it mean that you and the coworker just divide the patients/work between the two of you without any sort of system? Because if it does, that may be part of the problem. In all of my casework-type jobs, there was some standard way of assigning the cases. Sometimes it was alphabetically by last name. Other times it was by the last digit of an identification number and still other times there was a rotation where everyone got one case before the first person got a second one. And there are any numbers of other ways it can be done- I’ve known of hospital social workers who were assigned to a particular unit and school guidance counselors who were assigned to a particular grade. This was done for two reasons- one was to equalize the workload as much as possible and equally importantly, it identified who was responsible for each case. Because if Fergus wasn’t seen and he was assigned to Slacker, it’s clear that Slacker was responsible for seeing him and not you. Of course, we had to cover when an emergency happened on someone else’s case when they were out – but it doesn’t sound like you’re simply handling emergencies that suddenly pop-up after she’s left for her facial. Because your problem really is not that she comes in late , spends too much time socializing or leaves early. It’s that you get stuck with the bulk of the work. You may not be able to change your co-worker, but you may be able to convince your supervisor that a more formal division of responsibilities would improve things.

  20. NicoleK

    I’m not sure you could live with the situation. It sounds like you’re at BEC stage with your coworker. At Old Job, I dealt with the same situation. Coworker failing to complete tasks. Coworker refusing to work with me. Everyone who had to work closely with said coworker was annoyed by her . I talked to the boss. And nothing changed. I don’t know if our boss ever addressed the issue with her. It didn’t help that Boss was conflict avoidant and coworker often misinterpreted things. I gave up and left when I couldn’t handle it anymore.

  21. Gaara

    OP, I feel your pain. I have a few slacker coworkers in my small office (of course management does nothing, or even blames the rest of us) and it is driving me insane. It’s demoralizing and makes me angry, and is a morale-killer all around. I’m job-hunting and don’t have any answers, but I wanted to let you know that your reaction to this situation is totally understandable.

  22. Micah

    OP, I feel your pain. I had a very similar slacker coworker a few months ago–she would watch Netflix during the day instead of doing her job, and in one infamous incident, was half an hour late to a meeting because she left (in the middle of the day!) to get a pedicure. It might give you some hope to know that while my boss was terrible at managing it, and my coworkers and I were convinced he was coddling her and nothing would change, she was fired about a month ago and it turned out she had actually been on a PIP for a while. Even if your manager, like mine, is not dealing with the work disparity and team/client dissatisfaction all that well, there may be behind-the-scenes attempts to address the issues. This doesn’t excuse bad managerial behavior, of course, but I hope it’s a little comforting to consider.

  23. JessO

    I can relate to the OP, currently going thru the same situation myself, yes is very frustating, more if so you are part of a team that is getting a bad reputation for not having work done due to the slacker while everybody else does more than their fare share and dont deserve to be included is such bad reputation frame, I have gone thru mixed emotions myself from angry and storming out of the office to “not my circus not my monkeys” I totally blame the manager for allowing this situation , yes there might be some “red tape” when firing somebody but enough is enough, when management has walked in the slacker being on their phone , heard about work not getting done and have half of the team ready to walk out the door then the manager needs to do her job and fire the slacker asap without waiting any longer, on my part I do not pick up her slack anymore and leaves her to fall flat on her slacker ass on a daily basis , refusing to do her work with a big nice smile, I feel a lot better now !

  24. bleh, not my usual handle

    Funny I searched for this topic exactly one year later! Exactly what I needed…thanks AAM.

    And yes, my slacker coworker just didn’t bother to show up today…again….

  25. Alana

    Ha. My coworker/direct supervisor comes in 2 hours late every single day, and frequently leaves early, and nobody has said a darn thing. It’s hard for me to even imagine this! At some workplaces you can seriously get away with anything.

  26. Two Buck Chuck

    The OP’s situation is almost identical to mine, except the senior coworker is my age and I’m the new hire. My co-worker is very good at pantomiming our work tasks. She will have her screens up in work mode and files open but is actually listening to her tv shows all day while sitting perfectly still. To a supervisor casually passing by, she appears to be in the middle of writing. Right now, I’m apprehensive about talking to anyone because I’m the new hire and don’t know what the negative fallout I might get from complaining.

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