how do I deal with a lazy coworker?

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who’s become too comfortable in her job; she knows she is retiring in several years and seems to have thrown in the towel. Her job is to greet visitors, but she sits at her desk with ear buds in and a scowl. Everyone now comes to me instead. She is to open the office at 8 am, and she arrives late. She is unfriendly, and I’m receiving complaints from others, to the point that people won’t even deal with her. She also has long, long personal calls at her desk that take me off tasks throughout the day.

I’m spoken with our supervisor and asked for him to do something. Others have as well, and nothing is being done. This morning I was stuck behind a five-car accident, and I had to call our supervisor and ask him to open the office because I knew she wouldn’t be here. I was still able to make it into the office before her. This is the final straw, and I said something to her about showing up late. I’ve also talked to her in the past about her attitude. Right now I’m not getting anywhere. I have written an email to send to her so I have documentation, but should I do that? Nothing is working and the boss isn’t doing anything. I love everyone in the department and don’t want to find a new job, but when you sit next to a negative person who doesn’t do their job, it starts to drive you insane.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My boss is furious after my coworker pranked her
  • I’m excluded from events that male coworkers are invited to
  • The same people on my team keep getting stuck with all the work
  • Does my employer have to act on a doctor’s note?

{ 137 comments… read them below }

  1. CatCat*

    I think with #1, OP may need to also stop doing stuff for her. If Surly Sally is supposed to open the office at 8:00 AM, then don’t do it for her. Can you switch your hours to just a bit later like start at 8:15 or 8:30 so you don’t feel pressured to be the one to open?

    If people come to you instead of her, just redirect them back: “You should see Sally about that.” If it’s not your job to greet visitors and that’s happening because Sally is just the worst, put on your own headphones. If others complain to you about Sally or won’t work with her, “Oh, you better talk to our supervisor about it. It’s not in my power to address.” Start making her your boss’s problem.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yes, especially the example about calling in the supervisor to cover for the coworker because they wouldn’t be able to! That seems like the opposite of a normal scenario. Management has no reason to address the issue as long as you are fixing it yourself. Make it their problem!

      1. TimeTravelR*

        100% this —> “management has no reason to address the issue as long as you are fixing it”

        As soon as I started pushing back on this kind of thing, suddenly management put a plan in place. Thank goodness.

      2. Flash Bristow*

        Wish we had upvote buttons on this site (tho not downvotes, that’d be mean somewhere like this which is meant to be helpful!) – posting just to say “+1” seems wasteful of space and people’s time – and so is coming up with something to add just to show you’re nodding.

        So I’ll shut up, but I wanted to agree with the above more strongly than usual!

        Make your boss do his work!

        (That said, aren’t letters on Inc repeats of oldies, so it’s probably too late to make a diff in this case? OP, what happened? I hope it got fixed and the miscreant didn’t totally ruin the role for you.)

      3. Kix*

        “Management has no reason to address the issue as long as you are fixing it yourself. Make it their problem!”

        This phrase has jolted me awake because it’s so simple and yet so true. I’m writing it down now. Thank you!

    2. Clorinda*

      Yes. Right now, Sally is not a problem for Boss because OP is doing Sally’s work. OP can gently send all Sally’s work back to Sally, and let Boss get more complaints from more people.

      1. BadWolf*

        Yes! There’s no reason for Boss to change when things are “working.”

        Sometimes things have to break (assuming no one is injured in the process).. Which is really hard to let happen.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        It frankly sounds like OP is also doing Boss’s work in this case, with fielding complaints about Sally and trying to persuade Sally to do her job. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the authority that Boss does. So yeah, force Sally and Boss to do their own jobs!

        1. sacados*

          That’s a really good point. With the complaints, etc. OP should start responding with something like, “I am sympathetic to your concerns, that definitely sounds like something you should bring to the attention of Sally’s Boss.”

    3. CallofDewey*

      I agree- management gets paid to deal with these issues, not you. Unless I’m misreading this and you’re somehow her supervisor, just do your job and let her supervisor deal with picking up her slack.

    4. addiez*

      Agreed – I think AAM missed the mark a bit here. I’d honestly just start doing ONLY your job, not ever Sally’s. If you’re not there to open the office, the office doesn’t get opened. Send Sally people who are arriving, etc. If your relationship is good with your boss, you could give them a heads up, but my read here is that the boss isn’t dealing with these issues – so make that your boss’s problem, not yours.

    5. StaceyIzMe*

      I totally agree that OP#1 is setting herself up in the worst possible way by performing some tasks and functions that are the responsibility of the other person. Stop going in to open the office, for starters. Apologize to those who come to you and then direct them firmly back to your cantankerous coworker. Get out of the middle of the relationship that your coworker has with the company’s clients by doing these two things, and that should let her begin to experience some of the fallout of her own conduct. With your boss, I’d do the same thing. Hold up the mirror on how ineffective he’s being by absolutely refusing to compensate for his lack of management. Don’t soft-peddle any negative things said about your coworker to him, bring every single complaint to his attention in a completely neutral FYI fashion, and stick to just the facts. Keep doing this. And then ignore, ignore, ignore anything that isn’t your reasonable responsibility to manage. Sometimes, when one party changes their behavior, even systems that are very dysfunctional begin to adjust. Ideally, the adjustment will be towards optimization and healthy management. But- it could go the other way and you could be targeted for being the voice of reason in an unreasonable office. So- it makes sense that you’d get all of your ducks in a row including resume, references, client kudos, contacts and updated skills (if applicable) and start job hunting (or at least pre-job hunting by developing a very robust network of contacts). It will give you an outlet for that “I have to do SOMETHING about this!” energy and may come in handy if you do, in fact, decide that the Office Through the Looking Glass is not for you, professionally speaking.

    6. anon9*

      > Start making her your boss’s problem.

      Absolutely this. And Alison said that emailing Sally is not something you should do, and I agree, but maybe one quick email to the boss to show, “Hey, we’ve had this convo, ball is in your court, I’m focusing on my actual job henceforth so don’t even try to complain I’m being unhelpful – I’ve tried.” I say that because it’s very easy to blame the nice person than to just address the problem child.

      1. Anonymous Water Drinker*

        We had a similar employee and once we started directing all the complaints to the boss, he had to do something because they were so frequent, he couldn’t do anything else! She eventually quit because no one would help her and the boss was making her do her actual job.

      2. Remote Worker and Dog Lover*

        Talking to your boss, maybe, but telling them “don’t even try to complain I’m being unhelpful – I’ve tried” isn’t going to help things.

    7. Procheinamy*

      This! Send everyone to her boss if she is not around or they have a question. Stop doing her job unless you are being told you are her backup.

      1. Flash Bristow*

        Apols for the OTness, but I misread your nick as one of my faves – “Procrastinanny” – which is how I propose OP refers to “Sally” in her head!

    8. CupcakeCounter*

      Yup…this needs to be supervisors problem not yours.
      Feel free to happily go back to your own lane and leave Sally on her own. Forward all complaints to supervisor and maybe even go above their head.

    9. The other Louis*

      OP doesn’t have a lazy coworker; OP has a lazy boss. I agree with everyone who says that OP needs to stop doing OP’s ad boss’s job(s), but I think it will be *very* tricky to do that without boss getting mad. Boss is likely to think, “You could do this.” I think OP might have something in their back pocket like, “I’ve been opening because Sally isn’t getting here on time, but I’m not going to be able to keep doing that.”

      It could even be that boss will formally assign more of Sally’s job to OP. I worry that this could get ugly.

      1. BadWolf*

        Dear AAM:
        My coworker doesn’t respect my personal space. He keeps trying to sit on my keyboard.

        Dear OP:
        Try placing a box at the corner of your desk. If that doesn’t work, put some “important” papers in it to make it more attractive.

        1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

          Dear AAM:
          My coworker insists on interrupting me when I am on conference calls. If it is a video call, she will even get between me and my monitor. Help!

          1. Drew*

            Dear AAM: My coworker insists on sticking his stinky butt in my face when I’m trying to concentrate. How can I tell him I prefer to talk to his other end?

        2. ellex42*

          I’ve actually seen a solution to the “cat on keyboard” problem solved by giving the cat his own “decoy” keyboard.

          1. Jadelyn*

            My favorite was where a person set up an acrylic “riser” over top of their keyboard. The cat would lay on that, and the person’s keyboard and hands were under the riser so they could keep working.

          2. Evan Þ.*

            One of my friends when I was growing up got a decoy keyboard for his baby sister, so she wouldn’t mess with his actual computer. It worked.

            1. Maybe I'm Tired*

              Ok, so I just had to comment because I for real just read this as a “decoy keyboard for his babysitter” and got super confused for a few minutes……

          3. Desperately seeking cute kitty*

            Yes! Cats do this because they want to join in with what you’re doing, so having something similar for them to sit on does the trick. My WFH laptop is supplied by the company, so my personal laptop becomes the cat bed, leaving my work laptop free.

        3. TurquoiseCow*

          My husband actually got a small cat tree, about the same height as his desk. The cat sometimes sleeps in the cat tree instead of on his keyboard.

        4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          This made me pull up an old pic of my beloved office cats that used to rotate between sleeping in my In-Box and cradled in my arms. I once turned around in my chair to talk to my boss and he realized I was holding the cat like a baby and the whole conversation screeched to a halt.

          They were working cats! So yeah, they really were coworkers.

  2. Jerk Store*

    #1 – If visitors are complaining, after apologizing for their experience, can you say something like, “Yes, I am personally aware of the issue with Jane and have raised it with her supervisor, John, on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much change in that regard. I can give you John’s business card if you would like to contact him directly.”

    Normally I would not bring outside people into in-office dynamics like this, but maybe it will motivate John to do something about it if he has to deal with upset visitors, too.

    #2 – I am betting your boss not dealing with your coworker directly is in part because she is embarrassed about how she reacted in the moment.

    1. Clorinda*

      Maybe she’s deciding whether to fire her. I mean, who does something like that in the office, especially with such a common phobia trigger as a spider? Making someone scream and panic is an entirely predictable consequence. This level of childishness calls co-worker’s overall competence into question.

      1. PollyQ*

        The business may have a strict process that needs to be followed before someone can be fired, which may have been partly why she lodged the “harassment” issue. Step 1 on the paper trail.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I was thinking the same thing for #2, until we heard about her shooting off an email about it to the owner and HR. If she had just stayed in her office to cool down the rest of the day, meh normal enough reaction when you have such a bad experience. But yeah, she double downed with the escalation.

      It sounds like she went in and stewed about it, realized “Why would I quit over this, this person should be fired for this behavior!” and snapped of the email hours later.

      This reminds me of my only off the rails boss that I’ve had. If he felt wronged, he would stew stew stew and seethe. Then come out with something like a total wackjob of a write up, involving the incident that set him off and every other little thing he could scrape up from the months before that were already water under the bridge and out to the ocean already.

    3. BigLo*

      #2 – she might still be REALLY angry/recovering. I have an uncommon phobia and people who know about it KNOW that I consider torment about it little unforgivable because of how severe my phobia is. If I encounter the thing I’m afraid of, I’m affected for the rest of the day. Boss might have a really severe phobia and needs the time to recover. The HR stuff is a step too far I think.

      1. JSPA*

        Depends if the boss believes that the coworker used a spider with full knowledge of the phobia. That becomes the job of the boss to prove “knew or should have known.” There’s nothing intrinsically firing-worthy about that sort of prank, done once, if you have no reason to know about a phobia.

        Compare tossing a peanut at someone you know to have a peanut allergy, vs tossing a peanut at someone waving at you across the lunchroom, while you’re eating peanuts. One’s an assault, the other’s just a peanut.

        1. Mami21*

          Spiders are an extremely common phobia and it’s a very safe assumption that someone might freak out and feel shaken after seeing one on their person.

    4. fhqwhgads*

      I don’t think it’s embarrassment as much as some sort of theoretical defense about her cursing at the pranking employee. It’s a preemptive strike intended to mitigate a complaint about the manager for how she reacted. That’s my theory.

  3. LQ*

    I feel SO much for OP #1. If everything else is good, you have to find a way to help yourself be ok with this for now because you can’t change her. Your boss can, but it’s also hard to change your boss.

    Things that have worked somewhat for me:
    * Make the person your friend if you can stomach it and encourage them to do the work as a friend, this has only worked for folks who are not counting to retirement, I’ve never been successful with this on anyone less than 10 years from retirement
    * Make it hurt for the boss, this has only worked when the boss is inclined to action and won’t blame you
    * Find something the person is doing that the boss cares about (data matters here, folks have been fired for being sloppy and really inappropriate with data, so you can watch for that)
    * Decide you don’t care and then behave as if the person were on a pension that required them to show up in the office, you have to work around them but if they let you work around them this can be effective (this has been my most effective option for folks who are really on the countdown, it does mean doing their job which sucks but it can work)

    None of these are ideal, but if you want to stay these are my suggestions to side manage the person.

    1. nonymous*

      > it does mean doing their job which sucks but it can work

      I managed to transition my job from part time to full time by taking on the tasks that the retiring person was doing, and they didn’t replace the new person. The key imo, is to get the supervisor on board with this as a succession plan, with a promotion tied to it. So when Jane retires and you take on all her duties you will become the Senior Teapot Specialist or even some fancy new title that encompasses duties of both the positions (with commensurate pay raise). My boss was able to tie my progression to a few efficiency initiatives floating around in our org and got some beans for his own performance as well.

      1. nonymous*

        gah! should be: “and they didn’t replace the retiring person. My new position wasn’t a direct replacement, just the essentials plus the work I was originally hired for.”

      2. LQ*

        I’ve gotten most of my promotions from doing some variation of the last one. I’ve usually found plenty of efficiencies and automation that can be done in the work to make it possible to do within a reasonable amount of time.

        Yes, it does let the person continue to get away with the bad thing and it makes it so your boss can skip on doing their job. But sometimes it has been a tradeoff worth making for me.

    2. Massmatt*

      I am amazed that so many people check out and stop doing their jobs (or do them poorly) so far away from retirement. The LW’s coworker is “several years away” and you are talking about strategies not working for people with ten years to go. That is a long time to coast and stink at your job!

      Yes I’ve had jobs where some bad people were untouchable but overall I haven’t seen this kind of “oh well, that’s just the way she is, she’s retiring in 4 years, we’ll just have to deal with her until then” attitude. Someone who was 58 (or whatever age) and acting the way this coworker does would be put on a PIP, and if s/he didn’t shape up would be fired.

      Coworker is taking a tremendous risk of being out of work several years earlier than planned, maybe crucial years if there’s a pension involved. Maybe she is picturing retiring on champagne and caviar, she might well wind up with balogna sandwiches.

  4. BadWolf*

    I would bet the answer on why OP3 wasn’t invited to golf was something in the range of, “Oh, we assumed she wouldn’t want to golf” or “Oh, it wasn’t an official thing, just some guys golfing.”

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Yes, and IME it’s a great strategy to anticipate possible excuses for bad behavior, so you can calmly offer your prepared reasons as to why the excuses do not make the behavior OK.

      1. anon9*

        Yes, and I don’t think BadWolf is endorsing what’s happening – just stating plainly what they will say and see it as (“just some of the boys out on the range, enjoying a beer and playing some golf.”) It’s obvious to the rest of us what is happening here.

        The challenge is how to change these mindsets or at least make it so everyone has the opportunity to participate in these networking events.

    1. Zephy*

      Ding ding ding. And that screen of plausible deniability is how this kind of institutional sexism perpetuates itself.

    2. kittymommy*

      Yup, “oh we didn’t think you would be into it” a cute little line used to exclude many a woman from events that can help them progress up the ladder. Utter BS.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        That’s why the reply is “oh, why didn’t you think she’d be interested?” And when they can’t find anything to say other than “because she’s a woman,” and are stumbling all over trying NOT to say it, it becomes a lot harder for them to continue to exclude her.

      2. designbot*

        “you thought I would be uninterested in a chance to spend significant time with the exact people who can give me a leg up in this firm, like the way Jon Snow got to spend the afternoon chatting with the CEO? What an extraordinary assumption.”

    3. TurquoiseCow*

      Yeah, this reminds me of the question a few months ago where a team of all men went on a golf outing every year and then, after some women joined the team, they were confused about what to do with them.

        1. Miss Fisher*

          I think it something along the line of day spa trip or shopping or something like that. Still awful.

        2. One of the Sarahs*

          That was the offer – they could hand out beer from the cart – and OP was shocked it was seen as a bad idea, as one of the women thought it would be fun.

          1. One of the Sarahs*

            Ooops, hit send too soon – the choice was cart girls or send the little ladies shopping for the day. Plus staying in different cabins, so the men’s wives didn’t get antsy etc etc

  5. Zephy*

    For situations like #4, the OP doesn’t specify whether the people who are better at certain tasks are also the ones constantly volunteering to do them, only that a skills gap keeps them from assigning work. But, you can’t get better at a thing if you never do it.

    1. nonymous*

      I would suggest partnering up the skilled workers with the lesser skilled ones for an interim period with the stated goal of getting the lower skilled staff to take on these duties at the end of that time. This gives a clear line of documentation for anyone who may need coaching and officially recognizes the SMEs in a way that can support bonuses/promotions, in addition to creating a larger pool of labor over time.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      It’s been my experience that people avoid jobs that they don’t know how to do. Also people avoid jobs because some of them are lazy.
      I’d be tempted to give bonuses to the ones that went above and beyond. If anyone complains then let them know it’s a performance bonus and they didn’t perform.

    3. 2horseygirls*

      Was coming to say precisely this – how do you know who is good at what until everyone has had a turn, so to speak?

      Rachel might be a whiz at X, but if Chandler was doing X when Rachel joined the team, then she might have slotted in wherever and not wanted to appear presumptuous as the new kid.

      Or she might really want to learn X to broaden her skill set, but doesn’t know how to ask for the opportunity without looking like she is moving in on someone else’s territory.

      Not to mention – everyone on the team should be cross-trained for general coverage purposes.

  6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Yikes, I have to wonder if the Pranked boss isn’t in one of those ugly situations where she can’t just discipline a person without involving HR and the owner. Especially since the first reaction was “I’ll quit if you do that again”, which is kind of an odd thing to threaten when your report is the one doing something inappropriate.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I noticed that too.

      Not “I’ll fire you if you do that again” or “I’ll send you home if you do that again” or “I’ll put you on report…”

    2. Oh No She Di'int*

      Yeah, employee should not have done that. But that statement made boss come across as super brittle and victim-y.

    3. Aquawoman*

      It is odd, but if spiders are something she has a phobia about, I imagine she was feeling powerless at the moment.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I kind of understand but I still would assume as a boss, if someone under you did it, you’d respond with “I’ll fire you for this if it happens again.” Because why would you quit…when you have the power in the situation in the end? Unless you don’t actually have the power…then you’re just one of those toothless bosses =(

    4. Boomerang Girl*

      That line made me wonder if boss had been pranked or bullied by peers or managers in the past. Quitting is only a threat to people who will have to do your work themselves.

    5. One of the Sarahs*

      I was thinking that, plus being really embarrassed about her initial reaction, and that making her feel terrible too. But if she has no power or back-up from her own bosses, I can see why she’d do it this way.

  7. Samwise*

    OP #1. I would right now, today, stop doing any of your co-worker’s tasks. Your manager doesn’t have to address your co-worker’s problematic behaviors because you (and no doubt others in the office) are covering her work. Stop it and let your manager deal with the consequences.

    Do not rush in to open up. If you’re running late, do NOT contact your manager to have him open up. Let the office open late.

    People are coming to you instead of the lazy co-worker? Redirect them right back to her and/or to her manager. Nicely, with a sympathetic tone, but firmly.

    1. Flash Bristow*

      Well, I guess I’d msg the manager to let them know I’m running late, but I wouldn’t refer to any tasks not of your own. So I wouldn’t hint about the needing someone else to open up – just inform about your being stuck in traffic as a matter of courtesy.

  8. Coffeelady*

    #4 I am new to a team and my coworker who has with the company a while gets assigned way more work than I do. It’s frustrating because she can do it faster, but I don’t even get a chance because it takes me longer. Give others a chance or train others to do it. It sucks being on a team where I am bored all day because my coworker gets all the work.

  9. Vicky Austin*

    The spider letter reminds me of the one from several years ago about the woman who tickled her co-worker, and then said co-worker went on a campaign to have her fired. That one is still my all time favorite.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Was that the one where the coworker tickled the person’s feet under the desk? Or am I getting my tickling stories mixed up?

      1. juliebulie*

        Yeah, Rachel and Monica, “Now There Is Chaos,” some time in 2017. (With a follow-up in September.)

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          A great example of how everyone involved in the situation can be wrong–being wrong isn’t a zero sum thing, where if the other person is wrong then you must be right.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        According to my cat, being a cat is very hard work. So please, make sure you’re prepared for long naps, climbing up walls, stalking of patio-squirrels and knocking things off of every surface you can possibly reach. Not everyone has these credentials but if you do, you could thrive at your new job as A Cat.

        1. Marthooh*

          Show some Cat Gumption!
          1. Print out your resume on brightly-colored paper and take it in person to their main office. Shred it up with your nails, then stare unblinkingly at the receptionist for three to five minutes.
          2. Ask for an informational interview with manager there. Spend the allotted time either rubbing up against their ankles or sitting with your back to them.
          3. Take a nap on their windowsill every day for a week.
          4. Meow outside their door till they let you in. Meow until they let you out again. Repeat until they hire you.

  10. Anon for this*

    I know it’s an archives post but it would have been nice to update the answer to #3 with some advice about addressing that pay disparity. Saying “yes it sucks so find a better company” is not great advice in this day and age. #timesup!

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I disagree. A company that does this stuff is also lower performing because it isn’t including all its top talent. Find a company that awards based on merit. It’s a higher performing company.
      Leaving is always an option. Let the Company that has a bro culture fail.

      1. Anon for this*

        You can both fight the bro culture and look for/get yourself a new and better job. These things are not mutually exclusive. But Alison not even mentioning the option to fight the pay disparity (especially when it seems as blatant as this one, and in a time when companies are under extra scrutiny for this) is very disappointing.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          It’s really hard to fight as a single individual. If it’s only you then you should leave.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      It’s not that it’s not good advice, it’s that it’s not always workable advice. Not everyone has ready access to other jobs.

      1. Anon for this*

        It’s also illegal for a company to retaliate against someone fighting discrimination. Look, I’m not saying it’s the LW’s duty or best option, but the advice did not even raise the possibilities. Disappointing.

        1. Massmatt*

          Alison probably didn’t raise it because a) it is too soon for that, and b) many if not most of these suits end in misery for the people that bring them. It is very tough to prove, costly and emotionally draining to litigate, and likely to damage their career. Retaliation is illegal but extremely common.

          What LW describes is outrageous and I hope she manages to get change to happen but this is a tough position to be in.

          1. Anon for this*

            Addressing the disparity starts with a conversation, not a lawyer. It’s possible that conversation would have prompted the company to make it right, and the advice should have at least touched upon this.

    3. ElizabethJane*

      I was actually just in this situation – I flat out asked my male counterpart what he was making and found out it was about 20% more than me, despite us starting the same week and me having both more experience and a better track record at our company.

      I asked for a meeting with my boss and said “I understand we’re a relatively flat company so I’m not asking for a promotion, however I would like my salary to be in line with Fergus’s. If there’s a specific skill or qualification he has that I’m not aware of can you help me plan out a way to get to that point before our mid-year reviews?”

      I don’t know that I needed the last bit in there but I was also pretty sure that the pay disparity was because of I work for a startup that was really disorganized when we were hired and not because of any sort of discrimination. Not that I want to continue to make less than my coworker, but I did want to come across as non-combatively as possible.

      It took a while to get everything worked out but I did get bumped up to his pay with a small amount of backpay, with no drama.

  11. Jellyfish*

    The spider situation is ridiculous. I’m irrationally afraid of spiders, and I would definitely scream and then feel stupid once my heart rate went back down. What I wouldn’t do is call an employee an obscene name (!), sulk in my office all day, or involve HR. I feel like the rather disruptive screaming would be sufficient to convince the employee not to attempt that again. If not, one could hold a conversation with them like a manager and an adult.

    These are old letters, right? I’d very much like to know how everything played out with this one.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Um. You don’t get to dictate how people react to their phobias. Some are worse than others.
      And to call it “sulking” in their office all day is a complete fairy tale. It’s possible that the manager was really shook up and needed time to calm down to a rational level. Which would also explain why they didn’t answer the worker right away. They were worried they might say something out of anger.
      HR is the right way to go here, especially if here is no guidance in the situation. It also doesn’t say if the manager was the prankers manager.

      1. Ann*

        I didn’t see anyone “dictate how people react to their phobias”, they just criticized it and mentioned how they would personally handle it. Having a phobia doesn’t give someone a free pass to behave however they want without criticism. The initial reaction is understandable. Her behavior for the rest of the day is out of line and unprofessional.

      2. Malty*

        @engineergirl it said ‘our boss’ and ‘our team’ so it seems like a fair guess that the manager involved was the prankers manager in which case as Alison said they could have handled it themselves and didn’t need to get HR involved

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think that the initial reactions involved are all justified given that you simply don’t sneak up on people, let alone touch them or place something on their persons! Including the obscenities because in the moment, those are usually pretty involuntary.

      The rest though, is over the top and extra on the bosses side.

      1. voyager1*

        It is depends on the obscenity though. Some are more palatable then others. But yeah lots of drama for a whole day affair.

      2. Close Bracket*

        Yeah, monitoring my language takes conscious effort that slips when I am stressed. Were I that manager, I’m pretty sure I would have yelled “m****r f****r!” which would not be acceptable, but that level of situational stress would have overridden my filter for sure.

      3. Quill*

        I would probably have elbowed someone who snuck up behind me and touched me, spider or no. Please don’t do that to people!

    3. Anon for this*

      Search for the bird phobia one if you haven’t seen it, including the update. It’s fascinating.

    4. mcr-red*

      My ex thought it was sooo hilarious to scare people or pull pranks like that. That’s only the icing on the emotionally abusive cake that I was served on a daily basis, but now when people try to scare me or pull a prank like that, I get maximum angry quick. Cursing someone out, threatening to quit, all of that sounds like something I’d do honestly. The boss could have some bad emotional baggage with that kind of thing like me.

      I have a random phobia that all my coworkers know about, and they all shield me from it, which is really sweet.

      1. Luna*

        I hope your ex has since met people whose reaction to being pranked is a solid punch to the prankster’s face.

    5. tamarack and fireweed*

      I think the situation depends a lot on whether the manager manages the prankster (the letter said “our manager” in the beginning, but isn’t completely explicit about whether that includes everyone involved). If not, the prankster could go to their manager, ‘fess up about having fucked up and ask for mediation. If yes, it’s a fairly monumental misjudgement on the part of the employee, who is expected to have SOME idea of their manager’s personality and level of acceptance of horseplay. The prankster could still write to the company boss, in an extremely contrite manner, and hitting all the high notes of a good apology (ie, naming the transgression, naming the consequences, taking responsibility, offering some form of restitution, and definitely not minimising anything.)

      Not that horseplay is acceptable, and the employee deserves a very serious call to order. Not a firing, I think, in a normal office environment. (But if this was a kitchen, chemistry lab, fab, or other environment with machinery around and explicit safety standards beyond desks-and-cubes, that could well be a different matter.)

      I wouldn’t police the manager’s initial reaction. And given it’s true, and obvious, that a single incident of a fairly neutral prank (ie, not something discriminatory) wouldn’t be harassment, I wonder if it’s the first incident between this employee and this manager.

    6. Luna*

      I can understand screaming and, in the midst of being shocked (or your phobia triggered), irrationally calling someone a bad name.

  12. J.*

    I wish we could get an update from LW #3. Your coworkers’ salaries are *not* none of your business, and it’s secrecy around what people make that allow this kind of thing to flourish.

    1. Hey Anonny Nonny*

      This is timely. I had a huge kerfuffle some time back when someone who is in a job I consider to be comparable to mine is making a whole helluva lot more money than I am – like nearly 60% more. And today, I discovered that someone with a whole helluva lot less responsibility and experience – again, in a job comparable to mine – is making about the same salary.

      I got pissed off enough to go off and apply for jobs again. There’s no formal policy about discussing pay rates at my company but it’s definitely, definitely frowned upon.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Formal policies are beside the point: in the US, the right to discuss pay is explicitely protected by federal law.

  13. Earthwalker*

    I worked for #3’s boss. He took all the men out golfing once a week during work hours while I and another woman stayed at work. The boss communicated workplace info during the games, so that when one of us asked about a project in staff meeting, we would be greeted with eye rolls and mutters of “Stupid girls!” because the fellows knew from last week’s golf that the boss intended to cancel that project. But when we left, it became obvious how much work the “girls” did and how little the men did, since they knew that as the boss’s golf buddies they could shirk with impunity. Do take this matter to HR as Alison says. The company doesn’t get what it pays for when golf is used as an exclusionary “team building activity.”

    1. Old Biddy*

      This. In my case the boss was BFF’s with three of my peers and they would socialize after work, work out together, etc etc and would talk shop during those times. One time they decided to change the project focus the night before a face to face meeting with our external collaborators and announced this at the meeting. The other two women on the project and myself were livid. Sadly it was a tech startup company in the late 90’s and this was considered completely normal to upper management.

  14. History Geek*

    Having had people use my extreme fear of spiders (boarding on arachnophobia ) as a way to tease, torment, and “joke” with me , well, that might be the place the manager in 2 is coming from. She might think her fear of spiders is well known through the office and that this was a deliberate act to trigger that fear. There might have be incidents with the co-worker and others in the past that you don’t know about! The letter is an older one so the LW is unlikely to read this, but I think it’s worth noting that a lot of people do not take others fears of things seriously and it can feel a lot like harassment at times.

    I hope the manager eventually got therapy as you can, slowly, overcome some of the fear because it’s no fun having an uncontrolled flight/fear trigger at the sight of even the smallest and fakest of spiders.

    1. Batgirl*

      I think that’s an important bit of context; did the co-worker know about her fear? You’d rather hope she didn’t, but the prank makes little sense without it and the bosses use of the word ‘harassment’ shows that she feels targeted.
      I think the prankster needs to eat some dirt and admit she behaved quite badly here. It’s abject apology time along the lines of whether or not she knew, regardless of how well she understood the fear.
      The Boss isn’t coming over terribly well either, but that may be because of the aforementioned context.

      1. Ellen N.*

        I don’t think matters if the coworker specifically knew that the boss was phobic of spiders. The reason the co-worker chose a fake spider instead of something most people view as innocuous because she knows that many people are fearful of spiders.

        People who like pranks tend to pull them constantly. As this prankster has a fake spider at work; I assume she regularly pulls this prank. This would make an a person with arachnaphobia feel harassed.

        Pranks are often harassment. They are designed to scare the victim or make the victim look stupid.

  15. Alanna*

    OP #4
    I think you can still have some element of volunteering here while also managing task load – when you’re working out tasks, say something like “Sansa and Arya have a lot on their plates, so Bran and Rob, I’m going to need one of you to do Task A, who wants to grab it?” This is a pretty normal project management thing to do, and I wouldn’t think anything of it if I were any of the people involved.

    And if you do need to assign directly, say the same thing: “Ella, Obella, and Dorea are really booked this week, so Loreza, I’m going to need you to pick up Task B.”

  16. Anna*

    #5) I would also add that what the employer provided could be viewed as a reasonable accommodation. If they provided you something for your desk that would allow you to stand and work, that could be reasonable. Of course if it doesn’t work or doesn’t do the things you need it to do, that is a different story… however if it is a verifiable ADA issue then the employer will go through an interactive process where suggestions are made and an accommodation is agreed upon. It is not always the perfect accommodation or the accommodation that the employee would choose if they could have anything they want, but it has to be reasonable. So my suggestions would be to see if your medical situation is covered by the ADA and if it is, contact HR and enter into the interactive process. Also, it might be helpful to show your doctor what has been provided so far and have her/him write another note if that is not something that is recommended to help you feel the most comfortable.

  17. SusanIvanova*

    Software teams tend to have people who specialize in certain parts of the code. A good team will load balance itself: Arya can fix a teapot in half an hour, but there aren’t any broken teapots so she’s looking at the coffee urns, which will take her a day, but Sansa the coffee expert is overloaded. But Arya’s not even going to touch Bran’s donut maker; sure, Bran is overloaded too, but he’ll be less busy before Arya could even figure out where the problem is, and he’ll have to validate the fix anyway.

    Don’t be the manager that arbitrarily puts Arya on donut makers just because they’re higher priority than coffee. It’s just annoying and it doesn’t speed anything up, and you miss out on the coffee fix you might’ve got instead.

  18. AnonAndFrustrated*

    Lazy coworker topic brings to light once again how many bad managers there are out there, it never ceases to amaze me. Managers: when it comes to your attention that someone on your team is slacking off in royal fashion, causing resentment & poor morale in the rest of the coworkers, taking good pay for doing nothing, why don’t you do something about it? Why aren’t you disciplining these lazy time-wasters or firing them? Most jobs I’ve quit haven’t been because I didn’t like the job or duties, it was because I couldn’t stand the poor managers and the crazy coworkers one more minute & left for my own sanity.

  19. Mom MD*

    I would do nothing to help this person in any way. Zero. If something is part of her job duties and someone comes to you, refer them back to her. If you are late, inform your Boss and let them deal with the consequences.

  20. Former Employee*

    Seriously, the spider “prankster” is lucky she didn’t get smacked.

    I am tired of these people who do something stupid and then act as if they aren’t the ones at fault.

    I remember the one about the coworker who held someone’s feet down and tickled them. If I’d been the victim and had gotten loose, I would have kicked the jerk. I bet they would have been all “ooh they kicked me and all I did was play a little ha ha on them.”

  21. Luna*

    #2 – The Spider Prankster
    Yeah, that is not a very funny. I’m not even calling this a prank because a prank is *supposed* to be something that the prankster *AND* the prankee can genuinely laugh about within 10 seconds of the prank occuring. Even if the coworker didn’t know that the boss had arachnophobia (or just plain doesn’t like spiders), this is not the type of thing you should do at work – especially not to the boss, unless said boss is also a very good, personal friend of yours. (And even then I’d wonder why you have to perform a prank at work; can’t it wait until your leisure time?)
    Coworker is probably not gonna get fired, but I hope this taught them a very good lesson about appropriate work behavior.

  22. Nicole*

    In less than a week we’ve seen a question about firing a pregnant woman and now one about a woman being excluded and possibly underpaid. And yet there are people out there that think feminism isn’t needed.

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