what’s our responsibility for fixing a coworker’s poor work?

A reader writes:

Several years ago I was hired by a small nonprofit that specializes in technical, skilled work and has a strong reputation of producing very high quality products for a cause that I am very passionate about.

I like the work and the general vibe of the place. The problem is one long-time coworker, John, who has been working here much longer than me.

John was originally hired to do a type of work that is no longer in our mandate, but he was kept on and transitioned to a new type of work. It turns out he isn’t good at the new work at all, and obviously doesn’t like it. We tend to develop and pursue our own projects, and he doesn’t try and only takes on work if directly ordered to, and none of us want to give him work from our projects because of his poor work quality when we do. While some of this is lack of skill, he also doesn’t seem to want to learn the new work or to get better. He had these tendencies before the transition, but the old work was less self directed so it was less noticeable.

By his own admission, he doesn’t have much to do and seems quite happy to spend most of his day reading the news, watching YouTube videos, and online shopping. It’s caused some bad feeling among the rest of us, who are often very busy and working with strained budgets, while the organization is spending quite a bit of money on his salary (unlike most nonprofits, we are very well compensated) while he sits around. I feel like this is relevant because I think this resentment is clouding my and my coworkers’ responses to this situation.

My boss, Rupert, is quite hands-off. He usually assigns a task to one of us to lead and we request help from our coworkers as necessary. Draft work is sent to one or two other coworkers for revision and feedback. For most of us, mostly the fixes are minor. For John’s work, though, often his work is bad from the bottom up: the concept needs work, the implementation is weak, and it would require a substantial rewrite to bring it to the level the rest of us are producing at. John seems to have trouble understanding and responding to our critiques, and it often takes several iterations and some hand-holding to get them addressed fully (e.g., I’ll raise a serious underlying structural issue, so he’ll try tweaking a few sentences to see if I’ll accept that as “fixed,” and keep doing that until I walk him step by step through fixing it).

Rupert is well aware of John’s failings. He has acknowledged to the rest of us that John isn’t suited for the type of work we do and that he doesn’t know what to do with him, but he also doesn’t want to fire him. Rupert keeps hoping John will find another job and has been trying to help him do so, but John seems very happy here and doesn’t seem to want to leave.

My coworkers and I disagree on how much effort we should put into fixing John’s work. Jane believes that we need to protect our organization’s reputation and our core mission by forcing John to produce good products, even if that means holding his hand through the whole process and feeding him the ideas, while we lobby our boss to fire John. For my part, I’m sick of managing John and thanklessly doing his work for him while he never improves or learns from it. I don’t want to lobby our boss to fire John, it feels mean to be part of a concerted effort to get someone fired, and it’s gotten us nowhere. Our boss has made his choice to keep John, I want him to have to also feel the consequences of that choice (damaged reputation, annoyed clients, failed projects) and don’t want to cover for John anymore. But I also don’t feel great giving John’s work a peer review, noticing significant issues I’d raise in anyone else’s work, and saying nothing while that work goes out to our clients with our organization’s name on it, rather than them getting the quality of work they deserve.

So what I’d like to know is, what is the responsible and professional way to deal with this? Is it our responsibility to serve the organization, clients, and cause by holding John to the same standards we hold each other to, even if it means a lot more work for us, or should we put the same amount of work into giving feedback to John that we give to each other and let our boss decide when John’s work is bad enough to merit a firing?

Rupert needs to feel the effects of his decision to keep John and to accept his current level of work.

Jane’s stance is understandable in a nonprofit with a mission people care about — in that context it’s easy to end up at “what matters is fulfilling our mission, even if we have to accommodate annoying things to get there.” You could point out to Jane that fixing John’s work for him every time is actually harming your organization and its mission in the long-run — by diverting resources (you and your coworkers) from other priorities to fix a problem that instead needs to be fixed at the root, preventing Rupert from seeing the totality of that problem, and enabling John in drawing money from the organization for work that he’s not doing.

You could also point out that the nature of working with humans is that sometimes there needs to be a temporary dip in quality / production in order to put a longer-term fix in place. That’s a normal part of organization lifecycles; it happens when people leave voluntarily (and their role is vacant for a while and then filled by someone who needs training) … and when someone isn’t performing at the level needed (and the work of their role is affected while their manager works to either raise their performance or replace them) … and when workloads change and there’s a period of hiring/training people, adjusting priorities, or so forth. It’s not realistic for the expectation to be “we’ll never experience any temporary blips in what we produce, even when problems arise.” The realistic goal is “we’ll spot problems and address them quickly.”

Right now, what you’re doing is preventing Rupert from fully seeing the problem.

So stop blocking his view — which means you need to stop taking on the burden of fixing John’s work yourself.

If John produces bad work and makes only a fraction of the corrections you send, don’t go through multiple rounds of holding his hand to get him to make the fixes needed. The first time he sends something back not fixed, reply with, “There was a lot of other feedback in my response that hasn’t been addressed here. I’ve got to focus on project X right now, so I’m cc’ing Rupert so he can help from here.”

After a while, maybe you even stop giving the first-round feedback if John won’t use it, and instead forward the work to Rupert with a note saying, “Can you step in here? There are serious structural issues like the sort Jane and I have raised in the past, and I think John needs you to work with him more closely on it.”

Rupert may never decide to deal with John the way he needs to. His current method of handling him — to hope he’ll leave on his own — doesn’t speak well of his ability to manage hard situations. But you make it a lot more likely by shifting the weight of the problem over to him to deal with.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 207 comments… read them below }

  1. HailRobonia*

    “So stop blocking his view — which means you need to stop taking on the burden of fixing John’s work yourself.”


    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      Exactly. There is nothing in OP’s job description that says “fix John’s crappy workmanship”. Focus on your own work and let John sink or swim on his own.

      Either John will get better or he won’t. If he does, then okay. If not, it will drag the org down and it will start to affect Rupert. Either Rupert will get better at doing his job or he won’t. If not, he’ll have to suffer the consequences. OP needs to stop working against the force of gravity here.

      1. theelephantintheroom*

        Yes! It’s difficult to do when you care about the work, but letting someone make mistakes is better for everyone in the long-run. My old company used to insist we help each other make the deadline, because the clients’ happiness was all that mattered. While the client is important, the problem was that resentment built when the rest of the team could see patterns among certain team members who took advantage of this system by just not pulling their weight (often leading to everyone else working longer hours and weekends). It would never get addressed by management because the deadlines were being met and that told them that the system worked perfectly.

        At my new company, they try to strike a balance between teamwork and keeping one person from holding up the rest of the team. We keep records of issues that came up, how long it took to get the issue fixed either by the person who made the mistake or by someone who jumped in to do it for them, who was involved, etc. That way, we can catch patterns and have serious conversations between departments about whether it’s a a training issue, a personality issue, or something else (like the person just has too many projects). We were nervous about doing that at first, but it’s been incredibly helpful.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          It’s better for the clients in the long run too. Because when the people who are doing the work get discouraged about the slackers, they will eventually find other work, leaving only the slackers. And that’s not good for the clients either.

          1. Leela*

            I’ve dealt with this so. many. times. It’s so odd how everyone but management can see it coming a mile away

          2. Granger*

            You’re so right, Geek, but it’s SO scary to let go and to face letting things go out the door that aren’t our best work / would adversely affect a client, our reputation, lead to a mess that we’d have to clean up. I totally agree with Alison’s recommendations to OP and your point about it being better for clients in the long run, but it is SO difficult (as a co-worker who is committed to the mission and/or as a manager) to let go enough to push back this way and risk the adverse impact. Of course boss would step in and deal with it, but given how conflict-avoidant boss has been so far, following the excellent advice will be a true act of leadership and courage (on OP’s part).

      2. Washi*

        Agreed. I would send John a laundry list of things that are wrong with his project (so it’s documented that you are making a good faith effort to peer review) but make no effort to fix stuff myself. If John wants to send out his work without making the recommended edits, let that be on him and let clients get mad and complain to Rupert.

        1. Scarlet2*

          Exactly. I think Alison’s suggestion is spot on. You don’t want to actually send his work out there with terrible issues after you’ve reviewed it, because then you also become partly responsible for the mess. Sending it over to Rupert and saying “I really don’t have the time to fix all this, can you handle it?” allows you to transfer responsibility where it belongs. It’s always easier to ignore a problem when you’re not the one who has to do the actual mopping up.

    2. Jennifer Juniper*

      You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.
      – Captain Awkward
      LW, you are not obligated to burn yourself out for John. He knows what he’s doing and is happy with his current situation. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s getting paid to sit on his ass while you all are doing his work for him.

      1. Scarlet2*

        Exactly. Just waiting for the guy to find another job isn’t just bad management, it’s also unbelievably naive to think that someone who doesn’t seem to give a toss about professional standards is going to start looking for a job where he’ll be expected to actually work when he can just let others do his job and still get paid for it.

    3. JayNay*

      all this is such good advice. Rupert is not fixing the underlying issue, but the LW and their coworkers are stepping in. So right now, you’re covering up how bad it really is.
      Rupert either has a thick skin, or the issue is not annoying enough for him to make the (uncomfortable) effort to fix it. Make the situation more annoying for Rupert! It’s his problem to deal with, not yours.
      Even if Rupert still decides to do nothing about John, then at least he’s the one who has to deal with the consequences – namely, he will have to deal with John’s poor work and the constant handholding.

    4. LPUK*

      Oh dear lord, I have been telling my brother in law this for two straight years now! His workplace issue is not poor work but persistent vacancies. Instead of letting things drop so that senior management feels enough of the pain to actually do something, he works longer hours, stresses himself to the point of illness, and then comes home , loses his temper with his family and then goes straight to bed, pushing the additional burden of keeping the house, managing all the finances and dealing with kids onto my poor sister, who also works full time, and is starting to mutter about divorce being a better option… the impact can go far beyond work, but of course his company neither sees this nor cares. There’s a phrase in English that goes ‘ let the dog see the rabbit’ and it’s never been truer. You have to let management see the problem clearly before they get motivated to fix it!

  2. emmelemm*

    If John is well compensated and spends most of his days reading the news and shopping, he ain’t never gonna leave. Your boss is nuts.

    Let John’s work sink on its own merits. Like Alison says, it sucks in the short term (clients get bad work), but it’s the only way to fix the long term.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Yup. When I worked in insurance, I had a lot of coworkers who were like John – did absolutely no work and wandered around all day talking to people and just generally avoiding their desks – and were close to retirement in three to five years, so they figured they’d do the bare minimum and ride it out until they could leave permanently. It was a mess, but I can’t say I wouldn’t be the same way once I’m close to that point, lol.

    1. Veronica Mars*

      Maybe I don’t fully understand the dynamics here, but I don’t really understand why they are going to John for help at all if his work isn’t helpful? Can you just pretend his full time job is surfing the internet (because he is) and work as if he doesn’t exist, whatever impact that might have on turnaround time?

      Your boss probably doesn’t care to fix it because right now, its not impacting anything he can see. John doesn’t care to fix it because his life is awesome. You need to make the situation painful enough for both of them that resolving the situation suddenly becomes the path of least resistance. And a good way to do that is to make your boss feel the time and/or resource crunch by pointing out to him that, effectively, John doesn’t work here anymore.

      1. Morning Glory*

        I think the issue is that they’re supposed to have X number of workers to do Y amount of work. Without John doing any of the work, they’re understaffed and overwhelmed trying to carry John’s slack.

        I could definitely see why OP and others want to push John to do his job, even if he’s not doing it well.

      2. Letter Writer*

        Oh, we don’t ask John for help with anything, no one besides Rupert will let John touch anything. The problem is that Rupert occasionally assigns John work, and our normal organizational work flow includes a QA/QC step by a peer on all work before it goes to the client. That puts John’s work on our plate to QA and then we have to decide what to do with it. Unfortunately, Rupert doesn’t have the background to QA a lot of our work, so he doesn’t normally do this step himself.

        1. Miss Fisher*

          Maybe you could have Rupert sit with you or Jane while you QC his work and maybe some others, so he can get the gist of what you do while also seeing how bad John’s work is.

          1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

            Honestly, this is the only way.
            I’d tell Rupert that you cannot work on X because you will be redoing John’s work. Is that a problem? If it is, Rupert, then who would you like to take off of a project for this day/three days/full week to do John’s work instead?
            Please let us know which work can be pushed aside to redo this project, while John pretends to implement changes.

            1. Veronica Mars*

              Yes, exactly. Stop sacrificing your time (I mean, I assume you’re working OT to cover his stuff?) or covering up the deadline delays caused by this. Make the ‘lack’ of manpower issue Rupert’s problem, not yours.

          2. Toads, Beetles, Bats*

            I’d recommend showing him comparable QC processes with clear metrics. Something like: “Here’s a typical peer review. I found a 2% error rate in this report, which is pretty standard. Sent back some high-level comments and colleague had the whole thing fixed by the next draft. It took X hours of my time and Y hours of our combined time.”And then: “And here are three examples of my most recent peer review with John. I found a 30% error rate. Went through 4-5 rounds of feedback because errors weren’t corrected after the first round. It took X hours of my time and Y hours of our combined time.” I was in a bad situation with a low-performing colleague once and I had to do something like this. The key is to be very much about the numbers/impact on your work and not at all personal about John. Good luck.

        2. Close Bracket*

          “That puts John’s work on our plate to QA and then we have to decide what to do with it.”

          What happens after you QA something? What’s the next step? Are you supposed to fix what you find or are you supposed to send it back to the person who wrote it?

          Have you tried listing all the problems and sending it back without fixing anything?

          1. Alexander Graham Yell*

            Or listing everything out, and copying Rupert in? Then when the 2nd round requires the same things, highlighting “Issues from last QA still not resolved:” (maybe separate structural and stylistic changes) and keeping him copied in for as many rounds of QA as it takes? Even if he doesn’t understand them, he should be able to see that list not changing and see how long it takes. At the very least then you could set up a meeting and talk strategy.

            OP, this sucks. A lot. And none of this should be your problem, but I understand why it’s become your problem if Rupert genuinely can’t QA things.

            1. TootsNYC*

              also, on a QC/QC round:
              “Problem X is here–please note, this occurred on the last project too”

              Also, don’t do much detail. “Y is not complete”–don’t tell him why it’s complete–you did your part.
              “Too awkward” but don’t get into the weeds of why it’s awkward or how to fix it.

          2. Turtle Candle*

            I have a coworker like this, alas, and that’s what I do–but it’s still absolutely maddening because the QA/QC is endless. She sends something to me, I comment and send it back, she “fixes” it and sends it back to me, I comment and send it back, she “fixes” it and sends it back to me, I comment and send it back. This could continue indefinitely, and it’s far more work than just taking it from her and finishing it. So while on the one hand, I am not “doing her work for her,” on the other hand, it in fact means I have to spend more time and more effort than if I just took it away and fixed it for her. And I mean that I actually timed it, and commenting over and over (and over and over) rather than fixing it for her took, say, three hours when it would have taken me one to do it myself, and sometimes the proportion is even worse.

            I sympathize so much with the LW, because I’m in the same boat: my QC step is the final step, so if I let it go out, I have, technically, not actually done my job. The question “why did nobody catch this, this is why we have an editing step?” may very well be asked–and for anyone but Problem Employee it would be reasonable; it’s just that with her, it’s not.

            I’m going to try Alison’s suggestion of looping Boss in after round one, though, and see what happens.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              (I should note, in my case, the person isn’t avoiding work–she actively wants more to do and constantly asks for more tasks. She just can’t do them, for whatever reason, to an acceptable or even semi-acceptable level. A lot of what I do is try to block her from taking tasks in the first place, with limited success. I get the impression that she might have a health issue in play, physical or mental, which makes the whole thing even more fraught….)

            2. Letter Writer*

              This is pretty much exactly it!

              Usually we fix small mistakes like typos and just flag larger mistakes then send it back to the author to fix. In John’s case, there are usually enough larger issues I don’t even bother looking for the smaller ones until we’ve done several rounds of this. For example, most recently:
              – John writes up proposal to a funding source for development of new teapot spouts
              – I review, say that there are major issues with the proposal, he hasn’t made a case for why the current spouts are an issue, and I’m not even clear on the process he’s proposing to fix them.
              – He adds a few sentences that don’t really address my issues and sends it back
              – I say my issues still aren’t addressed and give him a little more guidance on what I need to see here “you need to put something about how the spout shape is hard to use for our clients because they use taller cups, and that we are going to find out their cup needs (through a survey, or a guided workshop)
              – We run up close to the deadline and I guess John is getting as annoyed at the rounds of edits as I am because he sends whatever he has in. When I see the final copy it has my guidance almost word for word in it, as in “we are going to find out their cup needs (through a survey or a guided workshop)” rather than picking one and developing a plan around it.

              Unsurprisingly, we did not get the funding.

                1. Letter Writer*

                  He doesn’t usually see the back and forth around edits. I can cc him, but frankly he’s not going to open the documents and read them. He is stretched incredibly thin with tasks that have nothing to do with managing staff, and he basically manages us off the side of his desk. It’s hard getting his attention on things, which is a whole bigger issue. Personally, I believe that’s really the heart of why he won’t deal with John: he’s too busy to really evaluate whether or not there’s somewhere John could fit into our organization, and when John is sitting quietly watching videos and cashing his paychecks Rupert doesn’t have to deal with him at all.

                2. valentine*

                  When I see the final copy it has my guidance almost word for word in it
                  You’re needlessly still collaborating and, since he’s using your stuff, doing his work for him. What if you stop the second part here:
                  I say my issues still aren’t addressed and give him a little more guidance on what I need to see here “you need to put something about how the spout shape is hard to use for our clients because they use taller cups, and that we are going to find out their cup needs (through a survey, or a guided workshop)
                  …and return it to him until it’s client-ready or he stops sending it to you?

                  He’ll probably send it to a Jane, but that’s for Rupert to sort. Can you meet with Rupert and show him an example of the back-and-forth? And, when he piles on stuff he keeps from John, restrict yourself to a reasonable amount. Don’t overwork or burn out on this.

                  Is there no HR that could evaluate John for an internal transfer? Is there anyone above Rupert who might be interested to know your department could produce x more if they hired someone competent?

                3. Dust Bunny*

                  Your whole organization sounds off-balance, then. Is Rupert really that busy (do they need more staff) or his he filling his time with other stuff he’d rather do (and not devoting enough to management, so he can avoid dealing with actual personnel problems like John)?

                4. Glitsy Gus*

                  Rupert not paying attention is the real problem here. John is a symptom, the fact that you don’t actually have a manager is the issue. That sucks, because it really is a lot harder to deal with that problem.

                  I would say you can do one round of edits, like you would for anyone, then when they come back crap send it back to John and flat out stat that the issues are not resolved. Insist John review the document with Rupert before resubmitting for review. Shoot, set up a meeting for the three of you the first time and really go over each issue and clarify what is needed so even Rupert can’t say he doesn’t really know what’s needed. It’ll be annoying to do that, but a little up front time might be needed to get Rupert on board. It’s unfortunate for Rupert that he has too much to do, but it’s on him to bring that up to HIS manager, not for him to pawn you guys off.

              1. TootsNYC*

                – I review, say that there are major issues with the proposal, he hasn’t made a case for why the current spouts are an issue, and I’m not even clear on the process he’s proposing to fix them.

                when the problem is THIS fundamental, kick it immediately to Rupert.
                “This seems like a pretty big issue to still be unresolved; Rupert, maybe this is one for you.”

                1. Ellie*

                  This could be written by one of my team…. and I am the team leader who is supposed to be dealing with it. The peer review feedback implemented word for word is exactly the same, and is so, so frustrating. But the company I work for is definitely for profit, and no one would trust this guy for anything involving funding, so I guess there’s two of them…

                  In my case, I’m in the process of getting him transferred, because that’s what my manager wants us to do. I think its unfair and we should fire him, and in the background I’ve started the process of getting him on a performance plan to this end. I want so badly to tell the rest of the team that I’m dealing with it, but I can’t… our project is going to run late because of the extra effort of dealing with this. It sucks.

                  In your position, I’d just keep sending the reviews back again and again, and when people start asking about it, say it’s been through x reviews and still isn’t done – can someone else take over the rework? Make it obvious he’s a millstone. Maybe your boss will stop assigning him stuff?

                2. Crooked Bird*

                  Given what OP says above about how busy Rupert is with other things, this seems about right. 1) Bothering him about stuff all the time with 2) legitimate and explicit justification for why he should be paying a bunch of extra attention to this, might get results in the end because Rupert can’t take being hassled anymore.

              2. Grey Coder*

                “Unsurprisingly, we did not get the funding.”
                That’s the wedge you need!
                “In the last year, 0% of proposals led by John were funded/ John brought in $0 of funding, where the rest of the team had 60% of proposals funded and brought in $X. ” Figure out the numbers yourself. If John had proposals that were funded only because the rest of the team cleaned them up, decide on an appropriate allocation of credit (10% to John, 60% to Jane, 30% to Wakeen) and document it.

        3. SusanIvanova*

          Ouch. We had a John, but we also had a great manager who listened to us when we said we would never work with him again. So the only things that got assigned to him were the trivial non-essentials that any one of us could have done on top of our own work by drinking more coffee – hence his nickname “Coffeecup”.

          Then he got put on a PIP to do one of those things per day. He didn’t, and he was on his way out when other circumstances caused him to be expeditiously removed.

          1. Waving not drowning (formerly Drowning not waving*

            Oh we had a John in our team too – it was painful.

            He’d be assigned a project, he’d fiddle around, watching YouTube, wandering around, etc etc, doing the bare minimum. There was a pattern – Deadline would approach, he’d realise he’d stuffed up, he’d go off on sick leave (we have a generous personal leave policy, and he had multiple health issues he could use to justify it). We’d take bets on which day he’d go out, whether it would be before or after the deadline. Meantime the rest of the team would be scrambling around at the last minute to pull a miracle out of our butts and get it sorted. He’d then come back from sick leave, Either a. Deny it was that bad in the first place, or b. Say his health wasn’t the best so he wasn’t operating at full capacity. Multiple managers tried, but, due to the organisational structure it was difficult to fire – he’d claim health issues/discrimination if it was taken further.

            Finally, they managed to get all the ducks in a row, and he was terminated. It took 10 years… he was never replaced, and, the team works so much more smoothly now, even down one person.

        4. Observer*

          Either that, or IN ADDITION to the emails that Allison has suggested, cc Rupert on all of the corrections you are sending and then reference those emails when you kick it upstairs. Make it very difficult for Rupert to not see what’s happening.

        5. Snuck*

          I’m with Alison then.

          Do a first stage/normal process QC, and reply with comments in red/clearly visible, and cc in Rupert.

          Then when John doesn’t do the work/comes back part done… cc in Rupert again “Please complete all the recommended changes before coming back into the process, as I am very busy with Y and Z right now” and then if he comes back a third time “Dear Rupert, can you please help me? Do I drop Y and Z to do John’s revisions again, or maybe you could do them with him?”

          Make it his pain. Rupert and John’s.

    2. DataGirl*

      Exactly this. I worked with a few people like this at a non-profit: they had been there long enough to be making a pretty good salary, had amazing benefits, and skills that were no longer really marketable. The organization just continues to take responsibilities away from them until they are left with people making 6 figures because they used to be managers, but are now doing nothing except editing a quarterly newsletter. But they won’t fire them and the employees have zero incentive to leave- they’ll be there until they retire. It’s so wasteful.

      1. Yvette*

        And this is how charities and non-profits get bad reputations. Anyone remember William Aramony, convicted of bilking $600,000 from the United Way of America?

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Exactly my thought. Why on earth would he leave? He’s getting well compensated to dick around all day.

    4. tinybutfierce*

      Thiiis. John has no reason to leave, but Rupert’s refusal to manage him is giving everyone else at least a couple of reasons to.

    5. Beth*

      Right? He gets to do whatever he wants all day, he gets well paid for it, and no one with any authority will hold him to task for his lack of productivity. For someone who isn’t motivated by a personal desire to go above and beyond and excel, that’s such a cushy setup!

      John is probably wondering why everyone else is stressing themselves out when his manager is signaling to him (through inaction on his lack of productivity) that none of this matters much.

    6. AnotherJohn*

      Can confirm. It’s a great set up and it’s a reason more experienced workers like myself get jobs in the “third sector”. Managers are really nice and don’t seem to care that we take it slow. I know I’m not leaving until this ship sinks.

  3. Granger Chase*

    I think Rupert has an additional responsibility here because this is a nonprofit. It’s already bad enough for a coworker to sit around and watch videos or do other things completely unrelated to their job. But when it’s a nonprofit (especially one where LW even says they are paid well!) there’s an extra layer of accountability you have to your donors & to your board to be using those funds in the right way for the mission. How can Rupert justify spending a good amount on a salary & benefits for someone who is not even working and is such a roadblock for any projects his coworkers try to include him on?

    1. Massmatt*

      Came here to say this. Your manager is oddly blasé not just about dealing with a poor employee, but wasting the resources of the donors. Most nonprofits pinch their pennies to try to devote as much of those donor dollars to the mission as possible. Here, the manager is fine with someone browsing the internet all day.

      Ditto on why would this guy ever leave? He’s getting paid (well paid, according to LW) to sit around and goof off all day! Another job might require that he, you know, WORK.

      These kinds of letters where bosses shrugs their shoulders and refuse to manage a useless employee are so frustrating!

    2. Pomona Sprout*

      Agreed. John is a jerk, but Rupert is an even bigger jerk for letting him get away with this. This may be one of those “your boss sucks and isn’t going to change” situations, sadly.

    3. AnotherJohn*

      Eh, the impact of goofing off might be pretty small depending on the size of the organization. I’m in a similar situation though I don’t make quite 6 figures. I don’t feel bad about doing the bare minimum because in the big scheme of things my salary and benefits make up less than 1% of my organizations budget. I mean, executive directors make a lot more money and all they do is tell other people to work. The key here is for John to make his coasting less noticeable. At the very least you have to submit work without errors. Stay under the radar, keep appearances and his angry coworker will forget about him. This is what Rupert should be telling him.

  4. Tiffany C*

    I like this advice. I work in Tech and I have a lazy coworker that sounds a lot like this guy. I would do my best to fix his work at first, show him the issue. His job became my job before too long. And he spent all day reading and working on his personal business. I decided to stop and let everyone experience his work and refer all issues right back to him. If there were complaints I directed them back to my manager. It truly is best to let go and let your manager do the job they are paid to do.

    1. AnotherJohn*

      This where “Johns” mess up. Coasting is a science and an art. In order to do as little work as possible, one needs to make sure that the quality of his/her work be on par. I’ll spend all week on a single report, but by golly nobody’s going to have to fix it. This keeps my manager off my back and my coworkers barely know of my existence.

    1. Unemployed in Greenland*

      Jane is in the second sentence of the paragraph that begins: “My coworkers and I disagree on how much effort we should put into fixing John’s work.”

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Jane is the coworker who has one of the following ideas:
      – maternalistic/paternalistic: John is just incompetent and and not malicious so that really, it would be a kindness to “help” him by redoing his work.
      – scared of change: it’s better the devil you know and a new person would be worse than John.
      – high strung: they will eliminate the position and be more stretched than before
      – paranoid: they will eliminate the department, the organization and nobody will serve their clients ever again
      or she is my coworker who would say, “well, you know they are sleeping together. I saw them talking yesterday.” (which is its own letter in itself)

      1. NW Mossy*

        There’s a famous xkcd comic called “Duty Calls” that gets to a core behavior I find in inveterate correcters of others’ work – the sheer psychological difficulty some people have with allowing an error, once observed, to continue to exist. As soon as they gain awareness that Something Is Wrong, it’s like their brains can’t rest until it’s fixed.

        Folks like this can be great for QA work, but only if they can counterbalance this tendency with the awareness and judgment that not all errors can or should be fixed, and that even those that should be fixed may be better corrected by someone else. Jane sounds like she herself could use some coaching on the judgment part, but sadly, I don’t see her getting that from Rupert anytime soon.

        1. SimplyTheBest*

          This seems like a whole lot of psychoanalysis for something that isn’t that deep. Most people wouldn’t want to turn in shitty work, especially when they’re the last stop who should have caught all the errors. Alison’s advice is great for fixing the long term problem, provided you have a boss who’s going to see the problem (which, from OP’s comments about the boss being stretched too thin and not having the background to do the QA himself, doesn’t sound likely). But it’s also not at all unreasonable for Jane to know her boss and say, “yeah, I’m not attaching my name to poor quality work, and I’m not putting my paycheck in any jeopardy by being the person to let massive errors through my final edit.”

          1. Turtle Candle*

            Yeah, I think you don’t have to be a perfectionist or paranoid or afraid of change or high strung or whatever to go “we owe our clients good work” and/or even just “ugh, I don’t want to deal with John, let’s just take care of this so I can stop spending mental energy on it.” The latter does enable John to continue… but I could totally see going “managing John is above my pay grade, and if bossman isn’t going to do it, I’m not either.”

      2. Letter Writer*

        I think I must have given a wrong impression of Jane. She is definitely not any of those things, and she’s definitely not worried about John getting fired. When I say she is lobbying to get him fired, I really do mean lobbying. If anyone grumbles about a new thing John has done where she can hear it, she immediately demands they go tell Rupert. Her criticisms of his work have long left “polite” behind. She organized all of our coworkers to approach Rupert and affirm that we can manage John’s workload just fine if he leaves, and has told Rupert at least once that she doesn’t understand why John still has a job.

        She just also thinks that meanwhile we have a professional obligation to our organization and our clients to make sure that any work going out is of good quality, regardless of whether we have to drag John there or not.

        1. probably actually a hobbit*

          I have a John in my life and I just realized that I might be Jane — obviously, I’m not actually your co-worker, LW, this is really just hitting home — I have done a lot of documenting and formal complaints and escalating, but I also do a lot of covering because I care about the client and the deliverable A LOT

  5. Marika*

    John’s never leaving voluntarily. Why should he? He’s got a job that pays well, requires an absurdly minimal effort and he’s got at least two other people who will do the majority of it for him.

    You can’t change the first two issues; you can change the third. Stop propping him up. Yes, it’s hard to see substandard work, especially with a non-profit. So, take that step back, cc Rupert on everything, and let him deal with the mess. My guess is if Rupert has to put in the effort on John’s non-work, he will be a lot more eager to get rid of John.

    The confounding factor here is going to be Jane. If you stop doing John’s job for him and send him to Rupert, John may very well stop sending you anything and send it all to Jane instead since she’ll do it for him. You need to be really clear with Jane, BEFORE you start redirecting John, about what you’re doing. Otherwise, you could be the one she blames for her workload increasing. Ideally, she’ll join you in redirecting John, giving him nowhere to hide, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    1. Ama*

      Yup, it isn’t an urgent issue for Rupert because OP and Jane are making sure it never becomes urgent for him — I would bet he doesn’t even really grasp how much staff time is being spent making John’s work presentable.

      It is a good point about getting Jane on the same page, though. At the very least, get her to agree to cc: Rupert every time she helps John with something so Rupert can see how often she’s intervening.

    2. Jules the 3rd*

      Bring Jane on over here! We understand her position (the mission matters!) but Alison’s right – if John continues, he’s going to suck resources from the mission, both money and your time.

      Start cc’ing the QAs to Rupert and make sure he understands the extra workload John’s driving.

    3. Close Bracket*

      “If you stop doing John’s job for him and send him to Rupert, John may very well stop sending you anything and send it all to Jane instead since she’ll do it for him. ”

      If that happens, OP’s problem is solved.

      1. Marika*

        Yes, but a) it doesn’t solve the larger problem (which I realize isn’t really her issue, since she’s not the boss) and, more importantly b) it stands to really sour her relationship with Jane, which will make the whole job more difficult. Ditching your problem onto someone else isn’t a solid long term strategy.

        1. Close Bracket*

          “which I realize isn’t really her issue, since she’s not the boss”

          “Continue to be miserable because your boss won’t manage” isn’t a solid long term strategy, either.

    4. Observer*

      Sure, tell Jane what you are doing. But if she tries to blame YOU for the mess that John makes, don’t accept it. Keep on repeating the same thing “This is John not doing his job. I cannot do his job as well as mine and I won’t compromise our mission by stretching myself too thin.” Regularly add “I suggest that you do the same for the sake of the mission.” And then CHANGE THE SUBJECT.

    5. TootsNYC*

      the only reason he might leave voluntarily is if Rupert gets all up on his business and makes life really unpleasant for him. But of course, that’s work for Rupert.

    6. Snuck*

      You just need to find Jane’s trigger…

      It sucks to hound out/line up to fire a person… no one wants to do that… but do any of the following ‘arguments’ ring bells for Jane?
      – sucks resources away from you all, so you can’t do your best work for other clients
      – stops other highly capable people gaining experience and skills in the sector where their passion could be very useful to you
      – creates poorly presented information that then damages the industry capability
      – you are all helping him in his miasma of codependency, and instead should stand him up and walk him through real life (not prop him up as a prop at teh door)


    7. AnotherJohn*

      You’re right about John not leaving on his own. He’s got a sweet gig going but I wish Rupert would give him some guidance. If you want to spend a significant amount of your workday goofing off, you need to put some effort into the work you actually do. If it weren’t for John’s screw ups, the LW probably wouldn’t even know he existed. That’s the key – put in as little effort as possible but do not make mistakes that cause other employees grief. I really wish the best for John but I’m afraid he may be on his way to ruining a great situation he spent years building.

  6. Darcy Pennell*

    How I wish I had had this advice when I worked at a non-profit and spent a big chunk of my time going behind my incompetent coworker and fixing her mistakes. I did it for years (I even set up an activity log so I could check and correct everything she did! It was my Friday afternoon task, fixing that week’s mistakes). By the end I deeply resented her, my boss and the entire organization.

    If I’d just let her work stand on its own eventually they would’ve had to manage her. She would’ve either improved or left, and my own work would’ve been better because I would’ve had more time and a better attitude.

    Take Alison’s advice, don’t do what I did.

    1. NicoleK*

      Yes! I carried my incompetent coworker for over a year. Then I got fed up. I started letting her fail, redirected her back to our manager, and stopped covering for her. Incompetent coworker is still there. Our incompetent boss is still there. My replacement and incompetent coworkers are work BFFs now. Fine with me, she can carry incompetent coworker for the foreseeable future.

    2. Constance Lloyd*

      I had this issue- a coworker and I shared the same workload, and I spent an afternoon a week fixing her lazy mistakes. (She knew better, but the right way took longer so she would do it wrong anyway). It didn’t get better until we got a new manager, and the, “Don’t tell me about it, just fix it,” manager was replaced by a, “Fix it and tell me so I can build a case for termination,” manager. HR never did let Boss fire Coworker, but Coworker was put on a PIP (she later resigned) and I was promoted, so I’ll call it a win.

  7. Angwyshaunce*

    So John is well compensated for doing little work (poorly) while hanging out and watching videos all day?

    And your boss is waiting for him to leave on his own?

    Sounds like John has a good thing going, and may not be eager to give it up. Making it your boss’s problem will hopefully help the situation.

    1. LilyP*

      Yeah I lol’d at that idea. Why on earth would he ever leave on his own when he’s getting paid to relax all day!

  8. WorkIsADarkComedy*

    Will Rupert push back on your change in behavior and insist (or ask; I guess Rupert isn’t the kind who insists) that you step in and correct John’s work?

    If so, tell Rupert in writing how helping John is keeping you from other things. This both helps protect you and puts the pressure on Rupert.

    1. Letter Writer*

      Letter Writer here:
      No, I don’t think Rupert will insist or even push back on that. There’s more backstory that I didn’t think was needed, but I was originally hired to work collaboratively with John on projects when he was doing his old type of work. That’s how I ended up in the pattern of fixing John’s work: I wasn’t willing to send out his terrible work publicly with myself listed as a co-author so I’d bring everything up to a level I was comfortable putting my name on. After a particularly terrible episode on one project, I told Rupert I was no longer willing to collaborate with John on anything, which he immediately agreed with. My name isn’t associated with John’s work anymore (besides us working at the same small organization), and I’m pretty confident Rupert won’t insist that John is my problem to fix.

      Frankly, what I think Rupert will do is continue to assign John less and less work, while suggesting to John that he should find employment elsewhere, and John will continue to pretend to look.

        1. Letter Writer*

          The organization has a pretty strong culture of valuing employees (we get good pay and benefits, flexibility, etc.) so when both our old positions were eliminated we were transferred to other positions with the idea that we’d retrain. After a bit of an acclimatization period, I am now doing well in the new position, but John isn’t. I personally appreciate their commitment to keeping employees on where possible, because otherwise I’d be out of a job, but obviously this is taking it too far.

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            Yeah. Kudos to your org for keeping you guys on after your original jobs were eliminated, but it sounds like he’s had enough time to get trained in his new role and just…gave up. Rupert really needs to shake him out of his complacency and show him he can end up out on his ass if he doesn’t get it together, otherwise, this is only going to get worse.

          2. J.E.*

            How long does John have before he can retire? Is it the case of him just trying to run out the clock until he can retire so he’s not bothering to try because he knows he doesn’t have too much longer? I’ve seen this happen quite a bit with employees who are less than ten years away from retiring.

          3. Zahra*

            You could raise the point that, by keeping John after a reasonable period of adjustment where he didn’t improve, they’re not valuing you and your other coworkers. They’re forcing you to compensate for him, which makes you resentful and not feeling valued at all.

            1. RVA Cat*

              This. Plus his salary is taking budget away from your raises and other hires.
              Rupert needs to manage John, and to do that he will need to see the state of John’s work. It’s his responsibility to coach John. Best case scenario is if suddenly his coaching “sticks” because he starts holding John accountable.

          4. TootsNYC*

            Too bad Rupert can’t bring some creativity to his job and figure out something ELSE that John could be doing for the organization that would tap into some sort of skill he might actually have.
            Sure, John will be disgruntled because he’d rather watch videos and drink coffee, but there’s a better chance he might actually do something.

          5. Dust Bunny*

            Yeah, my workplace–also a non-profit with low turnover–tries really hard to retrain people rather than laying them off, but it’s on the assumption that the person is willing and able to learn the new skills. If they don’t, they’re out.

            Rupert is a coward and a cr*p manager. My supervisor is a sweet guy but would never put up with this.

        2. Alex*

          Because there’s the human component: If John has been there for a long time, and people like him, no-one wants to be the one to pull the plug. Not all companies measure a manager/department purely by numbers, so keeping someone around that is useless but well liked is seen as the “humane” and does not affect the Manager/department negatively (at least if reviews/finances are concerned), so why go through the “not nice” act of firing someone. A lot of people even get promoted instead of kept around to free the job that is “actually” needed for someone new, without having to do anything about the old person.

          I’ve seen complete positions in upper management created just to park one specific employee. The position has a nice title (like “Vice President of Pencil Pushing”), does nothing useful, and will never be back-filled if the inhabitant retires – but in German, we’d call this “stowed away”. Out of sight, out of mind.

          1. Alex*

            To give an example… we had someone that lead a whole department, but was way out of her league in doing so – they “promoted” her sideways from Vice President of X to Senior Vice President of Y – where Y is a newly cresated “Department” directly unter the Grandboss that has no staff and no actual job but to produce paper (think a high level business analyst position) directly for the CEO …that get thrown away without being read.

            The department was open to get an actually competent Manager, the old person got a “promotion” (Senior!), now has no staff to (mis)manage, and their new “job” is so unimportant that most people just kinda forget the person exists – even the ones she is actually producing the “reports” for.

            1. LunaLena*

              Ha, this sounds just like the end if the Discworld novel Eric. At the end, the demon king of hell (who is making everyone’s lives, well, hell, due to his bureaucratic ways) is told he’s been promoted to Supreme Life President, and is given his very own private office with a speaking tube, potted plants, and masses of filing cabinets to sort out. Meanwhile the rest of the demons get on with the business of keeping hell actually running.

            2. Asenath*

              That reminds me of the old book “The Peter Principle”. The main idea is that everyone gets promoted until they reach a job at which they are incompetent, but I think the sideways move is mentioned as one of the ways this problem can be dealt with. Certainly, it is not unknown in modern organizations!

      1. Trek*

        After a month or two of pushing to Rupert if you see no change then you should escalate to Rupert’s boss or the board of directors. Keep a log of the errors/problems and what was sent to Rupert and then provide the facts to the next person in line and state that this situation is untenable and needs to be addressed. You have provided Rupert everything and waited x weeks and nothing has changed.

        FYI my sister had a co-worker that would refuse to do certain assignments because they were hard or boring or whatever. After dealing with that for three months my sister told boss she wouldn’t do the assignments either. After two weeks boss had a meeting and set up a rotation and co-worker was forced to do the work as assigned. I’m not saying this would work for you but if you pointed out to Rupert he’s paying someone to not work what would happen if everyone chose not to work maybe it would sink in that he needs to address it.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Agree so much with your first sentence. It’s time to escalate this situation if Rupert doesn’t act ASAP.

        2. QoB*

          I was about to say the same! As a nonprofit, the board usually has responsibilities in terms of making sure funds are being well spent. The LW may have good reasons not to formally escalate this, but if Alyson’s suggestion goes nowhere then I would at least be looking for an informal coffee with a friendy board member or two…

      2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        So Rupert’s idea to make everyone happy was for you to stop covering for his crap employee. Yay, LetterWriter is happy. I am a GOOD manager. And I’ll go two for two and stop giving work to John, so we don’t have bad product going out. I am a VERY GOOD manager today. Everybody gets what they want and everybody LIKES ME.

  9. Long Time Lurker*

    Is there a managing level above Rupert? Could you go as a group to your grand boss with examples of the bad work?

    1. Marie*

      I don’t think this is appropriate until Rupert has been fully looped in, in a documented fashion, of the scope of the performance issues.

  10. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    My experience in dysfunctional nonprofits is that, when John’s subpar work is left to stand alone as visibly subpar, the LW and Jane will be the ones punished, for “not doing what it takes to ensure the final result goes out to clients at a high standard,” not John for screwing up or Rupert for failing to manage.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, there are a lot of different types of dysfunction. That’s one, for sure, but it’s not a default and I wouldn’t tell the OP to expect that unless they’ve seen it from their manager in the past. (And if they do see it, there are ways to push back on it.)

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        It looks like their manager will just say, yes, you are right. That is very bad work by John. I won’t assign him that project anymore. And now everyone is HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY with me.

    2. henrietta*

      Mine, too. The response is always ‘come on, we have to work together here, and I need a favor.’ ‘Just this once.’ And Just This Once becomes the whole deal.

      Missing stairs are to be stepped over, never repaired or replaced. Ugh.

    3. Letter Writer*

      Letter writer here: luckily, I’m sure that won’t happen here. John has upset clients before with his terrible work and Rupert has never given any of the rest of us any blame for it. He just doesn’t give John that type of work anymore, and as John continues to fail at different types of work he just gets assigned less and less work overall.

      1. serenity*

        That work that John isn’t being assigned anymore is going somewhere, though; I’ll bet, to you and Jane. So you may not be getting blamed, but you *are* suffering because of this. You’re being assigned work that never should have been on your plate in the first place!

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          Or it’s just not getting done, leaving clients (who presumably provide some compensation for this work) without, or going to another source.

          I’m using ‘interest group market research’ or ‘diversity marketing’ as my assumptions of what they’re producing, something that’s useful but that companies will muddle through without if they can’t get it from LW’s non-profit.

      2. Dragoning*

        This reminds me of that malicious incompetence things (especially men) do when it comes to things like household chores where “Why would you ask me to do laundry, I mixed your whites and reds to make pink and then left it to mildew with bleach for four days” gets laundry taken off their plate.

        1. Senor Montoya*

          Hahaha, my son used to try that sort of thing when he was a tween. A very clever boy.

          I just made him redo it. Over and over and over. If it was a costly mistake (the equivalent of mildewed a business suit), then he was paying for it, too — either in actual money and/or in doing additional (increasingly odious) chores. Sometimes there were additional consequences, like, you are not going out to see friends until it’s done right.

          Nipped that in the bud…

          1. Metwotoo*

            my brother used to do this and my mom often let him get away with it. It drove me crazy. Oh, he always does this task wrong, so I won’t ask him to do it anymore. I used to call it constructive incompetence.

        2. Jules the 3rd*

          I don’t think it’s especially men. I’ve known women to do similar with IT / AV / lawn care / car care.

          It is entirely possible that I was tempted to do this with my husband’s AV setup (computer / projector / amp) that replaced the TV 10+ years ago, and required 4+ button pushes / setting changes, and that he changed significantly every six months. I was straight with him (“Honey, you are the power button until you get a stable config & bookmarks”), but the temptation to be more passive-aggressive was strong. Especially the month I’d finally invested the brain cells to learn how it worked, and then he changed it. Twice. To an entirely new config / order for pushing the buttons (can’t have the amp on at the wrong time, you’ll blow the speakers…). It’s a good thing I read a lot.

          Learned incompetence is a powerful drug for either gender.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I do think that people (both genders) can place different value on different things. My husband wanted fine AV equipment. His chair was at the acoustical center of the room. I could not have cared less. But it made him happy.

            I bought an overlock sewing machine. He would not touch the thing. But if I pulled it out to do something he would sit and watch the machine run. (All that mechanical synchronization was right up his alley.)

            We only have a small amount of free time. We pick and choose what we will learn much more than we realize. What drives me bats is when it becomes a P/A thing or a contest of wills. My husband was never going to learn to sew and I was never going to learn how to wire in that woofer-thing or whatever it was. Coupledom requires pooling all resources include skill sets. Withholding skills or deliberately turning something into a thing the other cannot share the use/enjoyment of is kinda mean spirited in my opinion.

            1. Happily self employed*

              Not threading the serger isn’t equivalent to not doing laundry unless everyone makes their own clothes.

          2. Former Employee*

            I am the worst combination in that I have been a feminist before I ever heard the word or knew what it was while I really am incompetent when it comes to most mechanical/technical things. And don’t get me started on coordination, as in my lack thereof. I couldn’t do either of the above. I could never learn how to thread a sewing machine, can’t tell the front from the back of a pattern and have serious problems with spacial relationships.

            All I can do is read books and when I was working I could analyze whether a company was a good risk for my employer to take on (or not).

          3. Ego Chamber*

            That’s not really the same thing tho? The learned incompetence people are talking about has to do with men intentionally ruining the laundry or loading the dishwasher in a way that doesn’t result in clean dishes or using a guest towel dipped in bleach to clean the bathroom. That’s difference from paying a mechanic to do maintenance on your car because you don’t know how to do it yourself—if you cut the oil line because you don’t want to have to change the oil again, that’s closer to what we’re talking about.

            (This is also totally different from learning your husband’s AV set up and then him changing the whole thing in some weird territorial display because you touched his stuff. ??)

        3. Gumby*

          Blame Shel Silverstein.

          (Which, frankly, never worked on my parents. Perhaps because very few of our dishes were breakable to start with. Also, they introduced us to that poem. It was all “you clearly need the practice so dry more dishes!” or “you are so good at it so dry more dishes!”)

      3. snoopythedog*

        You can push back on John doing less and less overall by
        a)highlighting how much of your time is spent correcting John’s issues during QA (i.e. he sends products not ready for QA and so it is draining on you to spend an inordinate amount of time identifying issues)
        b) pushing back about workload distributions. If you have regular team workload meetings, this would be the place; or during salary negotiations/performance appraisal along the lines of ‘I seem to take on a much larger burden of work than other coworkers and thus should be compensated for it’.

      4. Glitsy Gus*

        Unfortunately that means you and Jane get assigned more and more work. Eventually you are going to hit a point where you are taking on everything and that is untenable.

        What happens when you tell Rupert that you can’t take that new project on because you already have a full plate while John sits there twiddling his thumbs? That would be my concern here, that you don’t end up getting overwhelmed because of Rupert’s lack of desire to manage.

  11. A Simple Narwhal*

    My department had a long-standing issue that was going unresolved due to lack of buy-in/effort from our grand boss. The only way we got results was to stop trying to make things work, which was shielding them from consequences. It forced them to experience the problem first hand and boy-howdy did things change then. I’m glad things got resolved, but there’s a little sting of “oh you could have fixed this so quickly, but either you didn’t believe us or you didn’t care when it only affected us”.

    It absolutely shouldn’t take this, but a lot of times “hey we have a serious problem” isn’t enough, Rupert needs to see “oh I have a serious problem”.

    1. Leela*

      He’ll definitely have a serious problem if his team members that actually do their work get so fed up they go over his head or look for other work (I’d be doing both of these things)

  12. staceyizme*

    I really like the advice for this instance of a hands-off manager and low-performing coworker! Shifting the impact directly back onto your coworker via your manager sounds just about right!

  13. The Green Lawintern*

    But what happens when Rupert does begin to feel the effects of John’s incompetence, but still doesn’t take any meaningful action?

    1. BRR*

      Then it’s a Rupert problem. But it at least won’t be a LW problem. Rupert has the authority to deal with it though while the LW does not.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yeah, I think that’s one of the important questions to ask (as someone who is dealing with an issue shockingly similar to this). “I want John’s crappy work off my plate and out of my life and to never have to QA/QC it again” is probably an easier goal to achieve than “I want John out of this organization.” (I myself just announced in frustration, “I don’t care if the company wants to pay her to play video games all day, so long as I don’t have to babysit her.” Obviously that’s easier to say at a for-profit than a nonprofit, though….)

        1. The Green Lawintern*

          I feel like at this point there should be a club. The “Please DON’T share the load, Mr. Frodoooo” club.

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      Check out the follow up that OP posted under Letter Writer. It’s incredible. Hired to collaborate with John and finding his work so abysmal, OP told Rupert that this guy’s work is so bad I’m not putting my name on it, Rupert the Beloved of All staff said, I understand. You can have your own projects. Oh and I’ll give less work to John.

  14. CupcakeCounter*

    If none of these seem like an option you want to take (although you should take Alison advise), are there some mundane and time consuming tasks that are very difficult to screw up that could be assigned to John? Things like data entry, running the weekly TPS reports, etc… Looking back at prior jobs, I used to have to run over a dozen reports. They were already set up so all I had to do was update the date range and hit go and then save as an Excel doc or PDF depending on the report. Very, very low level but took several hours to run and save them all. We also had some daily statistical reports that needed to be compiled and sent out – data came from several sources so we hadn’t found a way to automate it. Each report only took a few minutes but all together it was an hour or so per day. Pass off those “idiot proof” jobs to John and free up your time for higher level tasks.

    1. Michelle*

      I don’t think that will work. John will mess them up intentionally because why should he do any work if there are no consequences to continuing what he’s doing now?

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        Agreed but if/when John messes up “idiot proof” jobs, it will be much harder for Rupert to ignore the problem. Especially if those jobs are like the reports I mentioned in my examples that go to clients or execs – a couple of bad reports and Rupert will hear about it.

    2. Chronic Overthinker*

      I was thinking the same thing. Is there an administrative position John could be moved to or was that also made redundant? However I think in the case of Rupert being a hands off manager, this isn’t going to work either. Rupert doesn’t want to take responsibility for a failing employee but resentment is building and I could totally see Jane and LW leave due to the fact that they are taking on John’s tasks. It’s time for Rupert to step up and deliver hard news. If John doesn’t know he’s not measuring up, then he’s going to consider no news, good news and that’s bad for business all around.

    3. Loves Libraries*

      John might feel these are beneath him. Also these types of tasks usually pay less than the salary John currently gets.

  15. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    I would have another talk with Rupert and explain that you will no longer be asking John to assist with your work. I’m guessing you’re spending the same amount of time (if not more) hand holding and correcting his mistakes than you would be if you just handled it yourself in the first place. If this was someone who needed training and was willing to learn, then I wouldn’t advise this, but it’s clear from your letter that he doesn’t care and has isn’t willing to improve. If Try and get Jane on board to do the same, but if she refuses and wants to deal with him, let her. Rupert needs to face facts that John is never going to leave voluntarily. He’s getting paid well to be lazy.

  16. QuinleyThorne*

    John sounds infuriating to have to work with.

    Allison’s right however; unfortunately in situations like these, nothing will get done unless someone lights a fire under someone else’s ass. With that said, is there anyone above your boss that you could go to with this issue? You’ve already tried going to John directly, and your boss seems determined to ignore this issue, so it might be worth the capital to just go above your boss.

    1. QuinleyThorne*

      I also kinda wonder if John is screwing things up on purpose so that he doesn’t get any work (this is largely a moot point as the result is still the same, and Allison’s advice still applies)

      1. Colorado*

        I thought the same thing. John has his manager well trained. The more I screw up, the less work I get! He’s never gonna leave on his own.

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        Very true. John is a jerk, but Rupert is an even bigger jerk. In Rupert’s case, the jerkery is wrapped up in a sweet and pleasant candy coating, but it’s jerkery all the same.

      2. QuinleyThorne*

        Oh I absolutely I agree on that point too, but I wanted to at least give Rupert some benefit of the doubt. OP (Letter Writer*) actually made a more recent comment above that Rupert is apparently so swamped with work that he just doesn’t have time to Manage the way he should. It’s not an excuse by any stretch, but at least Rupert is actually working, while John is very pointedly not.

  17. Cedrus Libani*

    Yep. This was hard for me to learn, and it took quite a bit of pounding to get it through my thick skull…but it’s not my job to save my bosses from themselves. It’s not your job either. Your job is to do your job.

    If you persist in playing the hero, you will be burnt out, pissed off, and you’ll have nothing to show for it but a bad reputation. You will have few successes of your own to point to (as you’re spending more and more time in survival mode, trying to prevent the latest disaster, rather than making progress on your own stuff), and everyone sees you as a Debbie Downer (why are you complaining, nothing bad happened) and a miserable person to be around (because you’re in full BEC mode with everyone and everything, it would take a saint not to be). Been there, done that, got the t-shirts. I don’t recommend it.

    1. Pobody’s Nerfect*

      Thank you – I’ve had to finally accept that it’s not my job to save my boss from their own extreme disorganization & unhandled/forgotten/ignored requests. I still stress a lot over all the extremely poor customer service that arises as a result of boss’s ineptitude, but am trying to just stay in my lane rather than internalizing it so much.

    2. MsSolo*

      From LW’s comments above, I feel like this is where Jane has got to – she’s determined to cover for John, but she’s destroying her own reputation in the process.

  18. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    John will never voluntarily leave a well-paid do-nothing job. Rupert is wasting the assets of this nonprofit on John’s salary. Alison’s advice is spot-on. It’s a Rupert problem masquerading as an OP problem.

  19. Michelle*

    John has no reason to get better because there are no consequences to his behavior. Until Rupert is ready to actually manage John, lay out what acceptable and unacceptable standards are and hold John to those, it will not improve. More and more work will shift to the LW and other staff and John will continue to be paid to shop and browse the internet.

    LW, I think you should go to the next level of management. It’s ridiculous that you have to do your job, John’s job and watch Rupert do nothing to correct John and John gets paid to be incompetent.

    1. The Supreme Troll*

      And I wish that John was only innocently clueless to the level of his incompetence, but that isn’t the case. John surely knows what a moocher he is at the non-profit.

  20. Buttons*

    Rupert is wasting the money of the non-profit by keeping on someone who isn’t producing the level or quantity of work that everyone else is. Is it possible to present it that way to your boss?

  21. Tiara Wearing Princess*

    I totally agree with Allison – this needs to be a Rupert problem.

    I had a similar situation. I had an budget assistant who would actively tell me she didn’t have time to do what I asked. I started giving the work to my boss, telling him X said she doesn’t have time to do this. I need it by (time). And walked out. X was perceived as protected by grand boss so boss often did it himself. Boss was eventually fired.

  22. Amethystmoon*

    Had a coworker like this for several years. Went to boss multiple times and nothing was ever done about it. As an example: We had to have photographic proof of what we were typing in for data entry of product labels. Coworker mistyped everything by 1 digit, even though he had photos to go by. First time I took a Thanksgiving break for a couple of days, I came back and had to spend 4 and a half hours fixing his work. I don’t know how long it took the other dept. who did what we did but in different databases to fix it on their side. It was brought to boss’s attention because I dad to put in overtime to fix his work.

    Things like this happened repeatedly for three years and every time, I was the one who was told I had to clean up after him. I feared taking more than one vacation day off at a time. This was the guy who I had written up an over 30-page help document because he asked the same questions over and over again, yet never read it. This was a major reason, though not the only one, why I started looking for a new job about a year and a half into it, after I had given up on the boss doing anything about my John. Be aware that your boss may be reluctant also to do anything about him.

  23. Another cog in the teapot machine*

    I could have written this letter. At one point I worked with 3 (count ‘em, 3) Johns, along with someone who produced poor work despite putting in effort (they were just not good at the job). All of us were managed by a Rupert. I still am.

    If only I’d known about AAM back then.

    Anyway I agree with Alison’s bottom line here that Rupert needs to feel the impact of John’s poor work.

  24. LilyP*

    “But I also don’t feel great giving John’s work a peer review, noticing significant issues I’d raise in anyone else’s work, and saying nothing” — definitely don’t slack on your peer reviews for John, leave all the comments you normally would for a competent co-worker, don’t let sub-par work get past your review just because it’s John! That could really damage your professional reputation. But also there’s no need to spend your time giving more specific hand-holdy comments or instructions you wouldn’t give to a competent co-worker. If John doesn’t address your comments at all escalate to Rupert like Allison suggested. If he tries to make cosmetic changes without addressing the substance of your comments, refuse to let it through review and escalate to Rupert that John needs more in-depth coaching on how to address your comments. If you end up investing a lot of time into many rounds of review on John’s work, escalate that to Rupert both from a “this is taking my time away from higher priorities” angle and from a “this is not how I want to be spending my time and is making ME unhappy” angle. Maybe Rupert needs to do John’s peer reviews from now on if he needs such intensive coaching?

    Also, since it sounds like Rupert recognizes the problem and is just unwilling to act, I would be getting…pointed about John’s salary in budget conversations. Could you paint him a picture of what you could accomplish if that $X was put towards a higher-return investment?

  25. Ewww David*

    How would the advice change if the manager doesn’t care about the clients getting bad work? What about if John were the President’s son? (Yes, living this.)

  26. Jedi Squirrel*

    The more important question here is: “Is this organization hiring, and how do I get my resume to them?”

    Because I have a lot of cooking videos in my “To Watch” list on YouTube.

  27. Cedrus Libani*

    I’d say that it’s easier to change bosses than it is to change your boss. But in that situation, you can still refuse to make a heroic effort to do John’s work in addition to your own. Just pretend John isn’t there. Your group of N-1 workers will do N-1 units of work, the best units of work that you can, while John warms a desk chair. If the company wants N units of work, they can hire someone else. Preferably with the money saved by firing John, but that’s not your decision, so don’t fuss.

  28. Clarey*

    John “doesn’t have much to do and seems quite happy to spend most of his day reading the news, watching YouTube videos, and online shopping. “We are all well compensated.” “Rupert is hoping John will find another job.” John is not going to look for another job. John is getting paid well to do nothing all day, with no negative consequences. Why would he leave this gravy train?

  29. Rainbow Roses*

    “….but John seems very happy here and doesn’t seem to want to leave.”
    Gee I wonder why?

    Stop fixing his work. The boss is perfectly happy with this set up because the work gets done and it doesn’t matter how. If Jane wants to keep covering for him, that’s her business. Let John be their problem and not yours.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      I think the complicating factor, based on some of their comments here, is that technically speaking reviewing/editing fellow team members’ work is part of the LW’s work. So it’s really hard to draw a firm line between ‘his work’ and ‘my work’ when part of your job is reviewing/editing his work. It’s less “He was assigned a report and I did it” than “He was assigned a report and I was assigned to review it, and it wasn’t okay, and it’s still not five rounds of edits later, and there’s a deadline, but technically the buck stops with me, so what do I do?” I think I’d probably try kicking it to Rupert after round one myself, but if that doesn’t work, there may be no solution but flatly refusing to work with him at all.

    2. AnotherJohn*

      This is why Rupert needs to step in and manage. John needs to understand that if he wants to keep this gig it’s okay to do the bare minimum but you can’t make mistakes that involve your peers. This is why I schedule time on my calendar in ten minute blocks for my actual work. I spend those ten minutes 100% focused on the task at hand and then get back to whatever it was that I was doing. Nobody notices my gifting off because the work I do accomplish only adds value.

      I feel like Rupert needs to have this kind of conversation with John.

  30. Retail not Retail*

    This isn’t my type of work, but I am at a non-profit and we just had our newest (september) coworker cover for our John and we were all like dammit woman you made us look like bitter liars!

    John transferred in from a department with daily routine but no projects to one with some routine and lots of projects. The projects repeat and take a varied amount of time, so him being slow is accepted. But one day I was frustrated and told our boss I’ve done 75% of this task in the time he’s done 25% (this was a circle so very easy to tell!).

    We don’t see anything happening – he’s rude, sexist, mean, disrespectful… nothing. All we can do is tell others he’s not your boss, don’t cover for him, and ignore him when he’s rude.

  31. Nina Bee*

    You guys should start tracking the time it takes for reviewing his work over and over, and also cc the manager in for every tiny correspondence so he gets the gist of how annoying it is. If it gets past X amount of rounds, maybe say you’re concentrating on your other projects and will review only when everything’s been implemented. Or that you can only spend X hours reviewing his work and it’s already been that, so he doesn’t expect you to drop everything and review whenever he feels like it. Clearly he has more leisure time and no respect for others’ time.

    This is exactly why I hated group work in my uni days. There’s always ONE.

    1. Amethystmoon*

      It isn’t even group work in some companies. In some companies, John may just be the guy who is supposed to cover for you when you are out, but he doesn’t quite comprehend what he’s doing, so he makes more work for you and anyone else who is forced to clean up after him.

      1. Nina Bee*

        Oh yes, ugh! I’ve worked with people like that too. In my line of work it’s more the files that need cleaning up due to poor work habits and files getting passed around between colleagues. It’s a losing battle sometimes :/

    2. old curmudgeon*

      This is my suggestion, too.

      I hate – HATE – doing that time-on-task tracking, monitoring how long I do every single thing every day for weeks on end, but sometimes that truly is the only way to get useful data.

      The thing is, if everyone is salaried, the true costs to the organization are all hidden. Yes, John’s salary and fringe are costs, but the really painful costs are elsewhere. The Letter Writer gets paid the same whether she does her own work or John’s, Jane gets paid the same whether she does her work or John’s, and there is ultimately no visible bottom-line impact because opportunity costs don’t show up on the income statement.

      Tracking the time you have to spend to fix (and fix, and fix, and fix) John’s errors allows you to put a dollar figure on that opportunity cost. What productive, revenue-generating activity did you forego because you had to waste your time redoing an incompetent ass’s work for him? What grant request were you unable to complete and submit on time because you spent a day and a half trying to get him to do his job? And how much of your weekly salary and benefits were squandered on a hopeless attempt to get John to do quality work?

      That is the hard data you need. If Rupert is unmoved by the dollars and cents, then take a suggestion I saw up-thread and send your report to the Board. I have served on the Board of a non-profit, and boy, howdy, I can guarantee you that if one of that org’s grant-writers submitted a report like that, we’d have been all over Rupert like white on rice.

      I think along with that, if I were in the Letter Writer’s position, I would also be updating my resume. Because if the top management of the org is as inept as Rupert sounds like he is, I’d start to wonder about other areas as well. I hate job-hunting even more than I hate tracking time, but I have done both when the handwriting was on the wall, as I suspect may be the case with Letter Writer’s employer.

      Good luck to you, and I hope you come back to update us with the outcome.

      1. NinaBee*

        ha ha that would be great to see the Board descend on John.

        Or to be really petty, the OP should calculate John’s salary in work hours, then ask for a higher equivalent salary for time spent ;)

  32. Leela*

    In a hilarious turn of events, half a day after reading this I found out that one of our worst employees who EVERYONE complains about (he was a nepotism hire and when the person who hired him left for their own business even they didn’t take him with), who consistently is unavailable and is the only person in charge of a very critical role, is now being assigned to a well-liked high performer who doesn’t do work anything close to the offender, just so someone is in charge of him. I find it likely we will eventually lose or at least seriously demoralize our well-liked high performer. This is obviously a terrible idea and I’m so far removed I have no standing to say anything but god, we’re all just waiting for the terrible fallout.

    This person is also coming up on retirement and is clearly just looking to ride out the last few years without doing any work or even being reasonably civil when getting requests to do his job, a job that no one else in the company does (wouldn’t be hard to replace though, but the powers that be don’t want to deal with training a new person)

    1. Retail not Retail*

      Does the high performer have any standing to say no?

      Our John is sexist as well and even reporting him to HR for repeated demeaning comments did nothing to get him away from me. I wasn’t a high performer, I was new! 6 months later and I’m the only woman he’ll work with and the only one who ignores him so it looks like patience/tolerance.

      1. Leela*

        Unfortunately I don’t think so, our workplace has a bad habit of edicts just getting handed down after all decisions are finalized without having ever checked in with the stakeholders, and then giving no room for pushback from those stakeholders. It’s not great!

    2. Retail not Retail*

      If it’s an open secret, I hope the high performer isn’t worried about their reputation tanking with his

      1. Leela*

        I would think they aren’t worried about that, given that his work is so, so different from what the low performer (LP) does. Basically he’s been assigned LP just so someone’s making sure that LP actually does what he’s supposed to and so that people who need to complain about LP (historically, everyone) actually have a person they can complain TO that has the power to put them on a PIP or whatever else. But the work is seriously different, think classical teapots from 1800-1812 painter and person who sends faxes. We’d all know it’s not the high performer’s fault if LP still sucks, just that someone has oversight on him now. Still though, if I was HP I’d be furious at getting saddled with something so undesirable and losing my valuable work time to make LP do their own job because they won’t otherwise!

  33. Secretary*

    I’ll chorus Alison’s advice too. I have a coworker like this, and the person in my position used to cover for him. When i came in I utterly refused to do his work and allowed my boss to feel the effects of it. It took a while, but when my boss got tired of dealing with him the way I had been, he cracked down. My coworker still sucks and my boss doesn’t want to fire him, so my boss just deals with him. Either way, the clients are happy and the responsibility is on my boss and not on me… where it should be. If my boss wants to keep on a crappy employee then he can clean up after him.

  34. Not So NewReader*

    It seems to me, OP, that you should be paid as a supervisors for all the correcting you guys are doing.
    I think you all should ask the boss for promotions to supervisor level, so you can be compensated for supervising John.
    Ask for a raise and a new title.

    Going the opposite way, refuse to touch any of John’s work. You showed you already did this once and the boss did not bat an eye, he supported you. Do it again, drag it up to current day problems and refuse to handle John’s current work problems. Tell the boss you aren’t being paid extra to supervisor someone, if you need to add that in, for more leverage.

    Start talking about time thief. It’s a thing. When a person is supposed to be working and they are playing games on the net or whatever, they are stealing time from the company. Do you have any government funding? Can you drag that into the conversation some how?

    I worked with a tough crowd. I do not recommend this next one but I have seen cohorts ban together and walk by their John and say, “Lazy” or “Freeloader” because this cohort was not pulling their weight. It really does nothing, except make the air very tense. The first time I saw it though, it was an amazing thing to see.

    You may want to stop explaining what is wrong with the work when you hand it back to him, OP. Can you just say the work is rejected and he needs to go over it again? Can you pass it to the boss with a note that the work is rejected not say why, just say the project will not be done on time without immediate and full corrections?

    It might be useful to be more candid with John. “John, you are the only person here who has to take back their work this many times.” OR, “John, everyone has noticed that there are numerous problems with your work.” Here the technique is peer pressure.

    You don’t really have a John problem here, this has expanded into a boss problem. So John could be fired next week and you could end up with John #2 as your new hire. Look for ways to drag people in from outside your department. Let the chips fall where they may.
    As far as Jane is concerned, try to remember that we each learn at our own pace. You can put your foot down as far as what you will do and just let Jane go through her learning curve.

  35. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    Ha. Of course John is happy & doesn’t want to leave, he’s getting paid a pretty penny to do absolute squat and gets a free pass from wimpy boss Rupert even if he turns in crap work. Both of these men are despicable. There are so many bad managers Ruperts out there, and as a result, usually every workplace has a slacker John who could care less and gets away with everything. Of course the resentment level is high by everyone else, as it should be. My experience says neither Rupert or John are going to grow a spine anytime soon, and the only solution for the other hardworking functional coworkers is to start job hunting and get out of there ASAP.

    1. Pobody’s Nerfect*

      Oh, and as pretty much everyone else has said: LET. JOHN. DROWN. Stop doing his work for him.

  36. Dysfunction Junction*

    Many of my coworkers are Johns but they’re protected by tenure, a strong union, and a grand boss who only wants to hear good news and likes to sweep things under the rug. There’s a peer review process in place in which they review each other … and they do so glowingly. The larger organization doesn’t understand what our unit really does so the Johns go unnoticed … and well paid. Send good vibes that they retire enmasse.

  37. Perpal*

    From the comments; sounds like everyone should just refuse to correct John’s work. Sounds like that has happened. So it’s ultimately up to Rupert to fire him, or I guess just pay John to do nothing all day. I’m a bit amazed Rupert seems to be ok with that; but maybe there is a grandboss if Rupert is too busy to deal with a hardcore problem employee?

  38. Marie*

    There’s a third option: the work is delivered in good shape but late. As a reviewer, you’re within your rights to send the work back as many times as necessary until it’s able to pass review. I’ve been on both sides of that! Sometimes deadlines are missed and that’s something the boss needs to know about as soon as it becomes clear. So I would advise the LW stop hand-holding, and just keep sending the work back to John, while separately letting Rubert know that the delivery would need to be pushed due to X. Rubert then needs to figure out how to message that to the client, and by the time he’s had a dozen of those uncomfortable conversations, he will be much less inclined to let John browse the internet during work hours.

  39. Beth*

    I worked with a John once. I was working in QA at the time at a software company, and our John was a developer. It took legitimately 10 times longer to get through a project with him than any other developer I worked with, and it still would usually be on the very low end of ‘acceptable’ at that point. As someone whose entire job was ensuring quality standards, it was massively frustrating.

    I had been talking to my manager about this from pretty early on, of course; he was a massive pain point. But she wasn’t his manager, so at first not much came of it. Finally I got frustrated enough to track how many hours he was sucking up, document everything I was doing to try to get him through the projects I was working on with him, document all the failure points, document a couple more normal projects with similar scopes to show how different this was, et. I brought all of that data to my manager and basically said “John is making it impossible for me to do my job. I’ve tried X, Y, and Z to address the problem, to no effect. Because of the ongoing problem, I’m unable to A, B, and C. Do you have any advice? Should I offload these other (much more important) problems to continue working with John on this, or is there another avenue you’d rather I take?”

    I don’t know if having all that info finally conveyed how serious the problem was, or if it was the backup she needed to get his manager to take action, or if there had been a lot of QAers complaining, or what, but he got better after that. Not perfect, he was always a pain to work with, but he became a manageable pain.

    So that would be my advice here: document everything you need to make it hit-you-over-the-head obvious how untenable this is, throw all of it in your manager’s lap, tell them outright that you can’t contain the problem anymore, and make them deal with it. Maybe Rupert will still decide to coddle John; if he does, you now have the grounds to say “This project is behind because I had to switch out the hours we had scheduled for it to work with John last week, as we discussed.” Maybe it will be enough to get Rupert to actually intervene (wouldn’t that be great!). Either way, at least it’s not your responsibility to decide what to do anymore.

  40. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    Rupert “usually assigns a task to one of us to lead and we request help from our coworkers as necessary.”

    If this is the case, I’m not sure why you need to work with John at all. If you’re the lead, don’t ask John for help. If Rupert asks, you can repeat as needed: “As you’ve said yourself, John isn’t suited for the type of work we do. It’s more efficient not to involve him.”

  41. AnotherJohn*

    As a “John” myself, I can guarantee you that he’s not going to leave voluntarily. I’ve got a similar situation and have spent the last few years learning a new language, taking various courses and planning vacations at work. The only way I would leave is if I were forced to.

  42. AnotherJohn*

    As a “John” myself I can assure you that this employee isn’t going to just leave. I got a job in the nonprofit sector specifically to coast after spending years as a corporate executive. In the past 3 years at my current job I’ve learned a new language, took several courses at a local college and planned a few great vacations. I’ve also read at least a dozen books. Needless to say, I’m not leaving this Garden of Eden unless I’m forced to.

  43. animaniactoo*

    LW: A question – what do you think would happen if you refused not just using John on your own projects, but also QC’ing his work? By way of “This is a frustrating process where we go through multiple rounds of severe errors not being corrected and there are better uses for my time?” Would Rupert support that or push you to do it anyway?

    1. CM*

      Or a softer version where when John sends you a crappy document, you send it back to both John and Rupert saying, “This has major issues X, Y, and Z. I won’t be able to review this until these issues are fixed. Rupert, can you please work with John to fix these?” and then wait. If it comes back to you, repeat.

  44. jpicardi*

    John’s salary is paid by donor dollars. This organization really needs to realize they need to steward those donations responsibly, and continuing to pay a generous salary to an employee who doesn’t perform well is irresponsible. I wouldn’t donate to this organization if I knew this was happening.

Comments are closed.