my coworker won’t volunteer for any of our work

A reader writes:

I work on a team of three – Fergus, me, and our manager, Lucinda. Fergus and I both have the same role. I have been with the company for about six years, and Fergus joined just before Covid hit and we all switched to working from home. We both mostly work on our own projects which are delegated to us by Lucinda, but sometimes she will send us both a project or task and ask us to decide who will handle it or will ask us to work together on it. It’s usually in a casual way, like “can one of you look after XYZ – details below” or “Can both of you look into this?” Sometimes these tasks are quick jobs, and sometimes they require more work over a longer period.

With the person who had the job before Fergus, this was not a problem. Both of us were quick to communicate with each other and divide these ad hoc projects between us or discuss who would look after what. It always felt balanced and fair. However, Fergus does not volunteer to take any projects unless they are specifically assigned to him and does not weigh in on projects that we should both be working on.

If during a team meeting Lucinda asks us to decide between ourselves who does an ad hoc project or task, Fergus will remain silent until I volunteer or ask him if he can do it. I have insisted during these meetings that we delegate the projects there and then so there is no confusion or time lost, but with projects that come by email and with the projects we are supposed to do together, it is harder. He will ignore all emails unless he is specifically asked to do something, so I either volunteer or ask him if he can take on a task. To be fair, he does usually say yes once I ask him, but I feel the burden to make sure these tasks are acknowledged and delegated falls to me. I have also waited a few days after Lucinda has sent us projects to give Fergus a chance to acknowledge them, but it is usually radio silence until I take the lead.

Lucinda has asked how I find working with Fergus and I have mentioned this issue. She has told me I need to be more assertive in telling Fergus to take his fair share of the work. But as Lucinda oversees all our projects, I think she would be better able to decide who has the capacity to take what. She has told me that she has had to manage Fergus more closely because she knows he has a habit of procrastinating. She has also said that sometimes she will give tasks to me over Fergus because she knows I will do them more quickly and with less input from her. I have asked about the possibility of being given a more senior role but have been told this is not possible, which has also irritated me.

Technically I could manage most of the extra work, even the projects we are supposed to collaborate on, but I am starting to feel resentful. I like my job, though, and this is a small complaint. Perhaps I am being too sensitive and need to be more assertive with Fergus.

As annoying as Fergus is — and he is! — your boss might be the bigger problem.

She’s abdicating a central part of her responsibilities — delegating work and making sure it’s assigned equitably — and leaving you to do it for her, even though she knows that means it won’t get distributed fairly and you’ll be left with a greater burden.

It’s one thing for a manager to delegate work the way Lucinda is doing it if all the members of her team respond fairly — meaning that people pitch in to take on projects as their workload allows and aren’t content to let someone else handle it all each time. But when that’s not happening and, instead, one person gets stuck carrying the weight of the other, the manager needs to use a different approach.

What’s particularly aggravating is that you’ve talked to Lucinda about the problem and she has told you, in essence, to deal with it yourself. When she says to be more assertive in getting Fergus to do his fair share of the work, she’s telling you to exercise authority that you don’t have. You shouldn’t have to cajole a peer into doing his part, and frankly you don’t have the standing to do that, even if you wanted to! The person who needs to address this with Fergus is Lucinda, since she has the authority … and it’s her job to talk to him when his work habits cause problems.

Moreover, if she is going to rely on you to semi-manage Fergus, and since she acknowledges that she’ll often send tasks your way because she knows you’ll do a better job, she owes you a conversation about being given a more senior title beyond “it’s not possible.”

But as for what to do … well, one option is to do exactly what Lucinda suggested and be more assertive with Fergus. You shouldn’t have to do that, but it might be the only practical way to deal with it. That means that when Lucinda sends the two of you projects to work on, you choose on your own how you want to divide everything. Then, for the projects you don’t want to take, you’d just say to him, “Can you take this?” In fact, one way to look at it is that by staying silent, he’s giving you first dibs on what you want to work on and then you can send all the rest to him.

It sounds like you’re doing that right now anyway — by necessity, since otherwise work won’t ever get divvied up — so the change here would just be doing it right from the start and not waiting for him to jump in on his own, since you know he’s not going to.

But I’m also curious what would happen if you adopted some of Fergus’s work habits. If Lucinda is okay with him not stepping up to volunteer for the projects she sends, then what if you just … didn’t either? I’m guessing you probably don’t want to do that because you’re a conscientious person, but it may force her to finally address the situation or change the way she assigns work.

There is also a middle-ground option, which is to hang back like Fergus does, but let both him and Lucinda know ahead of time that you’ll be doing that. First, you could say to Fergus, “I’ve generally been the one to respond to Lucinda’s requests and either offer to take on the work myself or ask you to. I need us to share that responsibility more equally so it doesn’t all fall on me. So for at least the next month, can you be the point person on those requests and take the first stab at responding to them?” And then you could say to Lucinda, “I’ve asked Fergus to be more active about claiming some of the work you send us, and I’m going to be giving him space to do that. So at least for a while, you won’t see me stepping forward to claim things as quickly as in the past. It’s important to me that he and I share the responsibility of divvying things up, like you’ve asked us to do.” Either Fergus will step up and do this piece of his job, or he won’t and it’ll be clear to Lucinda what is happening without you feeling obligated to step in and fill that void.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 155 comments… read them below }

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      My first thought. And Alison’s, too, I happy (and not at all surprised to see).
      I say take it one step farther (as I usually do), but if OP’s job is to collect and distribute the tasks that Lucinda scatters to the universe, then do it.
      When they come, “I’ll take this.” and conversely, “Fergus, you’ll have to take this one.”
      Full stop. If he doesn’t want to, he can start a conversation.
      You don’t have to ask him, and wait for him to get back to you. (especially because he gets back when you say, can you take this, just not when Lucinda does.)
      Assume he doesn’t want to cherry pick assignments because he’s new, and just distribute the best way you can.
      Also, have a conversation with Lucinda.

      1. Essess*

        I don’t agree. It is not OP’s responsibility to speak for Fergus. OP can say “I’ll take this”, but it is above OP’s role to announce “Fergus, you’ll have to take this one.” It is Lucinda who must make the decision about how to assign out whatever OP doesn’t volunteer for. Let Fergus and Lucinda handle his performance (or lack of) between them. OP shouldn’t be putting themself in the middle of performance and duty assignments of a coworker unless OP is in a managerial role over the coworker.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          I agree it is Lucinda’s job, but Lucinda the manager made it OP’s job. Lucinda sucks (and is wrong) in this situation, but OP still has to do it. So I think she should just do it. Not to play mind games with Fergus, but to keep the department moving. If Fergus doesn’t like it, he can go to Lucinda and say he like the old way where he got to pick. For now, OP has to keep it moving.

        2. Daffodilly*

          I would agree with your completely, except that OP has been specifically told to “be more assertive and tell Fergus to take his fair share of the work. ”
          This is an excellent way to accomplish that.

    2. Nanani*

      Yeeep. Foisting more responsibility without extra pay, and more egregiously, without the actual authority to -make- Fergus take his fair share.

      I think LW should document these conversations, then become more Fergus like and just -let some work go undone-. The goal being to make it Lucinda’s problem.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Yep. It -never- ends well when you are stuck in a position of having responsibility but no authority.

        1. LKPNYC*

          Oof does that sum up my last job!! Tons of responsibility (and managers expecting me to deal with coworkers who weren’t pulling their weight) and NO authority.

      2. willow for now*

        Makes me wonder what Fergus’s pay is compared to LW’s. Does he make more because base pay was more when he got this job so much later than LW and her pay has not increased to that level? Is he making more because he is a man? Either way, if LW’s pay is les than Fergus’s, she should rise the roof and insist on more money. A title increase is nice, but come on, we all work for the money.

        1. NeutralJanet*

          Just reread the letter and didn’t see any mention about Fergus making more money than LW–am I missing something, or are you just speculating that it’s possible that he’s making more money?

            1. NeutralJanet*

              I disagree with that entirely! It’s true that men as a class make more money than women as a class, but it’s a pretty far leap to go from the fact of the wage gap to saying that every individual man makes more money than every individual woman in the same role, and moreover, it’s not helpful to do so in response to a letter that doesn’t mention salary at all.

    3. JSPA*

      When your people are collaborative, this method allows for flexibility, by allowing people to play to their strengths and fill up slivers of down-time. When they’re not, it’s on you, as the manager, to flip a coin, if you can’t come up with a better way to assign the tasks equitably.

      “I flipped a coin, these are your assignments, but feel free to trade off so long as there’s a traceable agreement, and the work gets done” is often best of both worlds.

      1. Mockingjay*

        Agree. I think Lucinda got lazy. Like OP, Fergus’s predecessor was a diligent self-starter who really didn’t need much managing at all.

        I wanted to offer advice for OP and I just don’t have any – in fact, some aspects of my job are similar. I have to step up and do a lot of tracking for other team members who just can’t be bothered to do it (I can’t do my job without this piece). The Powers That Be don’t care who does it as long as it gets done, so I’m stuck.

        Sympathies, OP.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          This is where I fall as well – Lucinda got used to how easy the OP and former teammate were to manage, and now just keeps falling back on that managing style even though the employees have changed. This is not OP’s job, and Lucinda probably will keep letting her do it until OP makes her reclaim the responsibility. Honestly I think letting Lucinda know she’s going to take a step back and have Fergus take the lead on divvying up these other projects is a good start.

        2. allathian*

          Yup. My coworker who does the same job and I distribute work among ourselves pretty much without any input from our manager. She might sometimes jump in and say that something’s really urgent and we need to drop everything else, but other than that, she leaves us to our own devices and trusts us to get the job done. And we do, especially as we have a budget we can use at our own discretion to outsource jobs to a subcontractor when we simply don’t have time to do them, with a CC to our manager when we do. A person like Fergus wouldn’t last two days in our job.

          It’s important to note that Lucinda does delegate most of the jobs to the LW and Fergus, and I assume Fergus gets those done, even if he has a habit of procrastinating and needs to be managed more actively than the LW does. Lucinda is a hands-off manager, while Fergus seems to need to be micromanaged to get his job done.

      2. Puggles*

        Would it be bad to just give all the extra assignments to Fergus? Let him figure it out when it becomes too much and grows resentful. I know it’s passive aggressive but that’s kind of what he’s doing right now. If he is giving you the power to determine what project he should work on, as is Lucinda, then give them all to him.

    4. staceyizme*

      Exactly! She’s enabling him to escape the work of collaboration and the accountability of shared tasks. Maybe she has her hands full managing him. But- she’s the manager, so…? It should be her.

  1. fish*

    I LOVE the idea about explicitly asking Fergus to take the lead and then stepping back. Genius — solves the Fergus problem and boss problem all at once.

    1. MassMatt*

      I like it in theory, but think it will backfire in practice. Lucinda has already said she has a double standard and the reward for LW a being a better employee is not any kind of promotion but rather… more work. Fergus, on the other hand, can do as little as possible and Lucinda seems fine with that. I predict Lucinda will go batty at the LW and be held responsible for the inevitable pile of work that never gets done should Fergus be expected to divide it up. Or, he will simply assign LW all the work.

      You have a terrible boss, and I doubt she will change.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I thought that Fergus did the work once OP sent him an engraved invitation. He is willing and able to work, just not speak up.
        I’d reply to both on every email, “I will do this one.” or “Fergus will handle this one.”
        And leave it at that.
        He can reply that he can’t do it, but has he? If he does, reply Lucinda asked me to delegate and this is how it breaks down.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          Given the boss said he has a procrastination problem and she has to watch him more closely…I think it’s not just a not speaking up problem. It’s also a willing and able problem. What’s odd is that if the boss said she needs to monitor him more closely because of his procrastination…I don’t understand why she’s not ALSO dealing with this not stepping up problem as well. Like, boss knows Fergus is not so great. And claims to be managing him about it, but apparently only haflway?

          1. linger*

            Probably Fergus also knows Fergus has a time management problem, which makes him reluctant to take on additional tasks, hence the problem for LW.

      2. MistOrMister*

        That was my thought as well. Or maybe that Lucinda will specifically tell OP not to sit back and sait on Fergus because they need things to get done.

    2. I’ve been there.*

      I have been in this position and tried this solution. My Fergus never had so many problems with receiving his email until he was expected to be point on requests. Then every single day was a whine fest about computer trouble, not getting his email, etc and etc.
      My boss wanted answers not excuses so it just all came back to me anyway, because poor Fergus now needed handholding from IT support and couldn’t do a thing while he was waiting for support.

      The reward for good work is just more of it, when you have a bad manager. If you don’t want to assign Fergus’s work and manage him
      for free, it’s probably time to move on to something better.

      1. staceyizme*

        This quote sums it up beautifully “The reward for good work is just more of it, when you have a bad manager.” Astute, clear and eye popping. (While unfortunately all too common…).

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          The thing I love about my current manager the most is that she guards all the folks on her team from that. Being more efficient at a task doesn’t get you any more of it than those who aren’t as efficient.

  2. learnedthehardway*

    I would try to see this as a bonus – you get first choice of the work that comes to you and Fergus. I would take the projects/tasks you want to take, and then proactively ask Fergus to take the other things and CC Lucinda on that (basically, you’ll be telling him “this is your responsibility” without directly telling him it is. If he pushes back, just point out that you have your plate full and need him to take on something more.) You make sure the workload is balanced, since Lucinda doesn’t seem to be doing that.

    Fergus may feel that he is deferring to you as the more senior person on the team, or he may be lazy, or he may simply not be comfortable or be able to take the initiative. Some people really do need more direction than others.

    1. Ashley*

      I would try to take this generously and maybe he sees you as the more senior person. The explicit conversation can be helpful as way to try and address the bigger picture. But I generally see this as a bonus to look good and get to take all the fun / easy projects I want.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        I agree. There have been times where, as the junior person on a team, I didn’t know how to start that type of conversation because I was afraid of overstepping.

        1. JustSomeone*

          I’m inclined toward this more charitable reading of the situation, too. If I was a newbie on a team with someone who had over half a decade’s speech of experience in this role, I could picture feeling awkward about essentially assigning work to the more senior person. Maybe Fergus is lazy and content to skate by, or maybe that type of work flow is just really anxiety-producing for him. If I were on his shoes, I think there’s a strong chance I’d go the opposite way and attempt to take on *everything* because of the awkwardness of passing work to a more senior person, and that isn’t actually a workable solution, either.

          1. Janet Rosen*

            I am another whose first thought was as a junior person -esp if it’s been fully remote – I might defer to the senior peer and accept what was left. If OP is uncomfortable though I agree turfing it to him is viable.

          2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I think this is reasonable as well, and if it is the case then saying you want to take a step back and let Fergus have a turn at assigning the pop-up projects may help bring that out and give him some confidence in doing so. But ultimately, even if this is the case it’s really Lucinda’s job to be on top of this, not the OP.

        2. Butterfly Counter*

          This is what I was wondering, too. It also might be an issue of not knowing the full workload of certain projects entail. For example, Lucinda sends request to divvy up projects A, B, C, and D. I might hesitate to take A and C, for example, because what if A is much more time consuming and the more equitable split would be one person takes A while the other takes B, C, and D. I might want and need more experience with all of this before I feel comfortable just jumping in to share responsibilities. I’d also be careful of office politics. If I volunteer for B, and my coworker’s pet projects always include B, maybe I’d be stepping on toes?

          Of course, this might also be a problem with Fergus’s procrastination. He thinks he’ll get around to volunteering after lunch, or after he’s done with another task, and it just sits there because there is no time frame on it.

          In any case, the advice is still the same. Luncida needs to step up and assign tasks so that Fergus gets more comfortable with what all of the tasks entail OR set deadlines on when she needs to hear back about the division of labor.

        3. Extroverted Bean Counter*

          Also in agreement. I’m not “junior” (I’m in a senior role) but I am the newest person on my team. I was reading this and thinking “oh no… oh NO. OH NO” because uhhhhhh I pretty much act exactly like Fergus to my OP counterpart. I’m just chronically unsure if I have the knowledge base to handle certain things, or if my peer colleague knows she can handle it in a few minutes whereas I might take a half hour since I’m newer.

          This has lit a fire under my butt to start volunteering more, at least!

    2. Ali G*

      Yup and it’s also a way for the OP to work on honing their leadership skills, since it sounds like they might have to leave to get a promotion. Being able to delegate work based on an understanding of the team’s workload if a skill they can leverage.
      OP I would basically do what Lucinda is asking: Take the lead on divvying up the work that comes in. Give yourself the stuff you want to do/has the most visibility and direct Fergus to the rest. This is real experience you can use later to get yourself a better job.

      1. Not Holding My Breath*

        Getting a better job from having to manage a coworker is an iffy proposition. I not only had to manage a terrible coworker under two supervisors who refused to make him do the work, but then I had to provide support for the two people who replaced the guy!

        Although I do some supervision now, it has nothing to do with the work I did. My communication with the slacker did not actually count as supervision or lead management in the jobs I applied afterwards.

      2. SansaStark*

        I was coming down here to say the same thing. But to Not Holding My Breath’s point, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to use those skills at this company. I was in a very similar position and while it probably did help with my eventual promotion, I anticipate it being far more valuable elsewhere when I don’t have to be quite so diplomatic about actively managing an employee that our supervisor refused to manage.

        Sometimes your-manager-sucks-and-isn’t-going-to-change and the best thing you can do is to find the advantages where you can find them. I don’t mean that quite as machiavellian as it sounds. In my situation, my coworker was (truly) delighted to let me take charge so that he knew what was actually expected of him.

    3. Nicotena*

      It’s too bad that the boss has already said they won’t promote OP, because I find this is the kind of circumstance where it can happen; OP can prove they’re good at delegating work and solving this problem for the boss, and the boss is *supposed to be* grateful and appreciative and takes note of OP’s leadership skills. You sort of become the de facto senior/managing partner and then it becomes official. If that’s not happening, I guess you can note those skills on your resume (“managed work flow on a team of two”) and try to get that promotion elsewhere.

    4. Crabby Patty*

      This misses the point entirely.

      As bad as Fergus’s behavior is, the real problem here is Lucinda and her approach to management, which is to tell the OP to be more assertive with Fergus, and to leave managing Fergus to the OP. How are the root causes of Fergus’s behavior even relevant?

      1. Pibble*

        Because if OP decides to take first pick of the tasks and send the rest to Fergus, they’ll benefit mentally from framing it as ‘Fergus is letting me pick’ vs ‘Fergus is being lazy again’. It’s easy to get stuck assuming the worst motivations for people you find annoying, and often choosing to assume a more positive motivation will make the situation less annoying.

        1. Crabby Patty*

          …and framing things as you describe is a good way to ignore THE problem here: Lucinda tasking an employee without authority to manage another employee.

          Framing things as you describe excuses both Lucinda’s and Fergus’s bad behavior. Besides, it’s beyond a case of annoyance, and to reduce things to that is just more excuse-making. Some people work hard at not taking initiative, and it sounds like Fergus is one of those people.

          1. Quantum Hall Effect*

            Yes, but OP can only change themself. They can’t change Fergus. They can’t change Lucinda.
            So. They can mire themself in the unfairness of it all and stew over how Lucinda won’t manage and Fergus won’t volunteer or they can change their mindset to put a positive spin on things. It’s the old right vs. happy dilemma. I’d go with happy.

    5. Quinalla*

      I agree that Fergus may be deferring as he doesn’t know enough to know what he should take, how much time, etc. It is also possible he just is one who is never going to volunteer for extra work. As the OP, I’d be most troubled by him not stepping up on projects that both of them are supposed to be working on.

      I assume boss hasn’t sat down and explained to him how he’d like this to go, have you tried talking to him about this? You shouldn’t have to, but if your boss isn’t going to, maybe tell him that hey for the next month, I’m going to divvy up the work Lucinda doesn’t assign, maybe have a quick 5 minute chat about why you are doing what you are doing or just put thoughts in an email. Then after that you want him to take the lead on volunteering for work or at least reaching out to you and saying “Hey, I think this will be 12 hours of work, I can take it/don’t think I can take it, can you?” Cause I too OP would not want the burden of always having to sort this stuff out when I would prefer a peer relationship where everyone takes on this burden.

      One of my current managers (I have several, strange org) is very hands off and prefers for everyone to act like adults and divvy things up, ask for help, offer help, etc. This works well when everyone is committed to pulling their own weight, it isn’t equal but it ends up being equitable and close enough to equal to be fine. But when you have a person or two who is coasting, it does not work and the manager needs to step in, especially if peer feedback has been given already and nothing has changed. I would try giving some peer feedback first myself, but I may be biased because that is highly encouraged at my work as we are all professionals and encourages to challenge each other to an extent.

    6. GlitsyGus*

      This. I had a similar situation at one point and I basically took it to mean I had first refusal on whatever came through.

      If I wanted the task/had time, I’d volunteer, if I didn’t I’d say, “I can’t get this one,” or “I’ll take A,B, &C but can’t handle X, Y & Z.” Most of the time I wouldn’t even bother to “assign” it to my Fergus, I would just let both Fergus and Lucinda know what I was and was not doing. By default it’s in your court, buddy. That or you need to talk to Lucinda and figure something out. I claimed my piece.

      I would try to look at it as it’s likely he doesn’t want to step on your toes. You don’t need to coddle him on that, but it will kind of help release some of the irritation; especially if you also decide to set your own volunteering boundary and don’t accept more than your share.

    7. Stulexington*

      I may be off base as I don’t have much experience in management but this sounds like almost every manager I had in fast food with a side order of manipulation. OP, you are Lucinda’s goto person, the volunteering portion feels like manipulation, has she ever responded with “well you did volunteer.

      Even if I’m wrong and there’s something else going on Lucinda has made it very clear there is no upward mobility here for the foreseeable future, but I bet when you turn in your notice she’ll say “but I need you here!” and expect you to change your mind just to make her life easier.

  3. quill*

    Fergus seems like a pain to work with, but Lucinda doesn’t seem to care how the work is distributed as long as it gets done and she doesn’t have to assign it herself. I wouldn’t advise stepping back in terms of responsiveness (because being the reliable one and then stopping is always seen as worse than never having been reliable to begin with) but emotionally I think OP needs to step back from this. The only way to have a fair distribution of work is if OP does the work of assigning it. whether or not that’s worth it remains an open question

    1. have we met?*

      Fergus may, in practical terms, be a pain to work with, but I feel a bit bad for him in this situation. He was new to the position, then COVID hit, now everyone’s working remotely. How much chance did he have to pick up on office norms, build camaraderie with OP, and really learn how to work together?

      I could definitely see myself hanging back in this situation, not wanting to overstep, especially if I had a lot of respect for Lucinda and OP. Perhaps a friendly conversation would go a long way toward Fergus feeling more comfortable taking the tasks he’s interested in.

      That said, if he truly is a jerk and not responsive to friendly encouragement, OP should take the tasks she wants, ones that will build her career, and move up/out.

      1. Crabby Patty*

        What is stopping Fergus from inquiring about expectations? Can’t he just ask what the boundaries are? Is that really such a difficult thing to do?

        Because it seems that when someone is new or new-ish, they go out of their way to make a good impression. Fergus doesn’t seem to be doing that.

        1. Nonnie*

          He might think he is, by letting the op/senior worker take first dibs and not stepping on her toes.

          Not saying that that’s the correct course of action, but I could see a thought process like that occurring.

  4. Caroline Bowman*

    Ah yes, the passive, ”you didn’t ask me so…” type of lazy colleague. We’ve all had those in various guises, or at least I have, not just in work, but in personal life, where *unless* someone gives specific requests to do things, even quite routine, anyone-can-see-they-need-doing-things, such as refilling the photocopier or anything at all, they do zero and are quite confused ” but…but… I had NO IDEA you wanted me specifically to join in, you need to speak up if you *want help*”.

    Lucinda needs to step in and tell him flat out that she’s noticed and is unimpressed. When she assigns a task to be divvied up, she expects him to volunteer what he is able to do / has capacity for immediately.

    1. Dasein9*

      Oh, yes! Delegating workloads is a job for a reason.
      It’s work and it takes time, expertise, and effort.
      It’s also valuable and should be paid for.

  5. voyager1*

    I dealt with this in my last job. I spoke to my manager and she kept saying she knew it was a problem and would speak to the offending party. Additionally when this work would come up it usually required OT or a day of weekend to work. In the end I went over my manager’s head to her boss after this went on for 2 years. He told my manager to come up with a system that was equitable for all. One month later my boss promoted the offender and I had my duties severely changed.

    So LW in short I would not expect your boss to do much and I would start looking.

    1. Blue*

      Yes, I think Alison’s advice is solid, but I would advise the OP to be prepared for any assertiveness on their part to backfire. Seems like Lucinda’s desire to avoid any amount of confrontation or discomfort has outpaced her interest in managing.

    2. EPLawyer*


      The boss is more interested in managing around the missing stair — Fergus — than keeping the GOOD employee happy. So you know what will happen? The good employee will go elsewhere, leaving the boss with the missing stair.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        This sadly is the way it always seems to work. The good employees with options jump if your don’t take care of them – then you are left with a team/department/office full of missing stairs.

  6. Rusty Shackelford*

    Lucinda has asked how I find working with Fergus and I have mentioned this issue. She has told me I need to be more assertive in telling Fergus to take his fair share of the work.

    Um, Lucinda, I can think of someone else who should be more assertive about this.

    1. Decima Dewey*

      If Lucinda wants Fergus to take on his fair share of the work, she needs to explicitly assign Fergus his fair share of the work. Not tell OP to “be more assertive” about making him do it.

      Fergus isn’t volunteering because nothing bad happens if he doesn’t. Ergo, he doesn’t have to. And if he doesn’t have to, why should he volunteer?

  7. bunniferous*

    Has anyone tried just ASKING Fergus why he does this? I would ask him and then stay silent till he answers. Might be enlightening and or it might actually light a fire under his posterior.

    1. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

      I could see this as being a sort of insecurity rather than laziness for Fergus. He doesn’t want to be too pushy or overstep, he may feel like he doesn’t have a good sense of the “norms” since he started during COVID, I could definitely see myself never wanting to be the first one to speak up because of imposter syndrome

      1. irene adler*

        True. He may also feel there’s a seniority thing going on here such that he expects LW to “go first”. Maybe no one told him otherwise. And maybe he thinks doing otherwise might be looked upon as trying to usurp some of the seniority LW has. In which case, he should step up and ask LW about the norms/expectations -just so things are clear. He may not realize the burden here.

      2. Retro*

        I so feel this could be a possibility. Fergus could be thinking, well OP is more senior so she would know what stuff needs to go to her and what I am ready to take on because I’m still not that great at my job. It could be an avoidance and/or imposter syndrome type of procrastination too.
        Even if there is no real title difference, the experience difference is there and seniority is still a thing whether it is real, by title, by practice, etc. It still exists.

        I’d love for OP to talk with Fergus but it again lets Lucinda off the hook from having to manage effectively.

    2. Andy*

      I would guess being shy, not wanting to be pushy, insecure, low confidence, inexperience or something of the sort. Many people are afraid to volunteer, because then failure feel worst. Or because they don’t want to lead and feel others are more senior (and thus should make the choices).

      Putting everything on volunteering is absurd management, precisely cause people have personalities.

    3. EPLawyer*

      He doesn’t have a reason. he just doesn’t want to take on the extra work. It’s not shyness or fear of being seen as pushy — he is already procrastinating on the work he is directly assigned. He just doesn’t want to do more work than necessary. Asking him won’t get him to see its a problem either. Because why would he change? The current system is PERFECT for him. he does very little and the OP gets stuck with the extra work.

      1. Not Today, Friends*

        Procrastination could also be a symptom of shyness or insecurity rather than shirking responsibility. If he’s feeling unsure about process or expectations, that could lead to hesitation to speak up and sort of dread-based procrastination. I am projecting a bit as that’s generally what’s behind my own procrastination, but it’s still worth pointing out that there may be another driver.

    4. AndersonDarling*

      Since Fergus is a newer employee and he started during WFH, he could be missing out on knowledge he needs to be a fully capable team member. Do these projects require input from other people and those people are giving him the cold shoulder? Does he not have all the resources he needs to get the work done quickly? Was he fully trained?
      Since Lucinda doesn’t seem to have the best manager skills, I wouldn’t be surprised if she dropped the ball with onboarding. Fergus could be to embarrassed to admit that he needs help. I absolutely agree that asking him what’s up could solve the whole problem.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Yeah — admittedly, this was in a situation where the more senior person actually did have a higher title than me, but I’ve definitely had the experience of being confused about what exactly was my responsibility, in a way that (I later learned) looked like doing the bare minimum, or shirking, from the outside.

        My internal thoughts were more like “well, the lead usually does X, so I assume Melissa will do X this time. (By the way, I’m eager for the day that I’ll be advanced enough to do X too!)” And then Melissa’s like “uh, why did Spencer not do X?” and has no idea that I would have been happy to do so, but thought it was a senior-level thing I couldn’t do yet.

        1. All the words*

          It’s often a good idea to mention to one’s manager that you’d love the opportunity to learn/work on X or Y rather than sitting passively back and waiting for those things to fall in one’s lap.

          1. Spencer Hastings*

            Haha, I left out some crucial details in my effort to be concise and non-identifying. I was looking forward to getting to do the thing for symbolic reasons — it was not an objectively difficult task, or one that even required training.

      2. biobotb*

        It’s even possible he somehow got the impression the OP has the authority to delegate if Lucinda won’t, but he doesn’t.

  8. Here We Go Again*

    A word from the ghost of Christmas future (i.e. someone who has been there before and knows how this will eventually play out): I have worked with a Fergus before, and because I always stepped up to the plate, eventually my boss just started giving me more and more until my workload was unmanageable. Your boss similarly sounds like the type who will continue to take the path of least resistance: You are faster and (presumably) more capable. This is a poor leadership technique on her part for sure, but you have to start pushing back now or one day you’ll wake up and realize that you’re literally carrying all the workload of a 3-person team.

  9. Kendra*

    Are you being considered for promotion? I often offer projects to give those who have expressed a desire to manage others a chance to showcase their talents.

    Also, for AGILE teams, self-managing is a foundational component (not implying your team follows AGILE).

    That said, given the entirety of what you wrote, it seems like Fergus’ advent has revealed an area where Linda is not particularly strong. If neither of the first things are true, do you feel comfortable with the idea of of being a leader in the future? You could definitely morph this into a conversation with her about career progression.

    If you are absolutely not interested in managing in the future, you should consider circling back to Linda and having a Zoom/in-person discussion to reiterate your concerns about managing Fergus’ work (since that’s what seems to be happening right now!)

    1. The Starsong Princess*

      Agree with this one. OP should be having a conversation with Lucinda on what the next level is, how it differs from her current job and what she need to develop to be promoted. It sounds like her role and Fergus’ are still too similar even if Fergus is at a lower level. I think OP should embrace this opportunity to demonstrate that she is ready for the next level and allocate the work. But allocating the work is also work and she should credit herself with it, both when dividing the work and listing her accomplishments on performance reviews.

      1. ohMy*

        she’s been demonstrating it since Fergus got there before COVID was a thing… demonstration complete.

  10. Choggy*

    I had a manager like this, she would always preface her ask with “There is no one else I trust to do this but you.” This was not flattery, just poor management beause she always went to the path of least resistence. Glad she’s no longer my manager!!

    1. The Rural Juror*

      That’s also a disservice to other coworkers who might be missing out on opportunities to get better at certain tasks (or a disservice to you because they’re never forced to get better and you keep getting saddled with the work)!

  11. Firecat*

    Oof I worked with a boss like that. Guess whose fault it was when something didn’t get done? Yeah me, the one who had been doing most the work and delegating for the boss.

    After that I, with approval from my boss, set up a weekly delegation meeting between all the employees on the team. We then agreed on who was doing what, and O
    I sent a summary email to the boss. If she ever asked me about the status of something, or emailed the group, I did not respond if it wasn’t mine. If the boss got irritated and sent a snippy follow up email to the group, I would then reply with “Fergus this is in your court can you answer boss”?

    For shared work I was sure to cc the boss on the hand off. Think – Furgus I’ve finished A,B,C. Please review and complete step D by Friday and send it to boss.

    Ultimately I found this unsustainable. As the only one on the team taking responsibility I was frequently blamed by boss or included in scathing group emails. I used my experience doing more then my fair share to get a promotion on a different department.

    1. Budgie Buddy*

      This is a good point. Something about the whole structure here feels crazy-making to me. It seemed to work well with the former employee, but situations like this where one person feels resentment over always “volunteering” are bound to happen.

      Like, it’s not really voluntary if one of two people HAS to do it?

      My boss can also fall into the “Sure would be NICE if someone did this…” format of assigning. “Sure would be nice” meaning I specifically need to A) do it B) assign it or C) be ready to justify why it didn’t get done. :P

      1. Hanani*

        I once volunteered under someone whose idea of delegating work was to wander up to you (individually or in a group), look off into space, make a comment like “the copier is out of paper”, and then wander away. You were supposed to deduce that you were supposed to refill the copier. Thank God that was a short volunteer stint.

    2. Mimi*

      It depends. My team has a list of tasks that need done. Some of them have deadlines. People work on things and take new things that they feel comfortable with or interested in. If a deadline is getting close and that task hasn’t been taken, our manager will step in and say, “X really needs to be done by the end of the week because Y; who can take it on,” or, “Mimi, do you have the bandwidth to do X by the end of the week?” If nobody steps up, then it becomes a conversation about what needs to be dropped in order to do X.

      Sometimes our manager will provide direction like, “Jane, I’d like you to teach Mimi how to do Z,” or I’ll ask my manager for guidance on what makes sense for me to take next, but I would say that we’re at least 80% self-directed. The trick is to have a structure and a team that can handle that, and a manager who knows when it’s necessary to step in and provide direction.

    3. tamarack and fireweed*

      Well, when I’ve had an excellent work relationship with a peer in our 2-person team, it was more than fine to leave it to us to divvy up the work between us – in fact, we’d have considered more pro-active work assignments as micro-managing. (This said, our manager knew what we were doing about the work, as in “Tamarack is finishing up task X, so Penelope will take this one, and Tamarack will move on to non-urgent task Y that’s already in the queue once they’re done with X.” So our manager was able to have their own opinion about whether the workload looked fairly distributed from their perspective.)

      But a manager needs to see when this is not the situation at hand, and act on it.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this is it exactly. My coworker and I distribute our tasks among ourselves pretty much without any input from our manager. If our manager suddenly started to distribute work more proactively, that would definitely feel like micromanaging, and I’d be looking for a new job pretty quickly. But our manager has better things to do so the risk is pretty non-existent. We have 2:1 meetings with her about once a month to keep her updated on what we’re doing and how things are going, and she trusts us to get our jobs done. Sometimes there’s a task that comes from our leadership through her, and then we’re pretty much expected to drop everything else to do it, but this happens once a year or less. Normally tasks from the top are given the same priority as everything else, with more or less negotiable deadlines. I’m lucky enough to work for an org where status is relatively unimportant, and no task is urgent just because it comes from the C-suite…

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Eh, it can work just fine in the right situation and give people some control over their work/let people with different strengths take what they most enjoy working on. We send out requests for assistance and only assign if no one volunteers to take it on within X time (and sometimes help rearrange existing tasks to fit higher priorities in). We also get regular reports on time spent on projects, so if we have someone whose project hours are outliers (too high/too low), that can be easily addressed. Where volunteer systems fail is when social loafers like Fergus aren’t dealt with.

      The part that rubbed me the wrong way was Lucinda telling OP that she gave her more work essentially because OP is easier to deal with, yet there is no opportunity to advance or be rewarded for that higher-level work. That’s just like asking your best employee to go look for a job where they will be treated fairly and appreciated.

  12. Similarly Situated*

    Here is my evil coworker’s trick, which should work perfectly here:
    1) One of you asks “Does anyone want to volunteer to do X “?
    2) The other of you says “I did it last time but can’t this time!”
    3) If Fergus doesn’t step in at this point, email him and say “Fergus?”

    The boss should be cc’ed the entire time. If Fergus is really obstinate, person 1 should also announce an excuse for why they can’t volunteer. Keep doing this while occasionally volunteering for the easy tasks, and he should catch on.

    1. What She Said*

      I would do something similar.
      Email comes in:
      Response: I took the last one, Fergus this one is yours.
      I’m not available. Fergus this one is yours.
      Of course be sure Lucinda is on that response. I wouldn’t even follow-up with a reminder. It’s on Fergus at this point.

  13. Lacey*

    I’m in a fairly similar situation, but I would be Fergus.
    We have a small team, a manager who only sort of manages, and my coworker has significantly more experience than I do at this company.

    My coworker also is often the first to volunteer to do work. Sometimes I don’t even know a project is available, but she’s already taken it. Sometimes I get to it first, but it feels like maybe I stepped on her toes by taking it. Other times we’re offered a joint project, but she insists on doing it herself. She’s a really conscientious person and I think she often takes on more work than she should – but with her racing to grab it first, my gut reaction is to just wait and see if she wants something before I volunteer.

    This doesn’t sound like the exact same scenario, but the OP could be giving Fergus the impression he should defer to her.

  14. RJ*

    I have no problem with being assertive and taking the lead, but I do have a big problem with hypocritical bosses like Lucinda who are making people they manage de facto managers without giving them a title and bump in pay. OP, I dealt with a manager very similar to this and found myself having to constantly take the lead as my colleagues were completely passive when it came to taking on work not specifically assigned to them. My workload became unmanageable until I started pushing back and saying no. Then I got the blame for the drop in productivity and delayed billings until I presented a full Excel workbook listing all of my projects, the workflow for each, estimated billings/receipts through the end of the year as well as our required meetings/report issuances from management. Our CFO liked the report so much he had my fellow project accountants compose their own. At the next meeting, it became obvious who was/was not carrying their weight in our department and changes were made.

    One of those changes was my departure as I’d had enough. Don’t get to this point. Either speak to your manager again to get her to step in or look for another position. IMO, this is a no-win situation without managerial action.

  15. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    Could you take a slightly different tack on the “middle ground” by volunteering for the things you want to take on and just… not responding to the other things? Let them sit for a day, 3 days, whatever until someone else (Fergus or Lucinda) follows up. So let’s say that 10 requests come in, on 5 of them you respond and say “yes, I can do that” and the other 5, just leave it. You’re still pulling your fair share of projects and it puts it back on Lucinda and Fergus to figure out what’s going to happen with the other 5 projects.

    1. A Little Bit Alexis*

      I came here to suggest the same approach. As long as OP takes on as many projects as he leaves outstanding then he has by default accepted half the workload and the others, as you say, are put back on Lucinda and Fergus.

    2. Alexis Rosay*

      Exactly. This strategy worked for me in middle school, heh. On ‘group projects’ everyone always expected me to jump in and do all the work. Finally, I decided to sit silently and see if anyone else would jump in. My group stared at each other in silence for an entire class period. The next day, someone else finally started talking.

  16. Essess*

    Fergus isn’t doing anything wrong. A request for volunteers is not a requirement for him to jump up and offer to take it. It is a manager’s job to assign out the work, or to set expectations that Fergus has to respond to x% of the work that is discussed. It is absolutely NOT your job to volunteer him, or to be more assertive to get him to do the work. That is not your job since you are not his manager.
    You should be handling just you, not you and Fergus. If there is work you want to do, then volunteer. If you don’t want it, then don’t volunteer. When there are no volunteers, then it is the manager’s job to assign it out. You are being given an opportunity to speak up if there is something that YOU personally want to add to your workload. Let Lucinda manage Fergus.

    1. Middle School Teacher*

      I agree. I also wonder how much on boarding Fergus actually got. Based on the letter it doesn’t sound like any. The dude got a new job, in a pandemic, and he’s working from home, and he probably hasn’t really met people the flesh? So of this could have been solved by saying something ages ago!

  17. FG*

    In addition to the crap manager problem, this is also an example of an emotional labor issue. The classic example is the husband who claims to be willing to do housework & childcare, but who never thinks ahead or sees what needs to be done, & waits to be told that laundry needs to be done or that someone needs to take the kid to choir practice, etc. He also doesn’t understand why this is an issue.

    1. StressedButOkay*

      Yes, yes, yes. I came to say the exact same thing. Fergus is ‘happy’ to take on whatever is assigned but doesn’t want to put in the emotional labor of being the one to step up. Someone else – Lucinda or OP – are tasked with that. And it’s fine for Lucinda to assign work, as the manager, but it’s not fine for OP to be the one to have to manage the emotional labor in this work relationship.

      Lucinda needs to stop relying on them to sort it out themselves because OP is bearing the brunt of making these calls.

    2. Sabine*

      At the risk of nitpicking, this isn’t emotional because there’s no emotions involved, it’s just labor — maybe mental labor is the right way to think about it.

      1. Parakeet*

        Yep. I don’t think you’re being nitpicky. Emotional labor is labor where you have to display certain emotional affect as part of your job. Customer service jobs where you have to look/act cheery, being a classic example. It’s not a synonym for gendered labor, it’s not “making yourself do things you don’t want to do,” it’s not (contrary to what half the Internet thinks) being nice to your friends/partner, and it’s neither the OP’s situation or the one that FG is describing.

        1. FG*

          Emotional labor is indeed the correct term.

          “the mental activity required to manage or perform the routine tasks necessary for maintaining relationships and ensuring smooth running of a household or process, typically regarded as an unappreciated or unacknowledged burden borne disproportionately by women.”

      2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        You’re right about much of this being mental labour (e.g. delegation, project management), but maybe there’s an emotional labour component here in that OP has to bear the brunt of maintaining her relationship with Fergus despite managing without authority?

  18. RunShaker*

    Since Fergus joined the team right before COVID, I’m wondering if he fully understands that he should be actively volunteering on these projects? More than likely he is being “lazy” but due to lack of management from Lucinda, I’m wondering if he doesn’t have a full understanding of his role. If he does, then this is all on Lucinda.

  19. berto*

    Similar situation. Boss won’t delegate clearly, assigns work to the group instead of individuals. Sally clearly getting away with not pulling her weight because she can, instead distracts boss with asides, creative flights of fancy, talking about their dogs etc. My take is it’s basically got nothing to do with me. I’m not Sally’s boss, and our job roles are distinct enough I just minimize my interactions with her. Boss has to figure it out on her own, probably will never happen, but again, not my problem.

  20. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Lucinda has failed as a manager twice.

    First, in not clearly explaining to Fergus is that the culture of the office is that you’re expected to step up and take on these tasks that are tossed out into the open. Second, in not directly assigning these tasks to Fergus.

    1. Brennan Huff*

      I was part of a 6 person procurement team for a major manufacturing facility. We needed 600,000 tons of raw material yearly to run the plant. Running the plant out of raw material was a career changer. Three of us bought roughly 75% of what was needed, the other 3 bought the rest. When the plant got low, guess who got the calls to do turn the situation around? We used to joke that the better you were at your job, the more responsibilities you were rewarded with.
      Now, over 10 years later, the three top performers have now left and we now each have our own businesses, in the same industry that failed to compensate us properly.
      TL/DR: your boss is lazy and she’s going to run off her top performers.

  21. Anonymist*

    I’ve been Ferguson before, albeit unintentionally; the main cause was that I wasn’t used to working on a team where tasks strictly delegated before that. My supervisor was a good one though, so we were able to figure out that my uncertainty over doing the “right” tasks first was clashing with my coworker’s tendency to take on the tougher stuff without comment, even if it meant they took on an unfair load. In the end what helped the most was my supervisor really pushing me to be more confident and proactive, while both of us encouraged my coworker to delegate or redirect me when needed.

    Overall this worked because I hate receiving critical feedback, so while i worked on being open to receiving it I also made sure I made changes as quickly as possible so I wouldn’t have to hear it again – though your supervisor should be handling this, if you have a good enough relationship with Fergus could try to get to the bottom of why he hangs back and see if there’s something to motivate him behaviorally.

  22. After 33 years ...*

    It’s possible that Fergus simply is not doing the job, but it’s also possible that:
    – he’s uncertain / insecure in the position;
    – he doesn’t understand his responsibilities (limited pre-COVID training?);
    – he has been burned for taking initiative in a previous job;
    – he’s not sufficiently assertive; and/or
    – he’s in awe of LWs ability, and is reluctant to step on their toes.

    LW, as your manager appears reluctant to designate responsibilities as they should, I’d suggest that you decide which tasks you would prefer doing, and ensure that you don’t take on more than you can handle or you feel is appropriate. You can try engaging Fergus more, but ultimately you’ll have to be assertive with your manager. Otherwise, the “starting to feel resentful” at the end of your comment could drift into increased resentment or burnout over time.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        Taking on tasks because no one else is doing them and the tasks need to be done means that the task now does belong to someone–you.

        And that leads to burnout and being told to take time management training when you begin to have trouble doing the work of what should be done by several coworkers, not just one.

  23. HesAllThat*

    Can you reply with something like “I took the last 6, so the next 6 should be for Fergus” and leave it at that?

  24. I'm just here for the cats!*

    I kinda wonder if Fergus doesn’t feel comfortable taking jobs? Like maybe he thinks that this is how it is supposed to be with OP taking first dibs a d he just gets assigned the rest? May e op could talk and ask if there’s anything he wants to take a d make it clear that he can.

  25. turquoisecow*

    I don’t know if this is professional, but instead of telling Fergus what to do I would just say that I can’t take this project on.

    Lucinda: “hey can someone take care of Project X?”

    OP: “sorry, can’t. I’m busy with Project Z and Project T and Project Y.”

    And then wait for either Fergus to volunteer or Lucinda to actually assign it to him. If it neither does and it comes back later you can point to where you explicitly said you couldn’t do it.

    Agree that Lucinda needs to actually assign work instead of just throwing it in your direction, though, especially if Fergus isn’t volunteering, or else Fergus needs to be more proactive in taking work. OP doesn’t need to be more assertive unless she actually wants to take on the delegation role and manage Fergus’s workload as well as her own – which I don’t think she should do unless she’s given formal seniority/supervisory authority over Fergus – and ideally a raise.

  26. Mary*

    I’m sorry, but I’m on Team Fergus for this one. How about Lucinda gets off her butt and starts doing her job?? OP – I’m sorry you have to deal with a hands-off and conflict avoidant boss. Clearly “volunteering” for tasks doesn’t work. Fergus and you need to be assigned these tasks by Lucinda. She needs to figure out if there is a difference in your levels and plan accordingly. Or she can create a system where she gives the task to Fergus if you are already working on something and vice versa.

    Why should Fergus volunteer? He’s not a mind-reader. For all he knows, this current process is the correct one. I doubt Lucinda tried him or spoke about processes, why should he assume any different? Maybe he worked in a place where there wasn’t an option to volunteer.

    OP – you might be annoyed with Fergus, but Lucinda needs to speak with him about his expectations. If I were Fergus, I would be annoyed how no one told me I need to “volunteer” for tasks.

    This just reads of “I want you to WANT to go to the ballet with me” type of thing.

    1. HR & Cats*

      This seems like an odd interpretation if the boss is emailing using the phrasing OP mentioned in the letter – “can one of you take this?” is pretty clear.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Maybe Fergus should volunteer because he’s being paid to do a job and it does not require mind-reading to understand that, on a two-person team that receives emails that say, “can one of you do X?”, he is sometimes the one of them that needs to do it. These are ostensibly grown-ups who don’t assume that they should just sit at their desk all day without ever picking up a project the boss sends out. I get being more reticent or leaving more complex projects for the more experienced person, but volunteering for ZERO projects? Sorry, that’s just lazy.

      No doubt Lucinda’s management needs substantial work. She’s not doing her job, which is a disservice to both employees.

  27. simple_rhyme*

    Your manager is going to continue to put more and more on your plate because “it’s easier that way since you are so good at fast at it.” rather than having to actually individually manage her staff. She sucks, plain and simple and for as long as she manages this way, you are stuck picking up the workload. And the fact that she admits you do most of/all the volunteer work and wants you to manage your coworker instead of herself doing it, and she won’t promote you after doing so? I hope the BIL from yesterday’s update has another opening available and offers you a job because your boss is terrible.

  28. Nicki Name*

    In my workplace we address this by having a rotation for Designated Person Who Picks Up Extra Stuff. If it’s your turn that week, the tasks go to you, unless you’re already overloaded. (Also if it’s your turn, you’ll be assigned less that week, so that you have room to pick up the extra things.)

  29. Former Young Lady*

    I think the explanation comes down to Fergus’ level of experience.

    – Inexperienced Fergus is insecure about knowing how to do the work, so Fergus takes all cues from the colleague who has been around longer, even though they’re supposed to be peers. People who have already learned the important early-career lesson about taking initiative end up doing the bulk of the work; what little the Fergus takes on is late, incomplete, full of errors, or otherwise subpar. Fergus remains passive, because it’s faster for his competent peers to do it right the first time than to keep holding his hand and cleaning up his messes.

    – Experienced Fergus is genuinely lazy, and prefers to coast. This is what Inexperienced Fergus will grow up to be if bosses continue to coddle him. His peers, who have been held to actual standards of performance, still end up doing the bulk of the work; anything they push back onto Fergus is still unlikely to get done correctly/timely; once again, it’s faster to do it right, yourself, the first time, than to spoon-feed it to a professional bumbler. But while it was passive in Fergus’ early career, it’s now passive-aggressive.

    I’ve seen Inexperienced Fergus up and abandon the job, more than a few times. Experienced Fergus works the system until someone catches on, and depending on company culture, it can take years.

    1. Anonymars*

      Ugh, that’s so accurate it gave me shivers. I’m dealing with an Inexperienced Fergus we hired a few years ago who has now become Experienced Fergus. Our Lucinda never really set ground rules, he went from being insecure to just coasting in his job, and she’s now afraid of firing him or really putting her foot down because of weird office politics.

  30. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I agree with Lucinda sounding like a poor manager. I would push back on her and ask her to assign the tasks if the volunteer system is no longer working.

  31. Hamburke*

    This reminds me of a fight I had with my husband early in our marriage about household chores. He’d do anything I asked him to but I had to ask him to do anything. The mental load of that with a partner was exhausting and I completely lost it on him – I mean, we were both adults and could see the clutter, dust bunnies and dirt, right?

    This feels the same…

    1. cmcinnyc*

      Same. Keeping track of what’s what is a job in and of itself. And in this case, that should be Lucinda’s job. OP may need to talk to Lucinda’s boss again.

      Someone up thread speculated that Fergus may have the higher salary. Find out if you can. This happened to me and I quit on the spot (I was young…but I don’t regret walking out the instant that crap came to light.)

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      On the other hand, articulated expectations are helpful. Clutter doesn’t bother me, and it’s even sometimes convenient. I suspect my house would give my neat-freak coworker hives, and I’m sure there’d be a lot of handwaving about couldn’t I just SEE the clutter – well, yeah, I do, I just don’t thing it requires attention. I can’t stand crumbs and food mess, but the pile of mail or the stack of jello boxes on the counter is so mundane that I don’t “see” it.

      My partner and I solved in our house this by having an explicit discussion about what standard of clean we could agree upon and a schedule of responsibilities that meet both of our needs and have us doing things that we dislike less (for instance, he cooks, I clean the kitchen). No one has to constantly ask someone to do their part, but we’re also not assuming that our individual standards of what housekeeping “should” be done are the only right way.

  32. animaniactoo*

    I might try just responding back to Lucinda’s requests for assistance. “Hi, just letting you know that my plate is pretty full, so I’m not the best person to take this on right now.”

    And shoving it back into Lucinda’s lap to deal with by indicating that you are neither going to take it on, nor be the one who asks Fergus to take it on.

    1. Mf*

      I like this solution a lot. You’re acknowledging Lucinda’s request but declining to delegate to Fergus—it’s her problem to figure how the task will get done.

  33. Kella*

    I used to be part of a volunteer team and the leader didn’t believe in assigning things to people, opting for a flatter power structure and letting people volunteer for the jobs that interested them. Only one problem. I was the only person who EVER volunteered to do anything. This was complicated by the fact that outside the day to day tasks, there weren’t many tasks that absolutely *needed* to be done, just stuff that would probably help us down the line. So if someone said, “Maybe we could do this?” it made it much easier for people to just ignore it. I ended up taking over the organization a year or so later because I was doing all the work anyways, I might as well be the one making the decisions about what we do next too.

    I agree with alison that probably the least energy-intensive way to handle Fergus is to just choose which projects you want to work on, and for the ones you don’t, say “Fergus, can you tackle this one?” Alison didn’t address how you should handle projects you’re supposed to be working on together though. I think it depends on what that collaboration looks like. Can you ask questions like, “Do you have opinions about this?” or “What do you think we should do with X?” that don’t require you to go into full manager/training mode? OR you could approach it the same way, look at the collaborative project, decide which bits you want to do, and say “Fergus, can you handle X and Y parts?” It might feel less stressful to think about it in terms of what you want to do or what you can fit on your plate, since that’s your responsibility anyways, and then just defer everything else to Fergus. Maybe worry less about making sure it’s equitable since your manager doesn’t seem to care if it is or not.

  34. Jennifer Juniper*

    I’m guessing the LW is a woman and that Fergus will be eventually promoted over her.

  35. Quantum Hall Effect*

    But as Lucinda oversees all our projects, I think she would be better able to decide who has the capacity to take what.

    OP, I think you are abrogating a little of your own responsibility with this outlook. You do your work–you are absolutely the best person to decide what capacity you have to take on other work.

    Let Fergus worry about Fergus (or let Lucinda worry about Fergus). You worry about you. If you have capacity, volunteer for the work, as you have been doing. If you do not have capacity, respond with, “I’ve got X, Y, and Z going on, and I can only take this on if put Z off until next week. How does that sound?” or “I’ve got X, Y, and Z going on this week, and if nothing else comes up, I can take this on next week. How does that sound?”

  36. MuseumChick*

    There could be so many explanations for this. I have to wonder if he comes from a job that somewhat traumatized home from volunteering for projects. I was at a job like that where if you volunteered for something and ANYTHING went even slightly wrong management would throw an absolute fit and you better have it done ahead of schedule because “you volunteered for it!” (it was a very toxic job). It could also be the Fergus sees you as the senior person with more experience and doesn’t want to step on your toes. It could be the Fergus is just not a go-getter.

    I agree with the others who say use this to pick what you want to give whatever you don’t want to Fergus.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      The other way I’ve seen this go sideways is the employee keeps getting new projects, gets them to ~50%, then the project stalls out with the stakeholder or another party not doing their part. All of the sudden, employee gets another new project, four old projects come back to life, and they go from 25% load to 400% load in a blink. After someone survives that scenario a few times, they tend to be more measured in their enthusiasm to pull new work down on their own head.

    2. Crabby Patty*

      “Fergus does not volunteer to take any projects unless they are specifically assigned to him and does not weigh in on projects that we should both be working on…He will ignore all emails unless he is specifically asked to do something…[Lucinda] has told me that she has had to manage Fergus more closely because she knows he has a habit of procrastinating.”

      …does not sound at all like what you describe.

  37. Tara*

    OMG I think this letter was written about me! The details match exactly, right down to hiring dates! Only thing that doesn’t match is genders, but I’m assuming those may have been changed to hide identities.

    I sent a message to my coworker who I think would’ve written it (if it is actually about me at all or just a really weird coincidence) saying basically that I have no idea how our company operates or who delegates to who and to please let me know if I’m falling short anywhere, cause I can’t get that subtle daily feedback remotely over chat and video.

    I’ve just been stepping back and assuming since she’s been here longer I should defer to her and wait for direction, and if she has too much going on or wants me to do a thing she’ll let me know… I was worried I’d be annoying her or stepping on toes by taking the lead.

    I’m just going to assume the whole thing is about me, and I clearly have been projecting the wrong image. I do have ADHD which is to blame for some of my procrastination, but a lot of it is just not knowing how things are supposed to be done and anxiety related to that, and I don’t always get answers when I do ask my boss so I’m worried I’m annoying him.

    And if it’s just a strange coincidence I’m going to look like the biggest weirdo in the world for bringing any of it up with them

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I’m going to look like the biggest weirdo in the world

      Been there, done that, have multiple T-shirts. Don’t give it a second thought–the world has more weird than you realize, and if you let it go, it’ll likely be forgotten by others.

      But on topic, if you see projects that fall into your wheelhouse or look interesting, speak up and offer (don’t demand or claim aggressively). Even if they go to someone else, you’ll at least get credit for being willing.

    2. Em*

      A lot of this letter resonates with me as well and I also have ADHD. I am not comfortable assuming I’m being directed to do something if I’m not told explicitly–I end up double-checking directions a lot because I have trouble telling in verbal or off the cuff conversations what counts as instructions and what’s just thinking out loud. I also make a real effort not to overcommit to work projects unless I’m explicitly tasked with something because I know some things take me longer and O have to be careful how much I take on. Not sure this is what Fergus is doing but I sure see a bit of myself in his actions

    3. Quantum Hall Effect*

      First, I think your brain weasels are working a little overtime on this, and you probably don’t need to be as worked up as you sound.

      Second, I think what you did is good! Asking for clarification on how things work is a smart move. You do not look like a big weirdo, or if you do, then the weirdo is your coworker, not you. I think it would also be very smart to have that conversation with your manager.

      Btw, I’m assuming that you did not actually phrase things in your message the way you phrased them here. If you did, maybe take a step back, breathe a little, and come up with some wording that is a little less panicked. :)

  38. Tiger Snake*

    LW, remember that you’re not meant to take care of this for Lucinda. If Fergus isn’t pulling up to the plate, you don’t take more on. You let it fall. You’re being paid to do one person’s job, so don’t do the work of two.
    And yes, I know; easier said than done. You sound like a hard-working and proactive individual, and that sort of person hates just letting things fall. But the only way I can see to make Lucinda care is if there is a problem. If you’re taking care of Fergus’ things, there is not a problem. The solution works; not ideally, but its still working.

    I’d say at best, what we can say (with Lucinda in the email) is “I don’t have capacity for this one; Fergus?” / “I was only able to look into this a little and I noted [y], but [x] and [z] still need to be looked into. What did you find Fergus?”

    I still don’t like that because its putting the ball in your court to manage your tasks and find where you have capacity, but explicitly calling out tasks that you aren’t picking up at least makes it something tangible that Lucinda needs to sort out. She can no longer lean back and be confident that the work will be produced somehow from between the two of you.

    1. KK*

      As someone who has tried let it fall multiple times, it doesn’t always work. Especially when you are pinned as the “reliable one”. I have tried many times to let things fall, then get asked to pick up the pieces because I’m the only team member who will actually get it done. So major things I just know I can’t ignore because I’ll get stuck with it anyway, might as well handle it the first time.

  39. tamarack and fireweed*

    I was immediately thing that the LW doesn’t have a Fergus problem, they have a Lucinda problem.

    This said, I’m kinda going a third way on the advice. Or offering a third option. What I would be inclined to do is to go back to Lucinda – not in a moment of maximum frustration, but calmly and strategically. And lay out the reality of the situation, that Lucinda expects the LW to take on part of Fergus’s workload management – which is fair enough, but two things need to be in place for this to be fair and ok: a) Lucinda needs to put the LW in charge of it, so that Fergus knows his role is junior / subordinate to the LW in this and b) even if a formal promotion or “senior” marker in the job title is not possible at this point, the LW should be seeing how this status and role is reflected in her career progression.

    Only if this fails I would embark on one of the pathways suggested in the answer.

  40. Not So NewReader*

    Well, OP could ask for a raise in pay since she has to monitor Fergus. I think that constitutes a supervisory position after all she is delegating work.

    Another thing I would consider is asking the boss to send an email confirming this conversation to the OP and Fergus.
    “In light of a conversation yesterday with [OP], Fergus this is to let you know that OP will be delegating some tasks to you. If you receive a task from OP, treat it in the same manner as if it came directly from me. If you feel that you are having difficulty please come to me to talk about it.”


    OP can consider just writing the email herself and sending it to the boss and Fergus.
    “Hi Boss, This email confirms our conversation today where you gave me the authority to assign tasks to Fergus. I am including you here, Fergus, so that you are aware of the new method in handling some of the tasks we have. From time to time you will see, an email that reads, ‘This one is your, Fergus.’ signed OP.”

    With bosses like this sometimes you have to go into the situation with them in order for them to see what a nightmare they have started.

  41. Skl*

    Lucinda told you to be more assertive. So just “assign” all extra tasks to Fergus. I bet that’ll get him to speak up when the task is given.

  42. KK*

    I have a Fergus on my team of four, but she takes it a step further and will literally stare at a more junior (in experience only, not in title/duties) staffer until he agrees to do the task.

    Our Lucinda did the same thing, told us to “stand up for ourselves” knowing that Fergus would and has thrown actual screaming fake crying temperature tantrums if we tried.

    I hope your situation ends better than mine is so far! (Lucinda quitting and Fergus is worst than ever knowing the replacement manager comes form an abusive background and will avoid the tantrums at all costs)

    I feel your pain OP, I feel it.

  43. Former LW with the nightmare-turned-superstar co-worker*

    I was the LW who wrote the letter a few weeks back about Jane, who was tricky to work with when I led a project with her but has since gone on to do really well, and Lydia, our mutual boss who didn’t seem to want to do much to manage Jane. This gave me serious flashbacks to how missed deadlines were managed (To paraphrase: ‘Hey, Lydia, this piece of work won’t be ready for the client on time because Jane’s missed her deadline. This has been an ongoing problem. I’ve tried [various things] but it’s still a problem. What do you suggest I do?’ ‘It’s your project so missing deadlines is your problem.’ :: sighs and resigns self to an hour of unpaid overtime while I sort out the work Jane hasn’t done ::)

    I read Alison’s answer with interest because one of the pieces of advice I got at the time was essentially ‘to be more Jane’ ie basically respond to Lydia’s ‘your project, your problem’ with (a polite version of!) ‘well, evidentially, it’s not important people are held to account for meeting deadlines so I’ll remind Jane it needs to be done and I guess it will just go to the client when it’s ready’ and go back to doing whatever I was doing rather than doing the work myself. I wasn’t brave enough to go through with it – partly because I wanted the project to go well and partly because I predicted Lydia’s reaction would be more towards the ‘the project manager should be held accountable for the failure of the project’ end of the scale than the ‘Jane’s not holding up her end of the deal and we need to figure out what’s going on’ end. But I kind of wonder what would have happened if I did do that!

    My solution was polish off my resume and get a new job (this wasn’t the only reason I left but it was definitely in the top three!). But, as my letter may have revealed, it left me with some very warped thinking about what was my responsibility and what wasn’t!

    So I guess my advice to this LW would be to reframe this as much as possible from a ‘Fergus is lazy and doesn’t hold up his end’ to a ‘Lucinda isn’t doing her job as a manager’. Plus, as others have pointed out, Fergus’ actions may not even be rooted in laziness (he may be insecure, may be worried about treading on toes, or may not have had it explained to him that he’s not doing the work the way it’s supposed to be done).

  44. iglwif*

    I had 2 early-career direct reports with this kind of dynamic once upon a time, S and C–they had the same role and people would send tasks or projects to both of them and wait for one to volunteer, and either S would volunteer or no one would, which understandably annoyed S. In that case the solution turned out to be (a) defining their roles more specifically, so that their jobs were no longer exactly the same and they each felt more ownership over their projects, and (b) assigning new tasks and projects to one of them instead of waiting for someone to volunteer. It’s possible they’d have sorted it out between themselves eventually but as their manager it was obviously my job to fix the problem before it drove everyone nuts.

    Once people are out of their early 20s I feel like they should be able to handle this kind of thing? But Fergus clearly isn’t handling it, so Lucinda needs to!

  45. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Let’s give Fergus a generous “he’s the new guy and a little less sure of himself” card … and the answer to the Task Up For Grabs email can be a chipper “Hey, Fergus, this is a great chance for you do get some more experience with X. Let me know if you have questions while you do it.”

    It’s assigning without assigning, builds confidence if that’s the problem, and also makes him grovel a bit if he wants to pass the buck, and the whole time you’re the Team Player.

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