Pulling their weight

Lazy coworkers and advice from the comments section abyss

In my continuing probe of workplace psychology, I shall now attempt a refutation of, and explore commonly-proferred solutions to, those lackadaisical management practices and philosophies that support the retention of low-productivity staff. While you might correctly guess that this treatise addresses a confounding situation in which I’ve found myself, it’s a puzzler that many workers wrestle with: Why is a coworker, whose ratio of individual contribution to overall team output is somewhere around zero to a million (0:1,000,000), inexplicably protected by a forcefield comprised of unconcerned/overwhelmed management and the charitable notion that lazy people have a place in the work ecosystem, too?

Before we get into my personal attempts to address such leeches on the corporate teat, let’s consider the underlying mechanisms that support the care and feeding of the unproductive.

Chapter 1: Capitalist welfare, or why some people get paid to do nothing

In my opening statement, I declared that careless or overextended management, interwoven with certain, sometimes advisably altruistic perspectives, can form the safety net on which the lackluster worker lounges, insouciantly awaiting his or her paycheck. In both cases, there can be valid reasons, as well as paths to remediation.

Distracted managers

I think we can agree that a distracted manager is its own problem statement that requires intervention. Some managers are stretched thin with large teams or overwhelmed with responsibilities. In those cases, a dose of empathy from you, the employee, is in order, and depending on the circumstances, you can supplement your empathy with an offer to help. Granted, if you are already a high-productivity team member bearing the weight of a lazy teammate, offering your assistance amounts to over-serving your own plate even further; but it is with the goal of giving your manager the latitude to focus on the organization’s problem children. If it’s not possible to lighten your manager’s load, you can diplomatically offer to provide additional training, mentorship, or guidance for your indolent colleague. These overtures could help ensure that a fairly-distributed workload stays top-of-mind for your busy leadership, and just by offering your help, you create a path of action for yourself to lead in word and deed.

If you have no direct path to address a distracted manager, you might understandably feel like the only bloke trying to steer a rudderless ship full of drunken wharf rats. All you can really do in that case is try to draw your manager’s attention to the team’s needs, or in extreme cases, draw the attention of HR or higher management to your boss’s behavior, although that tactic is fraught with pitfalls, as we’ll see later.

If the problem is a distracted manager and all attempts to provide support or create awareness fail, the hopelessness that ensues can lead to high-productivity staff abandoning ship for an organization that respects and values contributors more. Managers left with a listing raft of loafing oafs have no one left to blame but themselves.

Sympathy for the devilishly lazy

Not all low-productivity employees are shiftless simpletons. I recently read a manager’s true-life blog post in which he described how, instead of auto-punishing an under-productive employee, he did the humane thing and asked the employee what prevented him from meeting expectations. As it turned out, the young man was under a great deal of stress because he and his unemployed father were homeless. The manager involved human resources and the company was able to provide additional support for the employee who, thus relieved of such a burden, came up to speed and then some. This is a success story, not just for leadership, but for basic human dignity. We all struggle from time to time, and while we might need and value our work, there can be more pressing concerns in life. Time at work, while necessary, can sometimes impinge on the time needed to deal with financial, medical, or emotional distress.

Just like a situation with a harried manager, this case requires broaching a potentially uncomfortable conversation to determine whether your colleague’s unimpressive performance is due to a life issue or a personality problem. It might not be your business to address, but if it’s stressing you out and affecting your performance, you want to know whether your coworker needs more help or more pressure to perform. As a mere teammate, you can’t say, “Are you having personal problems or can you afford to focus more on your job?” but you can start the conversation by asking simple, probing questions such as, “How are things going for you lately?” and “Is there anything I can do?” Keep in mind that you’re trying to figure out how to help. That mindset should prevent you from crossing the line into HR action territory.

The hope is that, barring any serious problems, anyone with a modicum of awareness would take the hint and get motivated, but if there’s no legitimate impediment to your coworker’s productivity and they don’t respond to your gentle hoof in their ass, then it’s possible that their laziness comes with a generous side of entitlement, bad attitude, or even sociopathy. If that’s the case AND your manager doesn’t care, then what?

Chapter 2: Advice from the Interferno

Of course, there are virtual stacks of articles online addressing this topic. Start typing “How to deal with a lazy” and Google auto populates “coworker” before you can type the “y”. The more well-intentioned advice focuses on maintaining your boundaries, your good nature, and your own productivity. It makes sense that focusing too heavily on perceived offenses can turn you into the Mrs. Kravitz of the office, spending your days leering over the cube wall, screeching, “Abnah! Abnah!” every time you witness the slightest drift from your own moral compass. Meanwhile your boss rolls his eyes and buries his face back into his email. Your evil coworker could very well be burning crosses for black mass instead of working the ticket queue, but when you spend too much energy trying to prove it, you look like the crazy zealot. We have to tread extra carefully not to come off like a Salem housewife when pointing the finger at colleagues.

Much of the advice I read is fair, but I find it falls into two categories: What to do initially, and what to do when that fails. There is also great disagreement in the article-reading community about when and whether to approach a manager about such situations. And for many residents of the comments section, the advice falls short when the offending coworker happens to be in a superordinate position, which is the very tangle in which I once found myself.

What to do initially

Most articles advise the same approaches already mentioned, plus a couple designed to ensure you perform due diligence in case the issue escalates:

  • Keep a record of your coworker’s failures to meet deadlines and expectations.
  • Speak to your coworker. Avoid an accusatory tone and speak only about the facts. For example, “I’ve spent a lot of time recently fixing your reports. Please review your reports before submitting them to avoid this extra work.”
  • Consider that your coworker could be suffering from personal issues and ask how you can help.
  • Let your manager know and hope like hell it motivates some action.

Some commenters reasoned that telling your boss is either flat-out unprofessional or likely to result in a backlash, particularly if your boss is friends with the offender. Furthermore, if you happen to report to SpongeJob LazyPants in any way, going over his head could lead to even worse trouble for you. In that case, you’ll have to resort to the next category of advice.

What to do when that fails

Before we get to the advice, here’s the dirt on my own experience with an underperforming podmate that led me to hang my hat on the next level of guidance. To protect the innocent (me), we’ll call him … Blob.

My case was a double-edged sword. On one side of the blade, Blob was my team’s project manager. On the sharper side, even though he only wanted to manage projects, not people — presumably because that would require effort and responsibility — our mutual boss insisted on referring to Blob as the “team lead”, and casting him as our supervisor. I must confess, in spite of the Internet’s foreboding commentary, I did approach our boss regarding several problematic behaviors over time. After hearing all the facts as I perceived them, he sheepishly mumbled that it certainly did look like Blob was avoiding both work and accountability, but he insisted that, in spite of the evidence, we shouldn’t assume anything about Blob’s (de-)motivation. He showed no interest whatsoever in investigating, validating, or pursuing any of the evidence.

Now, infuriating as this was for me, my boss’s admonition reminded me that in some cases, what you don’t know could be the very thing you’re whining for. A discrete manager won’t tell you about personnel issues they might be addressing with a coworker. For all you know, Dudley Do-Nothing could be on a performance improvement plan or two strikes away from getting walking papers. That reasoning alone should have been enough to calm my frustrated soul, but Blob was very obvious in his disinterest in sharing in the common workload.

Every time Blob was called on to pitch in, he resorted to obvious and frantic excuse-making — excuses which oftentimes contradicted themselves — followed by rapid exits to haircuts, dinner parties, and sporting events. My boss would simply mumble, “That’s the thing about working with adults; you have to assume they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

But of course! Isn’t that how it works for adults everywhere? If the Department of Justice suspects Michael Flynn of failing to report illegal payments from foreign entities and lying to officials, we should obviously just sit back and assume that, because Mr. Flynn is a fully-grown adult capable of behaving ethically that he must have done so. No investigation or inquiry required. Of course, that’s an extreme example because slacking off at work isn’t a federal crime. So I guess if you suspect someone of getting a paycheck to vacation plan, you should just chill out, bro, drink your caffeine through gritted teeth and hustle through a week’s worth of work in one day before going home burnt out because hey, we’re all adults here.

But between you and me, one of the possibilities that the advice for “What to do initially” ignores is that some unproductive coworkers, far short of being in personal distress or truly trying their best, might actually be sociopathic manipulators or just really, terribly selfish people with low motivation for doing a job well.

What becomes so infuriating to many of us who deal with these characters is that we do give them the benefit of the doubt, we do look for answers and offer help, yet our eager-to-exploit colleagues respond with insulting lies and obfuscations.

When I was overwhelmed with incoming work, Blob alternately told me he’d help and then refused to help based on his self-proclaimed lack of ability — by which admission, since our roles shared completely overlapping skill sets, should have gotten him fired for incompetence. But I guess, per the principles of capitalist welfare, firing employees merely for lacking the skills to do their work is very hard to achieve. When looking at the backlog, he told me I was just “freaking out” and “people can wait.” Eventually, Blob agreed that we should hire another “me” to help out, at which point, he went behind my back — and the boss’s — to recruit another him to help with his workload. Blob claimed that solution would help me because then he’d have time to help with “my” workload. And yet, when we hired another Blob, suddenly my coworker proclaimed he couldn’t help because he. has. never. and just. does. not. do. that. work. And my manager admitted he was blindsided by Blob’s plot but, to my knowledge, did not react.

I have loads more tales of his galling lies, but there aren’t enough pixels on the Internet. Seriously, you would gouge your eyes out before forcing yourself to read every last proof I could exhibit, but you can understand why I felt that he wasn’t a human in distress, but an ignoble cheat who learned to game the system to get a paycheck while pursuing his personal hobbies.

Many commenters on a Harvard Business Review article, How to Deal with a Slacker Coworker, clearly shared a similar experience, as suggested in comments such as these:

“Most slackers I’ve had to deal with have proven to be manipulative and self serving. While thinking they are above doing more than what THEY feel is necessary.”

And:

“This is called Social Loafing, it may be due to lack of individual efforts and task identification, task enjoyment, group structure, leadership style and evaluation method.“

And most helpfully:

“People who don’t pull their own weight are often very clever at getting other people to do their work for them. It’s a career strategy that they’ve found to be successful.”

Blob later let it slip that he expected to retire early, in a few years. Finally, I understood why he was so unconcerned with his own performance and also why the best thing I could do would be to heed the Internet’s next line of defense.

When you can’t change your coworker

If, in spite of your attempts to react humanely and helpfully, your coworker still has the motivation of slime mold and your manager doesn’t care, life is unfair. It seems like one person gets paid for being socially popular or for breathing in a company seat, while you actually have to work for a living; but if your manager sees nothing wrong, continuing to rail against the injustice only nurtures your anger and makes you look petty and mean-spirited. In spite of all you do for your team, you become the jerk. So what can you do?

Unfortunately, it is at this point, after you have exhausted what you can do initially, that you must swallow your gall and resort to the advice for what to do when trying to change the situation fails. It might take a Herculean effort of humility, but by this time, the point is to prevent damage to your own reputation and a potential nervous breakdown wrought by frustration.

  • Do your work the best you can and hope your efforts are recognized.
  • Don’t let the slacker distract you from doing your best. Keep adding to your record of violations, just in case it comes up in the future, but keep your mind on what serves you.
  • Do not pick up their slack. Let them fail on their own lack of merit.
  • Don’t lose your positive, productive attitude. Keep moving forward trying to find what fulfills you.
  • Keep your head up and your eyes out for a more fulfilling role at your company or a better job elsewhere.
  • And this gem from the Harvard Business Review article’s comments section: “… don’t get sucked into the black hole. Get clarity around assignments upfront. Set boundaries. Keep your boss in the loop with tactful project updates. Above all, maintain a careful distance from your slacker colleague. Black holes can exert a tremendous force.”

It’s truly best for your own sanity to remind yourself that your work speaks for itself, as does the work of others. And, as replete with human indecency as comments sections can be, they can sometimes help you shape the issue in your mind. They can also provide reassurance for your own beliefs that may have been missing from the article. I’ll leave you with one such nugget, from the aforementioned article’s comments section, directed toward the people managers:

“Attitude cannot be left to the employee’s reason, to float from one extreme to another based on their perception of the workplace. The first line managers must clearly demand a positive attitude from the employees in their department. This critical performance measure cannot be left to chance.”