Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Is a Slacker!

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Photo: Michael Shay/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

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

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

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

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

I’m going to argue that the problem here actually might be more with your boss than with your co-worker. Don’t get me wrong — your co-worker sounds like a disaster. But your boss, who’s the person with the power to do something about the situation, sounds like she might be deliberately turning a blind eye to it. Telling you that it’s not the first time she’s heard these complaints about your co-worker but then apparently proceeding to do nothing … that’s the behavior of a really negligent manager. (I say “apparently” because it’s possible that your manager is addressing this behind the scenes, which isn’t something you’d necessarily know — but given that you’ve seen no change in your co-worker’s behavior, I’m guessing that’s not happening.)

In any case, where does that leave you?

It’s frustrating as hell to feel like you’re working diligently, holding yourself to high standards, and feeling accountable to, you know, doing your job, and then look around and see someone right in front of you who’s acting as if work is a minor inconvenience in her day of massages and socializing.

Some people react to working alongside slackers by lowering their own standards — figuring that there’s no reason for them to work hard when clearly no one is going to intervene if they don’t. Other people react to it by getting increasingly agitated and resentful, which is where I think you are right now. Neither of those are particularly good for you, though. The first ends up harming your own professional reputation and comes with opportunity costs down the road. The second is terrible for your mental health and day-to-day quality of life.

Instead, I’d try reframing it in your head. I know it must feel like your co-worker isn’t getting any negative consequences for her behavior, but that’s almost certainly not true. There’s at least one unavoidable consequence, which is that she’s building a terrible reputation for herself. Even if your boss is clueless, other people around your colleague are seeing her behavior. At a minimum, she’s missing out on the reputation-building that doing good work will provide, but it’s also pretty likely that people are actively forming negative impressions of her. You, on the other hand, are presumably creating a strong reputation for yourself, one that will pay off for you later on when you’re looking for jobs in the future. Don’t underestimate how valuable that is.

Also, I wonder what would happen if you spoke up more, but this time directly to your co-worker. For example, you could say, “Hey, I’m booked solid with 12 appointments today and tomorrow, and we have a bunch of patient requests that haven’t been answered yet. Can you get back to this list of people?” You might feel weird about doing this since she’s been in the job longer than you have, but you certainly have the standing to do it and it might actually move her to action. Or it might not — but given the context, it at least will be hard for her to justify taking offense.

A particularly good time to do this is when she’s launching into the unsolicited personal advice that she likes to give. Short-circuit those intrusions with: “Can’t talk about that — I’ve really got to get these patient reports done. Speaking of which, let me give you your half of these.” You will probably train her out of that habit quickly.

Beyond that, make sure that your conscientiousness isn’t enabling her. Right now you’re taking up her slack so that her work gets done and patients aren’t neglected. But by covering for her, you’re making it easier for your manager to avoid seeing the problem and being forced to deal with it. Since you’re dealing with hospital patients, you obviously need to be judicious about this and there’s a limit to how far you can take this stance, but I’d take a hard look at whether there are places where you’re stepping in to cover where you don’t actually have to.

Plus, limiting your help will make it easier to give your manager hard-to-ignore data about the problem. For example: “We had seven patients go unseen this week. I’d step up and take on more, but I had 30 patient visits this week and no room to do more. Jane had 12, so I think there’s space in her schedule if that’s something you want to ask her to do.” Or, you can just dump the problem on your boss’s lap and ask her how she wants it handled, which is in fact her job to figure out: “What would you like me to do when patients are going unseen? I’m booking every spare minute in patient appointments — I did 30 this week. Jane had 12 so there might be room in her schedule to take on more, but I wanted to find out what you want to do when we get requests piling up.” (This is actually a great way to raise problems with co-workers to your boss in general — frame it as asking for advice rather than complaining.)

Ultimately, you might conclude that you’re fed up enough with your slacker co-worker and your negligent boss that you’d prefer to move on to a job without these frustrations. That’s a legitimate thing to decide — but try the steps above first, because ideally you want to make that kind of decision from a place of calm, not a place where you’re feeling agitated and angry, justifiable as those feelings are.

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