Overcoming a Lazy Coworker

Beverly Flaxington

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

One of my co-workers is lazy. He doesn’t come in on time, he never does the work he is asked to do and he won’t answer the phone. The rest of us take care of everything. It frustrates me that the owners do not see how hard we work and how he never helps out. Is there some way I can let them know about the inequities without coming across as a tattler?

Name Withheld

Dear Frustrated Employee,

I hear this complaint a lot from people in all sizes and types of financial firms. There are few things more frustrating than watching others take it easy while you run around taking care of everything and cleaning up after their mess!

Unfortunately, you are limited in what you can easily do to deal with this problem if the partners don’t (or won’t) see it. Sometimes the boss knows what’s happening, but doesn’t like to deal with conflict or problems. Don’t necessarily assume they don’t know what’s happening!

Let’s look at some of the options. These will all work best if the other staff members are seeing the same thing with this colleague and are equally frustrated. One caveat – first check your own lens to make sure you are not being overly critical or feeling like a “victim.” If you are sure it’s him, not you, try the following options:

  1. You could have a conversation directly with your colleague and express a desire to allocate work a bit more evenly. Make sure you stay objective, and are not accusatory or frustrated in approach. You could ask if everyone on the team could get together to outline responsibilities and then ask him what he wants his responsibilities to be. Write up an agreement that gets circulated with all staff members involved and have everyone sign it. The downside? Sometimes if management isn’t involved, your colleagues won’t play nicely because they don’t respect you. You have to influence everyone else to see the value, but try not to assume too much of a “boss” mode when asking – your peers will reject any idea if they think you are trying to take charge. Make it very collegial and collaborative in approach.
  2. You can be helpful to the firm overall by making a plan with a task list of who/what/when/how that gets circulated to those involved, with a copy to the partners. In fact, if you have the kind of relationships where you can first go in and propose the idea to the partners “just to make things run more smoothly in the office,” that’s even better. Their buy-in would be great. Offer to play a project manager role, then circulate the document and update it. Start highlighting in red areas where people are not meeting deadlines. After a while your colleague may feel pressure to do something if his name shows up too many times with a red underline.
  3. Do some internal self-promotion. Come up with other ideas for improvements in the office you can share with the partners. Suggest, for example, that to ensure clients always get their calls answered, there is a coverage list when people are working on projects, with others as backup. Or suggest that projects get assigned differently to ensure coverage throughout the office. Find ways to highlight what needs to be done, and tag staff members (including your colleague) with responsibilities a bit more publicly. Always frame these things in a manner that shows the partners it’s better for the firm and for the clients – never point the finger at your colleague directly.
  4. Practice stress management. At the end of the day, you can do some of these things and try to get the partners to see what’s happening, but you don’t run the firm and you aren’t in a position of management. For all you know, this person is a partner’s long-lost son. You have to be careful to make sure you are doing the best job you can do and not allow his laziness to impact your attitude or competency. You can try to make the inequities more public in subtle ways, but ultimately you might have to let it go if the partners just don’t respond.