Ask LH: How Should I Handle A Coworker Who Slacks Off On The Job?

Dear Lifehacker, We're all busy at work, except for one person who spends all day doing god-knows-what (playing games, reading blogs, browsing Amazon) on her work computer. She tries to hide it, but it's definitely no secret. When you ask her for help, she complains about how busy she is. The rest of us are really busy, and we know she spends hours a day slacking. How do we handle this?

Sincerely, Busy Bee

Title image remixed using Leremy (Shutterstock).

Dear Busy Bee,

I think we've all had that coworker. The good news is, you do have some options for dealing with her behaviour, ranging in severity from passive aggressive to nuclear. Let's take a look.

First, Ask Yourself: Are They Productive?

We're going to assume two things going forward:

  • Your slacking coworker doesn't have the same boss that you do.
  • Your slacking coworker isn't getting their work done.

The reason this is important is because we want to differentiate between you talking to your boss about your concerns but not talking to their boss about your concerns (more on this later). Also, we'll be the first ones to tell you that if your coworker is getting her work done and still has time to play Facebook games, you should leave it and move on.

It can be a tough pill to swallow, but it's important to not get caught up in the issue of fairness, according to Forbes' Jacquelyn Smith. Life isn't fair, and if they can get away with slacking all day and still get rave reviews from their boss and their clients, there isn't much you can or should do about it. Focus on your own work instead. As long as their slacking isn't getting in the way of your work -- which we'll address shortly -- you have bigger fish to fry in your own inbox. Photo by tracy the astonishing.

Don't Work Around Them If You Don't Have To

Most of us are busy enough that we don't have time to deal with people who aren't willing to do their jobs, so we work around them, especially if we know they're going to be a problem. It's important to do this when you'll ultimately be held responsible for getting the work done, but if it's not urgent, let your slacking coworker's tasks pile up. Either the work will get done or you can press the issue with that person. If necessary, escalate the issue to the person's manager if it's a systemic problem. The important thing isn't how your slacking coworker spends his or her day, it's that the work gets done.

Remember, if they get their work done and slack off, move along. Their slacking may be irritating, but they're productive, even if they're lacking in the workplace etiquette department. They may know something you don't, or their boss may just hold them to a different standard. Maybe their job is a dead-end one and yours isn't. Who knows, but if they can't or won't do their tasks, then you have a problem that needs to be fixed.

Let Them Know They've Been Noticed

Admittedly, you're not approaching this from the altruistic "Hey, I want to tell you something before you get in trouble" perspective, but that angle will work wonders if you just want to talk to your coworker about his or her incessant slacking. Let the person know that if you've noticed, and your peers have noticed, then others higher up the food chain have likely noticed as well.

Don't take an aggressive or accusatory tone, especially if your coworker doesn't report to you. Just let the person know that you've noticed the games or whatever and you're concerned that other people have noticed as well. If you're comfortable telling them, say that you think it's having an impact on the team as a whole, but don't say it if it's not the case -- this can put the other person on the defensive. As with many things, sometimes a straightforward, honest conversation is enough. Mind you, they may just work harder to hide their slacking, especially from you, but the result is the same -- you don't have to see or deal with it, and you get the results you need. Photo by john.

The Conventional Option: Talk to Your Manager

Again, assuming your manager is not the slacking coworker's manager, you may want to let off some steam to your boss. Let them know your frustrations and that you're having difficulty getting results from your coworker because she's spending all day playing Facebook games or surfing the web and not answering your emails. Your boss may have some useful suggestions for you, or they may be willing to speak to them for you. Alternatively, they may tell you to focus on your own issues instead of pointing the finger at others -- you never know, but depending on your relationship, they may be a good sounding board for your concerns.

Keep in mind that what looks like slacking to you may actually be work, especially if you don't know how they work, so give them the benefit of the doubt. Some bosses will tell you to focus on your own job, other bosses may say they'll handle it and take it from there. Either way, unless you have a really friendly relationship with your boss and no relationship with the slacking coworker, don't do this until you level with the slacker first.

The Nuclear Option: Talk To Their Manager

We're loathe to even suggest this, but if things are at the point where the slacker is a serious hindrance to other people getting their work done, it might be time to just report their incessant behaviour. We don't advise snooping on your coworker, but you should come armed with concrete examples of your coworker's poor performance -- not just hearsay.

Also, focus on how their slacking is having a negative impact on the work that needs to be done instead of just waving your hands complaining about how unfair it is that you have to work until 7pm every night while they go home at 4pm after playing FarmVille all day. It may seem unfair, but once again the important thing to your boss is whether the work that needs to get done is getting done. If it's not, then they have a problem they have to deal with. Photo by Matthew W. Jackson.

The Bottom Line: Vent To Friendly Ears And Move Along

Your coworker may be no joy to work with, and it's definitely not fair that she gets to slack all day while the rest of you work your arses off, but policing her behaviour -- unless it's specifically getting in your way -- isn't your job. You probably have better things to do, and even though it will suck to hear her whine about how busy she is when you press her to do some work, your best bet is to devote your time and energy to the things you have to get done. Besides, we're all a little guilty of slacking on the job from time to time.

If she truly is a distraction or a roadblock, then you have a real, quantifiable problem that needs to be addressed. But you can probably fix it by just levelling with her and letting her know that she's being difficult to work with. Remember, it may not seem fair, but if the tables were turned, wouldn't you want someone to just level with you, calmly and honestly? Be an adult and use management as a last resort.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    It's worse when the person slacking off has a princess complex. We had one at our last work place.
    All she'd do was 1 task each day while the rest would for instance do about 20, but then demanded we do all the jobs on time because she thought she was higher up in rank than us, when the truth of the matter was our workplace only had one 2 ranks: Boss and workers. Also, she must have been one sick lady if she needed to take 1 or 2 sick days every two weeks.

    In the end, we worked around her by enjoying the days she was sick at home.
    Hurray! No irritations around the workplace for a few days.

    Why are you "loathe to even suggest this"?

    If someone's being a leech, the manager SHOULD know.

      Really? You can't see the trouble with that? General etiquette in heirarchical organisations is usually that peers can complain to each other and subordinates can complain to their boss, but subordinates don't complain to other people's bosses, and bosses don't discipline other peoples subordinates.

      The other thing that makes it a last resort is you are effectively saying "Hey idiot, you're apparently too dumb to notice one of your subordinates is crap at their job. Sincerely, some peon."

    is it ironic that i am reading this at work??? :)

      Hahaha yeah... Oops
      But as mentioned cause I get my work done I can do this sort of Shit...

    It's all about productivity per dollar.
    You may work really hard all day, but you may be slow and dumb.
    Someone else might be slack but they are fast and smart.
    If you both get paid $100k and Smarty Pants Slacker outputs 4 units of work and Hard Working Dumbo outputs 1 unit of work over the same time. Then smarty pants can slack off most of the day and still provide the same amount of value to the company (in terms of $ per unit of work).

      Maybe they should apply this to the Olympic medal tally - per capita. Ima go do a spread sheet of this.

    It is a hard thing to address because sometimes people may look like they're slacking but they may be either really productive, or not being given enough tasks. This happened to me a lot. I finished things quickly or had to sit and wait for someone else to finish something before I could finish my task (they were being a roadblock and I didn't have anything else to do or couldn't move on till they finished) so, I spent a lot of time having to entertain myself.

    The difference was that if someone asked me for something, I usually had it for them ASAP unless someone else was a roadblock. So I wasn't affecting people's productivity and my 'time wasting' wasn't holding others back.

    I think that's the test for whether someone is wasting time or not. If you work with them as opposed to besides them, you can test them a bit and see if they are wasting time and holding you back or just trying to entertain themselves during their slow times.

    It's annoying when people say they are 'so busy' though, regardless if they are or not hahahah.

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