January 10, 2014

How to deal with a lousy co-worker

A co-worker who doesn’t pull his weight shouldn’t be able to make your job unbearable. It’s not tattling if you take the right message to the boss.

Fans of “Downton Abbey” may wonder how the conniving underbutler Thomas has managed to build unholy alliances and undermine co-workers but stay employed.

Chalk it up partly to a screenwriter’s need for conflict. Chalk it up, too, to the decency of his co-workers who can’t or won’t play his sneaky games.

Out in the real world there are many employees who find it difficult to call out peers who need it. I sometimes hear from workers whose work life is hurt by fellow employees who can’t (or won’t) do their jobs properly.

“I do not want to rat out another person,” a Kansas City area worker recently wrote me. “The current situation, however, needs to improve, or I need to go.”

The employee wasn’t just writing about petty differences. She was writing about her co-worker’s failure to perform and how it was hurting the entire organization.

There’s no simple road map to fix that, or even to advise how to fix it. It’s possible that the “good” employee’s perceptions are flawed or there’s an axe to grind. But assuming fair intent:

Ask the appropriate supervisor for a private, un-busy time to meet.

Go in with details that show the co-worker’s missed deadlines, poor attendance, faulty customer service, errors, morale-killing demeanor, or whatever the problem is.

Give the boss the benefit of the doubt — that, sadly, your superior may not know how badly your co-worker is doing.

Focus on how the co-worker hurts the organization. It can’t be about you. Stress a desire for teamwork, better productivity or whatever is good for the whole.

Don’t issue a “him or me” ultimatum. Give the boss time to process the information. Then, if there’s no apparent sign that the problems are being addressed, reassess your job. You’re in an unfair position, and it shouldn’t make you miserable.

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