How to Deal with a Lazy Co-worker

How to deal with a co-worker who slacks off, and a boss who won't help.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #96

How to Deal with a Lazy Co-worker


Ruby calls in:

I have an issue with a co-worker. She doesn't do her part of the work and the boss doesn't help. The boss says I shouldn't [be tattletale. What should I do to help my co-worker finish her part of the work so I don't have to pick up the slack?

Ruby, if your boss is really using words like “tattletale,” then you know someone's not thinking like an adult, and it's not you. Your boss has regressed to third grade, only she's put herself in the role of teacher. But she's not. She's a team leader, and she doesn't realize that.

I'm an ex-engineer geek who's stuck in my head, I have the emotional intelligence of a peanut. Since my coping mechanisms are limited to denial and detachment, let's get all hyper-rational about this.

Take Care of Your Part

First, take a good, hard look at yourself and make sure your boss isn't right. If you're going to her because you're scared to talk to your co-worker, or because you want to punish your co-worker, she's right, even if she's expressing it in 3rd grade language. Only go to her if you can't fix things on your own.

Talk to your co-worker. Don't blame; that will just get her defensive, and if she's a psychopath, she'll spend the next fifteen years pretending to be your friend while secretly orchestrating your untimely death in a truly unfortunate calamari incident. Instead, explain your issues with her in terms of your needs and the group's needs. This is where you can offer help.

“Bernice (we'll call her Bernice), next week is the deadline for next year's tractor. We're at a point where we need the dilithium photonic emitter design in order to proceed, and we're looking to you for that. Is there anything we can do to help you finish?” Feel free to give her copies of my podcast, for example.

If she tries to push the work (“Could you just do it for me?”) onto you, just say no. “Bernice, I would love to be able to offer that much help, but I can't. I have my own job to do and there aren't enough hours in the day. Let's brainstorm some more.” If your joint brainstorming isn't working, you can legitimately suggest you sit down as a group (with your boss, hint hint).

Bring Your Boss Into the Discussion

This brings your boss into the discussion. Since Bernice hasn't shaped up on her own, this is now your boss's problem as much as yours. After all, if Bernice shirks and you don't pick up the slack, your boss looks bad. By making it a group discussion, you're not tattling behind Bernice's back; you're working together to solve a problem. Teamwork. And now, a team meeting! Oh, boy! I just love meetings. No, I don't... I hate meetings.

So let's keep repressing our emotions and keep it about work. “This meeting is to figure out how we, as a team, can reach our goals.” Yes, this meeting should be your boss's job, not yours. But if you're going to do a co-worker's job, be the boss. See if the three of you can work together on the problem.

Set Your Boundaries

Bernice may say all the right things in the meeting and then keep goofing off. It's time to protect you. Meet with your boss to scope out your job requirements, and get it in writing. Next time your job stalls because Bernice's work isn't done, you can approach your boss and explain, “I'm trying to finish the tractor forward laser defense system, and can't do it without the energy supply. Bernice is three weeks late. As you know, we've tried everything. How would you like me to proceed?”

Your boss, who we already know has, er, issues with taking responsibility, will say, “if Bernice won't do it, you'll just have to pick up the slack.” And thus do we suddenly arrive at your moment of truth.

You know your job. You have it in writing. You're being asked to do someone else's job. You can say “Yes,” make your boss happy, keep your job, and doom yourself to a career of being a doormat. That is very much like bringing your new husband, wife, or polyamorous family unit breakfast in bed for the first time. The precedent stays for life.

Say “No”

Or, you can say “No.” Review my episode 15, Saying “No” to Difficult Requests. Be gracious, but firm. “Actually, boss, we agreed on my job responsibilities and they don't include Bernice's. I can't take that on.” If she insists, ask for a raise to go with the increased responsibilities. Otherwise, she's using you as a doormat.

There may be real consequences: a bad performance review, or even being fired. You have to decide if it's worth the risk. Of course, you have the written job description, so you can appeal to Human Resources or even court if that happens. Personally, I would hold my ground.

To recap: make sure you've done your part with Bernice. Then try to solve the problem as a team. If that doesn't work, at least set your own boundaries so your boss must take responsibility. If you get fired, well, think of it as a chance to update your resume. Happily.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.