Coworker Gets By With No Work

Question:

I work in a stressful, service-oriented division of a large government corporation. Although all staff in the division have busy peaks and slow times, since I arrived several years ago one staff member in particular has failed to contribute equally to the goals of the division. The division is divided into three areas of specialty, and this person works in the least busy area. This staff member is a nice person, but is enabled by their manager to do anything but work (or so it seems). In an organization where staff are expected to work a 7.5-hour day, this person consistently arrives at 9:45 or 10 a.m., takes 2-hour lunches, and leaves before 5 p.m. On average I expect they are present in the office about 5 hours, during which at least 30 minutes are spent on personal phone calls, one hour is spent watching television online, and one hour is spent at various other offices in the building chatting with friends. The day which I described above happens at least twice weekly. I am not making assumptions – since I sit beside this person, I am privy to all their personal conversations, and they are quite open about watching the latest episodes of their favourite shows online. This person’s manager, who was a friend of mine, may not be aware of all these activities, but he is certainly aware of the late arrivals and early departures, as every few days he comes to the person’s office to see if they are there yet, and they are not. This has been ongoing for two years, and nothing has changed. Although I was friends with this person’s manager, I did not say anything about the other non work related activities, because I didn’t know how he would react, and also because I don’t feel it should be my responsibility to manage his staff for him. I believe the lack of actual work coming out of this person’s office should speak for itself. Additionally, I do not have the same manager as this person, since I work in another area in the division, and so their work (or lack thereof) doesn’t affect my work. It only affects morale. Recently, to gauge employee satisfaction of work-life balance and other work-related issues, an anonymous survey was conducted by an external consultant. Following the survey, recipients who had provided an overly positive or overly negative outlook were called to participate in confidential interviews. Myself and several other employees were granted an interview, as we had mentioned that we didn’t feel work was distributed evenly. Interviews were supposed to be confidential; however, following the interviews, this person’s manager stopped talking to me and two others who expressed similar feelings in their surveys. He stopped email communication at work and outside of work (going so far as to “de-friend” us on Facebook, which really made a statement). It seems as though the interviewer also interviewed the offender, and asked them probing questions which revealed what we had said on our surveys. This person then told their manager, who I imagine guessed who made the complaints. This is an upsetting reaction, because we didn’t really do anything wrong, we expressed our feelings in the appropriate place. The manager hasn’t spoken to three of us in two months, and we have moved on and are learning to work around the hostility. However, we were hoping that the survey and interviews would lead to some changes in this person’s work behaviour. Two months later, the same pattern persists. It’s beginning to become unbearable, as some people in our division work full days, through their lunches and put in overtime to finish their files, while this one staff member does no work at all. Is there anything I can do? Should I approach the Director of the division? I have been keeping a log of this person’s comings and goings, but I don’t want to seem obsessed or vengeful, although it’s becoming difficult not to obsess about it. Additionally, I don’t want to cause even more tension in the office.

Signed,

Frustrated and Fed Up


Answer:

Dear Frustrated and Fed Up:

Your situation is certainly challenging–and I don’t think you can improve it without temporarily causing more tension in the office. However, there is justified tension already, so it’s not like you’ll be disrupting Paradise for no reason. I think you and others are at a decision point: Do nothing and hope for the best (which probably won’t happen) or exert a bit more effort and do something openly but definite to make a change.

What you and others have done so far seems to be limited to observing, keeping a log or at least being fully aware of problems and only expressing frustration openly on a survey and in an interview conducted by an outsider. If the survey hadn’t been taken I get the impression nothing would have been said at all. More will be required than that, but perhaps in that way things will change.

The first thing you need to consider is what will the situation need to be like for you to feel that the problem is solved–and will that be likely to happen. It seems to me that your requested changes are reasonable and doable. You’re not asking that several people be fired (not likely to happen). You just want to feel that all employees are being held to approximately the same standards about obeying work rules and being productive. You want a nearby coworker to arrive on time and leave on time, as others do, and to stop watching TV during working hours. If there is a explanation for why the coworker is doing those things, you’d like to know it so your morale and the morale of others isn’t continually lowered by feelings of unfairness. All of those are reasonable expectations and can be achieved without severely punishing anyone; although the manager should be sanctioned for allowing misconduct if that is proven.

Consider some of these options for dealing with the situation. I suggest them based on the fact that you work for a government corporation, which means that a vengeful supervisor can’t just come in and fire you tomorrow and also on the fact that there is pressure in such organizations to eliminate wasted time and resources. So, proof of a problem is likely

1. Work through your own manager first, if at all possible. Even though you work in another section, you have concerns about the overall workplace and the overall business. Your manager has an even higher level of responsibility and should be more concerned. If she isn’t aware of the problem, make her aware of it. If she is aware of the problem, ask her about the status of improvement efforts. I’m sure your office has enough open communication that such a conversation is possible.

Keep in mind that your influence about this may vary according to the quality and quantity of your own work. However, you still have standing to point out problems. Just make sure you are working to improve and can show that improvement. If you are an excellent employee you are in the enviable position of having nothing to be ashamed about as you openly suggest that all employees should be earning their salaries as you are.

2. When you talk to your manager don’t do it in a way that is hinting or slyly questioning. Take your information and evidence and ask why such behavior is being allowed when you and others are working full-time, all the time. One adamant conversation will get more done than a hundred faintly complaining hints. Ask your manager if she is aware of the concern and if she knows what is being done about it. But go past that and ask her what you should do NEXT to ensure that the matter is investigated and that it is corrected so the office can be as productive as it can be. Give her a list of options and let her work with you to make something happen, whether she is inclined to do so or not.

If you say you’re really frustrated and hope that something will be done, you may not get a strong response. If you say, “Sandy, as much as I hate to cause tension, I’m tired of watching this go on, month after month when we’ve all got so much work to do and not many people to do it. I’m reporting it to you and asking for an investigation. What should I do next to make sure the problem is corrected? Should I go to HR? Do you want a letter and a list of witnesses? Should I tell you the next time she comes in late or leaves early? I want to do this the right way, so what should I do next?”

I don’t think a manager in a government corporation could easily justify doing nothing in the face of that kind of determination! If you put those questions in an email or memo it will be even more clear.

A good time to do this kind of direct confrontation is when you have just observed a problem. For example, if the employee is watching TV, that is the time to go to your manager and say something. You can point out that every other employee is working while Lisa is watching TV on her computer as she often does. Then you can move into your request for an investigation and action. At least that way your manager can perhaps observe the same thing you are observing.

Or, you could talk to your manager when she could come to the work area and see that Lisa has gone for the day. If you go to someone other than your manager, the same thing would apply. It is much more compelling when there is an obvious work problem right then.

If you know the name of the TV show being watched, state that as another way to be as definite about the situation as possible.

3. If going to your manager doesn’t seem to be the best way to approach it or if you have tried that already, take your concerns either to HR or to the level above your own manager. That will be a tough choice because it may cause anger on the part of your own manager. Only do it if you have very good reasons to explain why going to your own manager wasn’t an option.

4. You mention you have a log of activities. Rather than producing the log, which can look negative and as though you have been more focused on that than on correcting the problem, just summarize what the log shows. “In twenty working days she has been late or left early 9 times. On five days she came in late AND left early.”

There is a chance she has been given flex time by her manager or has gotten approval due to medical visits or some other situation that you don’t know about, so be prepared for that. However, find a way to mention that the manager interrupted your work to keep asking if the employee had arrived yet. That indicates to me that the manager wasn’t expecting a late arrival.

5. Don’t gossip about this in a way that is merely complaining and negative. However, you may find it would be helpful to ask coworkers who have shared concerns to join you in bringing up this matter to their managers or to HR or others. If several people are joined in their efforts it is even more likely that something will happen.

6. Those are all direct, strong and clear actions you can take. They won’t be easy, but they will get attention. That brings us to what happens next. You say that you were formerly friends with the other manager but after the survey she obviously stopped feeling friendly. If you were friends, it would seem to me that you would have been more fair and friendly to have been open with her earlier. I can understand you wanting to avoid telling her something that would upset her but that ended up happening anyway. Be prepared now for her to lose some standing within the corporation if it’s shown she allowed bad work to occur. I don’t feel any sympathy for her, because she shouldn’t have allowed it to happen. But, it does seem that complaints could have been made sooner rather than waiting for it to get to this point.

On the other hand, she showed that she wasn’t much of a friend when she reacted in a petty way after the survey interviews. So, if she continues such behavior, that should be noted in your complaint as well. She isn’t required to interact on Facebook or to engage in personal conversations, but she should not fail to interact with you as needed about work and she should be courteous at all times.

It sounds to me as though the contracting company did a poor job on their survey interviews, which points out, one more time, that good work is a rare commodity. That’s why I think it is doubly important for you to be blameless about your own work if you take this on.

7. This final thought has to do with the coworker. She apparently knows that others observe her behavior. I’m wondering if she feels confident that she won’t get in trouble because she knows her manager approves of it. You may find that after all is said and done, she is somehow doing what her manager considers to be appropriate work. I don’t know how, but it might be the case.

In a marketing office with which I’m familiar an employee spent several hours a day in the break room with a cup of coffee and various magazines, while her coworkers were working on their computers under a deadline. When they complained, they were informed by HR and by their angry manager, that the employee had suggested it would be worthwhile to review the approaches of various companies about use of color, space, current pop phrases, etc. She convinced her manager that reading magazines, watching You Tube and looking at Facebook pages was worthwhile. Since it might be disruptive to do that at her desk, she went to the lunch room and sometimes just went home to do it. The employees revolted and went higher up and the practice was stopped; but there are still hard feelings.

I know that it’s much easier for me to give you this advice than for you to take it and doing something about this problem, but the only other option is to just put up with the things that are irritating you. No good comes of keeping logs forever if you aren’t going to do something. Either do something or just move on with your own work.

You are in a position to correct a problem that involves the misuse of time, resources and staff, and I believe that would be taken seriously. But, the final decision is yours and you alone know the work culture and the likelihood that something will be done.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe