Management Won’t Deal With A Problem Co-Worker

Question:

I work in a highly interdependent office team of about 20 people. When someone is away we have to cover the workload of that person and anyone who is not putting in an equitable amount of effort drags the whole team down.

When one particular member of our group is away, the atmosphere is jovial and focused. When that team member returns, the blackness of resentment and hostility settles in for the day with her. To make matters worse, we are not in private workspaces. Each of us has at least two people less than three feet away from them at all times. In this environment, moods spread like viruses. Lucky me, I sit next to the boss’s pet, who also happens to be the aforementioned evil team member. A slacker with a 65% attendance rate who only pretends to work when she is there. Let’s call her Laura. Laura is quite young, but has been in this job more than 10 years, whereas all but three of the rest of us joined less than a year ago. She is also going through a divorce at the moment, which she is leveraging to the maximum with our ‘sucker for a sob-story’ team leader. As such, none of us feels comfortable saying much to the bosses about our disdain for Laura’s work ethic and its effects on morale, no matter how low morale has gotten. At one point we did mention that Laura’s absenteeism was making our work harder, since we had to pick up her share of the tasks. The result? The boss relieved Laura of a large portion of the duties the rest of us are expected to do. We’ve seen this now with two other employees as well – however these two are not on our direct team. The low point for me, personally, happened after I’d had enough and simply decided to stop communicating with Laura unless the subject was task related. Laura had a history of sending me pestering emails on any occasion that I seemed to be in a ‘bad mood.’ She was always looking at me. She would ask openly in the room if something was the matter with me. She would send emails telling me that she wanted to be my friend and that she needed someone strong like me in her corner while she dealt with her terrible life.

I tried to be encouraging with her, telling her that I viewed her as a smart, capable woman and that she should keep her chin up, that this would all pass. However, my words didn’t improve the situation. She still slacked off, she still whined, and I was at the end of my rope, not knowing how to deal with this wierd, obsessive woman. Finally, after a couple of months of me keeping a distance but not being overtly unfriendly, I was taken aside by the boss and asked if I was giving Laura a hard time.

I said that I was not, that I was trying to get my work done – and Laura’s – since she did not have to live up to the same expectations as the rest of us.

When I got back to my desk another email was waiting – she was begging for my friendship yet again. I forwarded this to the boss – and the boss’s boss, too asking for them to see the light and make it stop .. I asked them to at LEAST move my desk so that she wasn’t able to look at me all day. They did not do so. What they did, was to swiftly and publicly call Laura and I were out in front of the entire group. It was humiliating and I felt like a ten year old child. Needless to say, the only thing that changed after that episode was an increase in my paranoia level .. oh, and she didn’t send me any more emails. She chose to become demonstrably hostile and overly sweet, in turns. Her crappy work ethic was maintained continued. Six months ago team spirit was high. Over the last while, it has degenerated to the point where not a day goes by when someone isn’t bitterly angry or refuses to speak to Laura, or calls in sick to avoid the conflict. To this day Laura still dominates the mood in the room. She is needy and lazy. She pretends not to hear work related questions but pipes up for social chatter. She emails and texts her friends incessantly and surfs the internet message boards.

I still have the loyalty of all of my other coworkers who see me as capable, a hard worker and good natured. But.. Laura has still somehow got the ear of the boss and is still as tempermental as can be.

Any words of wisdom? And please, I already feel like I have to keep my nose exceptionally clean, work as hard as I can, play nicey-nice with this nut and make sure I document everything I do. So I’m looking for something else. Got anything?

Signed,

At The End of My Rope


Answer:

DearĀ At The End of My Rope:

It sounds like a very unpleasant situation! There are no magic answers, I’m afraid–as you obviously knew. Consider the situation from an outsider’s view:

1. Laura has been there ten times longer than you have been there. She may have done the work of many before others were hired. She may have developed many of the procedures others are using now. She may have proven her loyalty repeatedly in the past. She has had years to be useful and to help the company. She has demonstrated competence and paid her dues long before you got there.

Your boss and probably the boss above him or her feels loyalty to Laura, even if they were not there the entire time–and that’s something that no one can take away.

2. If Laura’s style of communication with them is engaging and more likeable to them than that of others and you, she will receive even more support, especially since she is going through a bad time personally. The contrast between her efforts to reach out to others in a positive way and the apparent rejection by others, would be very strong in the minds of the bosses.

She is probably being disingenuous and manipulative about her “be my friend” messages, but that’s hard to prove.

3. To make it even more difficult–when there are complaints about Laura being allowed to get by with things, that is essentially saying the bosses aren’t effective. That’s not likely be well received.

4. You don’t know what Laura and her managers have agreed to regarding her work schedule right now. She may have an understanding that for the short term she can miss more work than usual. She may be getting close to being out of sick time and will have to be there more regularly in the future. There may be something going on behind the scenes that you’re not aware about. You also don’t know if she’s brought in some kind of excuse from a doctor or counselor, or if she is late or absent because of treatment–or alleged treatment.

5. There is the factor that if you or others needed similar special assistance you could probably get it too. Your bosses may simply like to be nice and want to avoid being tough. Right now it’s Laura’s turn, but you say others have had similar benefits.

6. Look at this as well: You say you have the loyalty of most of the others and Laura has the loyalty of the bosses. That presents the situation as you vs Laura, with the others on the sidelines.

How many of the 18 other employees who are apparently very frustrated have written a detailed letter documenting how Laura is hurting work and profits? How many have asked to meet with the bosses to request a management review of the workload? How many have spoken up when Laura asks about your mood, to say something directly to Laura about their concerns about her lack of work? How many are willing to go higher than your boss’s boss, if needed, to make things right?

If all of them or most of them have then you know for sure nothing will make a change and two bosses have denied the requests of 19 employees.

If most of them haven’t, maybe there is a reason–and maybe that is why you are feeling the brunt of the problem now. They don’t mind stirring the pot so you do something, but they don’t want to do something themselves.

7. I have little patience with people like Laura and I don’t respect managers who either are taken in by such employees or who don’t explain things better to the other employees who complain. But, none of that really changes the work agreement that you and the other employees had when all of you were hired. You were hired to do the work you were given to do, and no promises were made about fairness.

If you have been threatened with a job loss or loss of pay because you have not done the work Laura was supposed to do, and there is no way to get it done, even if you worked steadily without a break, that would be reason to go to as high a level as possible to protect yourself. But, if you can do the work, it seems you have no recourse but to do it and get paid what you expected when you took the job.

Having said ALL of that, I realize that doesn’t answer your question of what to do now in what you see as a frustrating situation that is becoming worse daily. You said you have kept your nose clean, worked hard, played nice and documented everything you do. So, you’re looking for something else to consider.

1. Try forgetting the Laura issues and focus on becoming the indispensable person in the office. That doesn’t take a lot of extra work, it just takes PR–which I’m sure you can do.

If you were to hire a company to give you suggestions for how to look like a star to those at the highest levels of the company as well as to your immediate bosses, what would that company likely tell you to do?

The three steps for gaining influence are to: Be credible, be valuable and be an effective communicator. (Effective in the minds of those with whom you’re communicating.) Laura has that as far as your bosses are concerned and you don’t. But, she could lose it and you could gain it–or you both could have it for different reasons.

If there are no specific work things you can do–no ideas or suggestions or projects, what about team building, saving money, speaking about the business within your community, writing a leter to the editor in which you praise some aspect of your company’s work, writing letters of commendation for coworkers, becoming great supporters for maintenance and other often-ignored functions, etc. etc. etc. You obviously have the savvy to develop ideas like that.

2. Consider suggesting to HR or some employee program, if your company has that function, that they produce a list of resources for people going through divorces, having money problems, or issues with childcare or aging parents. You could do a bit of research yourself to get them going. Or, get on the internet and ask a few places locally to send you brochures, which could be placed in a rack in the breakroom. That way Laura and others would have ways to deal with problems, thus removing some of their excuses for ineffective work–and making you the person who looks for solutions.

3. Maybe you can lead the way in stopping the complaining and griping. It apparently hasn’t helped anyone so far and just drags everyone down. If nineteen people allow one person to ruin the office, it says more about the nineteen than about the one.

4. Maybe you should just work your required hours with as positive a mind-set as possible and put more effort into activities away from work. Many employees do that successfully and use it as a way to help them deal with work situations that aren’t good.

5. This has been going on for only about six months or no more than a year. That’s not long in the grand scheme of things. It’s likely that it won’t go on forever and maybe not even much longer. Even overly kind bosses start thinking someone should improve after awhile. And, if Laura is going through a divorce, she’ll be dating soon and that will perk her up too! “This too shall pass” is always true, for good or for ill.

I’m back to where I was at the beginning, saying there are no magic answers. Dr. Gorden always reminds people of his catch phrase, WEGO, that means people working together with hands, hearts and minds can achieve a great deal. Certainly it will take more than your lone efforts to fix the problem in your workplace. But, you can perhaps find a way to lessen your own feelings of frustration and I hope you will be able to do that. You know you can, it just gripes you that you have to. I don’t blame you, but it may be your only chance to enjoy work again.

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

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.