A Tale of Two Goof-Off Employees

What should you do about a co-worker who doesn't get the job done? The answer depends on how it affects you

I speak to a lot of employee groups, and the folks in the audience always have terrific workplace questions. There's one question that comes up in almost every group, and everyone laughs when it does, but it's almost impossible for me to answer it on the spot. The question is: "What do you do about a co-worker who goofs off all the time?"

When I get that question, I have to ask the inquirer to see me afterward, so I can learn more about the situation. The reason is that over the years, I've learned that there are two very different kinds of workplace work-shirkers. One might be called the Optical Slacker, and the other could be nicknamed the Physical Slacker. And there's a huge difference between them.


The Physical Slacker works with you so closely that you rely on his or her results. That's a problem, because the Physical Slacker doesn't do what he or she promises to. When you say you need something by Friday and he says "Sure," you're lucky to get it the following Tuesday.

When his part of the report has to be finished before you can start on yours, he's nowhere to be found. When you turn up late on three of your assignments and all three depended on his participation, he has a list of reasons why he let you down, and none of them are his fault.

The defining characteristic of a Physical Slacker is that he is messing with your work or, as buttoned-down types like to say, negatively impacting your output. That's not fair to you. It's materially getting in your way. You have to act.


Now let's look at the other kind of person that an audience member has in mind when asking about goof-offs. This is the Optical Slacker, and the problem is very different.

The Optical Slacker doesn't slow you down in your work. It's not clear that he or she slows anyone down, and in fact, his manager may be very happy with his results. It's not that the person isn't getting his work done -- it's just that you see him on the phone to his girlfriend, or taking a long coffee break, or otherwise not working really hard. The problem isn't material, but it sure is visible.

Now let's talk about solutions to these two problems. The first one is fairly challenging. I strongly believe that your role in the company doesn't include counseling your co-workers. That's a boss's job. At the same time, however, the standards of decency among colleagues require you to talk to this Physical Slacker directly before ratting him out to your boss.

You just have to do it. Otherwise, you'll talk to your boss about your problem with Bucko, and the boss will say "Bucko, you're making Jim late on all his assignments." And then Bucko will be in your cube saying, "Dude, why did you talk to our boss before you talked to me?" Bucko would be in the right, and you would be a one-celled creature that gathers together with millions of its fellow creatures to become pond scum.


You have to confront the guy directly. So here's what you do. Talk to Bucko, and say: "You know what, Buckster? Let's talk about this upcoming database project. A couple of times recently we've had problems coordinating our stuff, and I want to do a timeline together, one that we can put in writing and agree on, so we make sure this project is right on the money."

Talk about the interaction you'll need to have. Talk about potential pitfalls along the way to project completion. And if you can wend your way around to it, talk about lessons learned from the last few fiascoes, and how to avoid another misfire.

You have to give the man a chance. If you crash and burn on the next collaboration, you're ethically free to go talk to your manager about the issue -- framing it, of course, as a request for help getting the process to be smoother, not an attempt to get Bucko fired.


Now what about the Optical Slacker? If this person is doing his work, pleasing his manager, holding up no one, and finding time to goof off nonetheless, the solution to the problem is to repeat these five words to yourself: It's None of My Business. See? It's easy.

For some reason, employees get their Joe Boxers in a bundle worrying about someone else who could be more productive than he appears to be. But if the work gets done, where's the problem?

Here's the deal. Everyone talks about the teams in which we work, but we actually work for a boss. You keep your job at the pleasure of your boss, and your relationship with him or her is critical. And every single solitary employee in the place is managed mostly through that connection to the boss, who decides what needs to get done, by whom, at what cost, and by when.

We're all friendly and comradely with one another, of course, but the nature of the relationship is really a hub-and-spokes affair. The boss is the hub, and each of us has our own spoke -- our own relationship with the boss -- to manage.

Here's why that's important. We all get paid different amounts, unless you work the cash register at Wendy's. We bring different educational backgrounds, experiences, and insights to the job. Each one of us, in other words, has a custom deal. And each deal undergoes a lot of tweaking over the course of a day or a year.


"Can you stay tonight, Hopkins?" your boss might ask. "Nope, can't do it," he says. Maybe his relationship with the boss suffers, ever so slightly. Maybe not. They have their own deal. You have your deal, too. You and your boss negotiate the deal every single day: Can you take on this assignment? Can you give me that extra day off next month? Can you go help Susan in accounting? Can you recommend me for grad school? And so on.

This is why it's silly to worry about, much less second-guess, someone else's spoke. You see it with parents and non-parents all the time. "Why do the parents get to leave early?" How do I know? That's their spoke. Maybe their stock goes down just a little in the company's view every time they duck out before closing time. But maybe not -- maybe that soccer-coaching dad is the most productive guy on the team. There are a million variables, and white-collar work isn't about people arriving and leaving at the same time, anyway.

So what's the moral of the story? Deal forthrightly with the Physical Slacker, and leave the Optical Slacker to manage his or her own spoke. You may find that there's more to career success than being (or being perceived as) the busiest little beaver in the lodge.


The other lesson is that if you've been managing your time based on the "keeping busy" standard, there may be higher-impact activities that deserve more of your attention. As pleasing as it is on any given afternoon for a manager to look out over the bullpen and see the troops hard at work, at the end of the day (or month, or quarter), it's results that count.

So the next time the question rises to your lips, "What do you do about a slacker co-worker?", stop and consider: Is the presumed slacker slowing you down? If not, it's a good bet that you have bigger problems to solve.

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