Dealing with Inept and Shirking Co-Workers

 Posted by on 3 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Productivity, Work
Feb 032012

In my January 8th Philosophy in Action Webcast, I answered the following question on the ethics doing the work of inept (and shirking) co-workers:

Is it moral to help inept co-workers? On my team at work, we have only a very few people who use their time productively. We all get paid for 8 hours of “work”, every day, but most of my team would rather talk on their phone, hide from management, and underperform at their job. We also belong to a union, which makes it harder for management to fire the ones who don’t work despite being informed about the situation. I often find myself in the position of helping these people, or going in behind them and fixing their work. I am beginning to feel taken advantage of, and am getting fed up with most of my co-workers. Is it moral to continue helping people who do not take their own work seriously?

You can find my the audio of my answer in the archive of Philosophy in Action.

Here, I want to offer the answer given by another. Rachel Garrett posted the following remarks to OProducers, and I’m reposting them with her permission. Her advice is excellent — and her way of framing the issue in terms of your obligation to your employer definitely helped my own analysis.

Without further ado, here’s Rachel’s answer to the question:

If the extra help to co-workers is getting in the way of fulfilling your own job responsibilities, you would need to devise strategies to cut down on the amount of assistance you render. But since you didn’t say that, I will assume that’s not the case.

It’s frustrating to be in a situation where your productive energy is getting drained by people who don’t perform their own job responsibilities. However, I would be cautious of how you’ve framed the question. You’ve given yourself an alternative: either continue helping these lazy co-workers and be taken advantage of; or refuse to help them (telling yourself it’s the moral thing to do).

The important thing to focus on is: What is my contractual obligation to my employer? What is my job? If you are getting paid for eight hours of productive work, and you finish your own assigned task in six, then the right thing to do is to spend the remaining two hours as productively as possible on your employer’s behalf. This may include teaching others how to do their job better, finishing tasks that others have left undone, and fixing others’ mistakes.

You’re not a manager of this environment, so the work atmosphere is not your responsibility. It’s your employer’s problem that they are getting crap for productivity from this part of their workforce. Going “on strike” and withdrawing your help, in order to force others to do their own work, would not be appropriate. Managers are the ones who should be monitoring and evaluating employees’ performance, and motivating them to do better. That job’s not yours to do. If management is not doing their job, there is nothing you can do that will fill that gap.

The best course of action largely depends on how good of a relationship you have with your own manager, how you’re evaluated, and how you envision your future at this company. If this is just a job, it’s perfectly fine to tell yourself, “I’m just here for the paycheck,” and stop caring about your co-workers. If the company is not connected to your long-term goals, then your co-workers’ goofing off shouldn’t mean anything more to you than a grouchy grocery clerk — something unfortunate that inconveniences you for a while, but doesn’t affect you much. If you can’t let it go, do everything within your power to find a new job before you become embittered and lose perspective.

If you have a decent working relationship with your manager, I would suggest logging all your extra work and fixes, for a week or two. Ask your manager if you can add a phrase to your job responsibilities (“Train other departmental personnel on X and Y procedures…”) that would help this count toward your upward development. Or perhaps you could find a job responsibility that you enjoy, and that would fill up your time and make you unavailable to pick up others’ slack. (Whatever you do, don’t sound complainy. You have a right to complain and you deserve sympathy from rational people who value their work, but complaining is almost certainly a bad strategy to get what you want from your manager.)

There are also some smaller things you can change or do…

  • Make people work for your help. “Sure, Amanda! I’d LOVE to help you get that month-end report fixed! I tell you what, I’ve gotten this question a lot, so how about I walk you through it and you take notes so you can write up the procedure. Then next month, we can use that as reference.”
  • It’s wrong for your co-workers to spend time on non-work activities when there is work to be done. However, most people do want to do things the right way and feel good about what they got accomplished. Your co-workers have the same human need for productive work that you do. They may be mismanaged and socially pressured, or they may have a genuine rotten attitude. There’s no way to reach inside and see. So give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • When you think about the situation, don’t use judgmental labels like “lazy”; use factual words like “unproductive”.
  • Reach out to your company’s Quality department for Six Sigma training. Identify common snags and mistakes in your department’s processes. Run a process improvement project(s) to fix them.
  • Increase your skill/knowledge level of Microsoft Office or whatever other software/systems you’re using. Learn how to automate and error-check to help avoid mistakes.
  • Read the book Crucial Conversations — I think it would be a great help in having some of the conversations you may need to have with your manager and/or co-workers.

I hope some of this helps.

Indeed it does! Thank you, Rachel. for that excellent advice!

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