The Unproductive Coworker

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign

by Katherine Griffin

Dear DW,
One of my coworkers isn’t pulling his weight, and it’s really bugging me. How can I handle this without looking bad?
Signed,
Resentful Colleague

Dear Resentful Colleague,

Tricky situation! You’re right to approach it with caution.

The first question to ask yourself is whether your coworker’s inattentiveness is having a negative effect on your work. If so, you have a legitimate right—maybe even an obligation—to address the problem.

Next question: Should you take it up with your coworker or talk to your supervisor?

It’s often simpler to speak to your colleague directly. But how you phrase your comments is key.

“To make your complaint, try using a technique called I-statements,” says Marie G. McIntyre, PhD, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics. “With an I-statement, you focus on the problem you’re having instead of what’s wrong with your coworker, then you ask for what you need. A well-worded I-statement, delivered in a friendly tone, doesn’t sound at all confrontational.”

For instance, you might say something like, “Bob, I’ve been having trouble meeting my project deadlines because I don’t receive the information from your group on schedule. What can we do to be sure I get the information on time?”

If talking to the coworker gets you nowhere, it’s time to speak with your manager. You’ll want to frame the problem as a business issue that is affecting productivity. For instance, if you’re getting overloaded with information requests because your colleague isn’t responding quickly enough, you might say, “People have been coming to me lately with questions because they haven’t heard back from Mike. It’s slowing down my work, so if you could talk to him about it, I’d appreciate it.”

And if the coworker’s slacker behavior isn’t affecting your work at all? “You need to work on your attitude and just let it go,” McIntyre says.
“We all must work with people who irritate us from time to time.”

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