The Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing With a Slacking Co-Worker

Everyone has worked with or managed someone who is less than stellar when it comes to doing his or her job. Human resources executives consistently receive complaints about people who aren’t up to speed, maximize their own group’s results at the expense of others and give the wrong tasks top priority.

The bottom line being that their colleagues end up having to carry part of their load. Of course, their colleagues are already up to their neck in their own assignments, so inevitably, quality suffers. According to research from corporate training and leadership development firm VitalSmarts, four out of five employees say the quality of their work declines when they have to pick up their co-workers’ slack — a huge blow to the bottom line when you consider that the research also said 93 percent have a co-worker who doesn’t do his or her fair share.

In most companies, these types of infractions go unaddressed. After months of suffering silently, the following often ensues: Employees formulate their complaint, rehearse the face-to-face discussion, step up to the plate and explain their concerns — to their spouse or best friend. Their spouse or friend says they’re whining; they say they’re rehearsing.

Either way, they’re not talking directly to the person who caused the problem in the first place because they’ve let it go for a long time and it seems unfair to bring it up now, it’s not their job since the person in question doesn’t report to them or they don’t know exactly what to say or how to say it.

Moreover, the longer individuals go without saying something to slacking co-workers, the worse it will get. The study from VitalSmarts revealed that only 10 percent of employees speak up and hold underperforming colleagues accountable. As a result, slacking co-workers cause a quarter of their hard-working colleagues to put in four to six more hours of work each week.

Fortunately, as individuals learn to speak honestly, directly and professionally, they can permanently resolve the issue. Talent management professionals can help increase accountability and productivity in the workplace by coaching employees on how to effectively hold their slacking co-workers accountable using the following tips.

Don’t wait. If employees wait until they’re tired and upset to unload on their colleagues, they’re likely to do so in a way that turns the attention off of the co-worker’s original offense and onto them.?

Don’t ambush. When individuals surprise others with a last-minute conversation at the water cooler, it rarely goes well. Ambushed co-workers will likely be on their guard and less willing to openly and honestly discuss the issue.

Don’t recount a long list of grievances. While sharing the facts of the gap in expectations is helpful, pulling out a long list of a co-worker’s infractions is not. This will only create resentment and is counterproductive to solving the issue.

Don’t use inflammatory or vague terms. Inflammatory, politically charged and hopelessly vague terms such as “irresponsible,” “unreliable” and “dead wood” don’t inform, nor do they lead to a healthy and honest discussion. They lead to defensiveness.

Suspend judgment. Rather than assume the worst of co-workers, savvy individuals assume the best. Perhaps a co-worker is unaware that he or she is causing problems. Set aside time to talk in private, without judgment, and enter the conversation with the desire to share concerns, as well as hear the other person’s point of view.

Make it safe. Skilled problem solvers rarely jump straight to the problem. Instead, they create a tone of safety and acceptance by explaining that they want to solve a problem in a way that works for all parties. They’re not trying to fix their co-worker; they’re trying to resolve a problem. Equally important, they want to come up with a solution that works for everyone concerned.

Start with the facts. Broad conclusions such as, “I can no longer trust you,” add heat but little information. So share the latest facts describing the gap between what is expected versus what has been observed. For example, “Yesterday you agreed to complete the re-design by noon. Noon came and I didn’t receive your work.”

Tentatively share concerns. Once the facts are on the table, skilled people explain why they’re concerned. They use tentative language such as, “I’m beginning to wonder if …” This use of tentative language helps others be more willing to consider the consequences of their actions.

Invite dialogue. Finally, it’s always wise to end by seeking the other person’s point of view. Ask if he or she sees the issue differently or if the facts thus far have been wrong in any way. Openly seeking others’ views and carefully listening to what they have to say increases the likelihood that they will be open to listening to opposing views.

Kerry Patterson is the co-author of “Crucial Accountability” and is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development firm. He can be reached at