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I don't respect you, but I can't break up with you
May 23, 2014 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Lack of respect is the number-one relationship-killer, right? So what do you do when you work with someone you don't respect on a very small team?

Very long story short: I work in software, I'm on a tiny team with just one other person (who we will call Coworker), and Coworker is absolutely terrible. His code is sloppy, bug-ridden, and unmaintainable. He breaks things all the time because he's too lazy to run the tests we have in place to protect against breakages. He makes big promises about what we can deliver, then utterly fails to follow through. What he does produce works on his machine but nowhere else, and he absolves himself of responsibility to fix it. His estimates are laughably bad -- he once estimated a task would take 10 minutes and then took three weeks to do it. He completely fails at running meetings and communicating with others. He waves his hands and says "it will just work" without understanding the larger design or system constraints.

He's utterly incapable of the simplest of tasks. We've found him waiting for meetings to start in the wrong conference room on the wrong floor when the meeting's location is clearly labeled. I've asked him to delete A B and C but please not D, and he deleted B and D and called it done.

I loathe working with Coworker. Every interaction with him stresses me out. My job is moderately enjoyable without him, but because of his presence, I dread my job -- my happiest work memory is when he was on vacation for two weeks. I've thought about it and discovered that I have absolutely no respect for him, and no capacity to regain any respect for him. I've "flipped the bit" on him -- at this point, he could cure cancer and I still wouldn't respect him.

I realize I sound very judgmental here, and perhaps I am. But Coworker's actions reflect negatively on me; people associate shitty communication and shitty deliverables with me, since our team is so small. I've tried to take the stand of "that's not my piece, Coworker owns that" which just makes me sound like I'm not a team player and I'm throwing him under the bus.

I have no idea how to work with this person. I try to be as fake-cheery and fake-optimistic as possible, but I can't keep that charade up forever. My management is aware that I have a hard time working with Coworker, and has admitted before that Coworker is a hard person to work with in general.

TL;DR: How do you work with someone you don't respect at all?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You're a programmer? And your management is too incompetent to address a poorly-performing colleague? Leave. Update your resume in LinkedIn, and start looking for a new job.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:20 AM on May 23 [22 favorites]

Would you be willing to present your management with the "My co-worker is incompetent -- please audit our production and you'll see -- and if you don't replace him I'm leaving," argument?
posted by mr. digits at 7:23 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

Take a moment to be honest with yourself here: do you want to be angry at this person? It reads to me like you're getting something out of it.

The short answer is that you recognize that having this amount of contempt for someone isn't healthy, and see if you can develop some protocols that limit this guy's ability to cause problems with his bad habits. See if you can get it so he doesn't get to give time estimates without your approval, and put in writing the stuff you need from him so it's more likely that he does it correctly, and so there's documentation if he messes up. If you think he's going to show up at the wrong place for a meeting, check in with him ahead of time to remind him where it is.

I'd hope that at your company, people recognize that the problem is with him, and that people aren't really looking at this as something that reflects poorly on you.

I worked with someone during the early part of my career who was very frustrating, and my colleagues understood what I was going through. I felt a lot better when I started owning that I knew what I was in for by choosing to work in that job, and by looking at ways to solve the problems she was causing.
posted by alphanerd at 7:24 AM on May 23

My management is aware that I have a hard time working with Coworker, and has admitted before that Coworker is a hard person to work with in general.

Is management aware of how much actual work time is lost to cleaning up after Coworker? Do you document it? Do you direct complaints about his shitty communication and deliverables to your supervisor?

There's something else going on here. I don't mean that you're hiding something from us, but there's a reason that his supervisor hasn't fired him yet:
The reason may be that he's someone's idiot brother-in-law, in which case you need to figure out how to get your team leader to just not give him work to do. Fuck it, let him goof off on the Internet all day if it means you and your team are more efficient.
The reason may be that he does something really really well, and you just don't know about it, in which case you need to do basically the same thing as the last one -- get him working on that thing and that thing only.
The reason may be that your management is just bad at managing (as snickerdoodle says). That's a bad environment. Find a new job.

But basically, make this your team leader's problem and stop worrying about it. That is what management is for: managing.
posted by Etrigan at 7:25 AM on May 23 [21 favorites]

We have someone like that at my office. In my case, the person is given the easiest jobs and her boss oversees her work meticulously because the company doesn't like firing people.

Things that have helped me:

1. Humanize her. Stop calling him/her "coworker" and think of the person by name. Imagine the coworker as a human being with all of the fears and anxieties of anyone else. You don't know what's happening in his/her life. With my coworker, I try to imagine what it would take for me to perform that poorly. Then, I imagine the coworker going home to an abusive relationship or having other major family issues. It makes me feel more empathy for her. There must be a reason she performs so poorly and it's better for me psychologically, if I believe her performance isn't because she is "dumb" and "irritating," but because she is a fallible human being with issues that are unknown to me.

2. Laugh. Some of the things she does/says are so ridiculous that when I repeat them as stories to my friends, it's rather funny.

3. Find one positive thing about your coworker. It can can be anything, no matter how small. Just find something good about that person.
posted by parakeetdog at 7:28 AM on May 23 [13 favorites]

Great answers by Etrigan and snickerdoodle.

I am walking this same tightrope myself with a colleague who is immature and not able to handle her workload. She can't estimate work, continually misses deadlines, and almost never completes work that is up to basic standards.

For some reason my manager coddles her- I think she is aware of how frantic the employee's personal life is... albeit frantic and challenging due entirely to her own choices. I don't think that's an excuse... you're paid to do job X, now do it. I don't care that you're tired today because you chose to do volunteer work at the animal shelter again late last night. That's noble of you, but you're getting a sizeable paycheck to do a job properly here today. Apparently my manager sees things differently, or doesn't care as much.

Right now I am doing two things: documenting how much of my time (and by extension, the company's money) is wasted each time I have to clean up the coworker's shoddy work, and offering solutions to my manager to suggest ways to mitigate the damage by changing the coworker's responsibilities. Both are about clearly laying the problem (and potential solutions) at my manager's feet.

If neither of these things pan out in the next six months, then I might start looking elsewhere.

But keep one last thing in mind... surely something must be good for you at your job. Are you considering that, too? For me, it's that my manager is extremely flexible. Despite the fact that she continually coddles underperforming employees, and that she delegates to the point of laziness, she's flexible enough that it might be worth it to me overall to just gut it out. Do you have anything that mitigates the pain point you're experiencing with this coworker?
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:45 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't put up with that nonsense. Your company is dysfunctional if there is an employee who is not only not productive, but is causing others to be unproductive.

Document issues, dates, times, specifics. Keep your emotions out of it. Explain what the problem was, what your coworker did or didn't do, and the subsequent issues downstream.

Present this documentation to your manager and say, "I would be better off alone, than having to correct the mistakes and problems that this person causes. Is there a way to break up this team and to assign tasks and projects separately? If not, I'll need to find a situation that doesn't pair me with someone so wholly unsuited to the job." Be prepared to leave after saying that, if they don't reassign you.

My question is, why is this person still working there if he/she is as incompetant as you say? Does he know where the bodies are buried? Is he sexually involved with someone in management? Is your manager so terrible that he/she is unable to see that this person is not only useless but negatively affects the team's efforts?

Something is going on here, and you're focusing on the wrong thing. No matter what, you've got to get another job. If you hang out with incompetants, their mistakes rub off on you. It's a stink you'll never get rid of.

Plan to leave, sooner rather than later. If the company is keeping this buffoon on the payroll, the place is too dysfunctional to be of any use to you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:47 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

My manager responds ridiculously well to explanations of how bad behavior is losing him money. It might be time for you to draw up a comprehensive report of how keeping this guy on your team is no longer remotely cost effective.

But the faster solution is definitely to get another job.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:53 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]

I work with someone who spends the majority of his days (70+%, no joke) either watching youtube videos about historical interests of his (loudly!) or taking personal calls. Over the years I've overheard him go through the process of changing his renter's insurance on the phone, annually go through his taxes for HOURS on the phone, buy a car, get car insurance, the works.

Ultimately, though, I can't do anything about his work habits, and his boss is satisfied with him (he doesn't cause trouble and is a very amiable sort of fellow) and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it, other than occasionally asking him to quieten it down so that I can be on my conference call or whatever.

I try to do this with a light hand but also not ignoring the fact that it is totally inappropriate that a coworker is disturbing my calls with his personal business. "Steve, I'm having a tough time hearing the call on the widget production scale-up over your conversation about car insurance. Could you take it to the break room?"

And I will not deny that it is totally frustrating. But owning your lack of responsibility (and ability to change it) helps. For the specific team-stuff, a) try to get reassigned b) try to get a new job c) agree with the other members of your team that the guy won't speak for the team in meetings and ask him not to do this. If he does, one of the others of you can politely step in.

Example "Oh we can get that done in ten minutes!" You "Well, that would be pretty fantastic, wouldn't it! The team will be able to accomplish it in three weeks."
posted by arnicae at 8:01 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

I think you have two issues here. One is that Coworker is more trouble than he's worth and the other is that you care a lot about the work you do. So instead of letting Coworker fall on his face, you are fixing his stuff. When he "absolves himself of responsibility", how exactly does that work? Do you then pick up the slack voluntarily? Or does your boss direct you to do it for him? Are you staying late or working extra hard to make deadlines because Coworker has not delivered his part?

Either way, the problem seems like it's only a problem for you since you are having to work extra to pick up his slack. You have to make it someone else's problem in order to have a chance at changing it. And, for your own sanity, distance yourself from Coworker as much as possible.

If you fix his work voluntarily and without anyone knowing then just stop. Yes, "just" stop - it's really as simple as that. Let his code stand as it is. Tell your boss, "I've completed my part but can't push it to production until Coworker has fixed his part. I'm going to move on to [next ticket, etc] until he's done." Tell your boss in a neutral or even cheerful way - not in a complaining way. Just state the facts.

If your boss directs you to fix Coworker's issues then say, "sure, boss. Would you like me to do that before or after I complete work on [whatever your task currently is]?" Make your boss make the decision on what gets done. Also, if you are staying late because of this then become "very busy" after work. "Sorry boss, I wish I could stay late but I've got a commitment tonight right after work."

When you have to deal with Coworker and he tries to put work on you, just politely decline: "Sorry I can't fix that, I have to work on getting X done today." When you go to a meeting with Coworker, sit as far away from him as possible so that you don't get included in his time estimates and promises just because you're sitting next to him.

The key to all this is to become emotionally detached from Coworker - and the work itself to some extent. If you are the "angry teammate" and grumbling about Coworker and missed deadlines all the time then people will notice and think that you are the problem. Be cheerful and friendly and look for ways to let your Coworker's work stand on its own.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:11 AM on May 23 [13 favorites]

Talk to your supervisor about this.

Beyond that, what snickerdoodle and Ertigan said.
posted by tckma at 8:21 AM on May 23

There's sort of a flowchart of options here.

First, have you tried having a serious sit-down with management about Coworker? I don't mean an offhand comment about a particular issue. I mean sending an email, setting up a time to meet, and having a no-shit sit down meeting specifically to discuss the issues you're having. Be prepared with a specific list of issues that have occurred in the recent past and how much time and/or other measurable resources they've cost you, others on the team, or other people. Make it clear that it isn't an "interpersonal issue" (which could easily be viewed as a 'you problem') but a problem with Coworker's performance dragging the team down and creating risk to the team's success.

If you haven't done that, do that.

If you've done that — and again, not just an offhand mention in a meeting called for another purpose, but really brought the issue to the forefront in an un-ignorable way — and nothing has gotten better, then your company's management is also broken.

In that case, are you in a position to leave? If yes, I'd start shopping your resume around. Working in a technical capacity for a company that doesn't manage its people well is a crappy situation and it tends to only get worse, not better. Run, flee, don't look back, GTFO, treat it like a building afire.

If management sucks but for whatever reason you're not in a position to leave, then you are stuck. You will have to accept the suck. You will have to let the suck flow through you. You could try humanizing Coworker, as parakeetdog suggests, or just read DFW's "Water" over and over, or consider Coworker to be a living embodiment of dukkha, placed there by the Universe as a lesson to others ... whatever it takes. Personally I think that accepting mediocrity like that is professionally corrosive, and I'm not sure I could handle it—eventually I'd be pulling a Milton down in the basement, contemplating burning the building down—but if you're in an area where that's the only employment option and you need the work / benefits, you might have to take the bullet.

But in any event, don't be Coworker's cleanup crew. Some people need to feel the wheels of the bus running over them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:13 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

Do you have any vacation time or sick days that you can take? If so, take them. Let your supervisor know that you are leaving the person that he hired in charge and that you feel that this will be a good test of coworker's value to the company. Turn off your phone and run away for a week or two. When you return, and everything is a mess, go to your supervisor and say that either coworker goes or you do, but there is no way that you can continue to carry him. He not only doesn't do his job but he makes your job impossibly difficult to do.
posted by myselfasme at 10:20 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]

Ah, the bafflingly incompetent fellow employee. It's not only irritating or even stressful to deal with their mistakes and laziness at work, but I think that they set off a deeper resentment; how the hell do they get to have a job -- without earning it or working hard to keep it -- when you are knocking yourself out to maintain a high standard? It's just fundamentally unfair.

I worked with a guy at a summer camp, as a teenager, who sounds kinda like your workplace nemesis: head always somewhere else; unable to "hear" and apply simple instructions or be in the right place at the right time; or to even understand "time" in the same way everyone else did. But he was a legitimately nice guy, if somewhat socially awkward, so he was kept on long enough to become a real irritant to the staff as a whole. Eventually, he temporarily lost some special-needs kids while on a hike. Nothing strictly life-threatening (the woods weren't that vast), but enough to provide solid reason for termination. Could be that Coworker is actually one proverbial lost camper from being shown the door...

More recently, I was employed alongside someone who lacked basic skills for their position, injured themselves daily, had a terrible attitude/work ethic, etc. This employee even regularly set things on effin' fire. Irritated me on sight, after a while, and we weren't even in the same department. Still there, after some seven or more years, last I heard. A true mystery.

Another time, I worked under someone who had beat me out for a job I had also desired. I swallowed my disappointment and resolved to do good work for her. She proved to be pretty inept and disorganized, and somewhat dishonest to boot. After having my fill of covering for her tardiness, working extra hours to fix her errors, and so on, I started carefully documenting the wasted time and money, and actively figuring out more efficient approaches. I went to our shared boss with this information, being sure to 1) remain professional, 2) make my frustrations clearly known, without moaning or exaggerating, and 3) use my documentation to show how things could be better. I had her job shortly, because money talks (to even the kindest-hearted manager). It was actually a really valuable experience, in hindsight; I learned all sorts of pitfalls to avoid, and was able hit the ground running once I replaced her.

Moving forward, try to keep your frustrations with Coworker as compartmentalized as possible. Be honest with yourself regarding which offenses are legitimately harming the workplace, which ones are legitimately draining you or damaging your prospects, and which are just bugging you because -- at this point -- Coworker is irritating as all get-out. Document the first two categories, and do your best to laugh off the third. Above all, try to refocus on solutions and whatever positive lessons you can gain from the situation. Sit down formally with management, and calmly present your case, moving from how Coworker's constant cockups are harming you/daily operations to how the situation can be improved. If they can't see your side of things, it may well be time to look elsewhere for employment.
posted by credible hulk at 10:26 AM on May 23 [5 favorites]

Agreeing with others here who have said you must show how much money your coworker has been costing the company. Most manager types are financially loss-averse like that and require explicit, irrefutable proof.
posted by hush at 10:46 AM on May 23

Every software team should have a ticket system in place - if not, get one! - where each ticket is tracked for things like estimates vs. actual time to completion, botched tickets that had to be re-opened, tickets marked "ready for test" that didn't work in production, and dependent tickets being thrown off schedule. With these pieces in place, you should be able to generate a report that shows your work mate's productivity in all its glory, take it to your boss and watch Lazy McStupid lose his job.

To be clear, I am NOT advocating generating a report for HIM, but rather, generating a report for YOU, showing how many hours you spent fixing his tickets, how many Important Deadlines (that you had personal or shared responsibility for) were thrown because your dependent tickets were delayed by his tickets, and so on. Keep the focus on YOUR productivity and let your boss connect the dots.
posted by rada at 11:15 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]

You have a couple choices:
1. Document his problems and go to management with your concerns. This is what I would do (have done more than once) first. In one case, the work was too technical for management to really understand it, and they canned his ass almost immediately when they found out. Good management will deal with the issue by either separating the two of you, whipping him into shape or firing him. In another case, they wouldn't deal with the useless lout, so I quit.
2. Do his work for him. I had to do this on teams in college. It sucked, but the work was limited in scope and relatively-short term. I don't see this as viable in a professional situation.
3. Quit. Last resort, as far as I'm concerned.

I think the right thing to do is to be honest with your employer and give them an opportunity to address the issue. If they choose not to, quit.

On preview:
"I would be better off alone, than having to correct the mistakes and problems that this person causes. Is there a way to break up this team and to assign tasks and projects separately? If not, I'll need to find a situation that doesn't pair me with someone so wholly unsuited to the job."

@Ruthless Bunny gives great advice in general, but don't say the last thing. Firing ultimatums at your employer is counterproductive, especially as a first step.
posted by cnc at 11:55 AM on May 23

"I realize I sound very judgmental here,..."

You do not! I was feeling stressed out just reading your post. I know what it's like to have no choice but to depend on someone who is utterly undependable. IYou want to be a grown up and say- ok, I can't change another human being, so I either have to be/work with someone else or accept the fact that the work the person has to do will simply not get done. BUT if you don't have the option of doing the activity with someone else and you don't have the option of the activity being left undone... this is a hell that ages and stresses you like no other thing I've ever experienced. Because it feels like you don't have the option to accept what is. I suppose Elchkart Tolle might say that the spiritual thing would be accepting that you just can't accept... not that I have any idea how to do that.

I really think you should try to find another job. This is a horrible way to live your life. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. You not only have to worry about doing your own work, but you also have to worry about how this person is going to affect it. The fact that your management knows this guy is a pain and still keeps him on shows that he's either the son of an investor in the company or that management doesn't care enough to do anything about it. Your sanity is worth way more than what they are likely to be paying you.
posted by olivetree at 2:04 PM on May 23

My management is aware that I have a hard time working with Coworker, and has admitted before that Coworker is a hard person to work with in general.

It's not about you having a hard time or about coworker being hard to work with - that gets management off the hook of doing anything about it because it's a "personality conflict." But it's not personal - it's professional. You're wasting the resources of two programmers - one who underperforms and the other (you) whose own tasks get shafted when you have to clean up his messes. This is about efficiency, productivity, accuracy, etc. Not about your personal opinion. Present it that way and leave your feelings out of it, and don't let your management try to make it about getting along.
posted by headnsouth at 2:13 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]

He breaks things all the time because he's too lazy to run the tests we have in place to protect against breakages. He makes big promises about what we can deliver, then utterly fails to follow through.

Can this be remedied/addressed at least in part by automating your test suite? I'm a programmer too, and I'd be tempted to suggest implementing some type of policy where his svn/cvs/git/whatever checkins MUST pass an automated regression testing suite in order to be accepted. This serves two functions, depending on how he reacts. Either (1) his checkins start to pass the tests, which at least provides you with a minimum amount of faith that he hasn't completely broken your product, or (2) he stops (successfully) checking anything in, which will provide a sort of record for you to point at when you tell management he's useless.

That's my only concrete suggestion; onto less programmer-y ways of fixing this problem. Obviously if nepotism or something like that is at work, there's only so much you can do, but this sounds partially like management either doesn't know how much or doesn't care that he's making your life a living hell. You need to work with them to get them to understand better (they seem to know, at least partly so), if it's the first, or if they don't care, then you're probably SOL and should polish up the old resume. Life is too short, and it's not like software engineers aren't sought after. Management is going to continue to let the situation play as it has, because it's working for them, until you either make them aware of the ways it's costing them that they don't already see (hours of your time lost fixing his mistakes) or you force their hand (him-or-me suddenly makes the situation stop working for them).
posted by axiom at 7:00 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]

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