Colleague problem. Problem colleague. What do I do?
June 7, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

My colleague is becoming a nightmare to work with, and I'm worried both about our shared projects and about her personally. There's no clear official procedure to follow, and taking it further up the ladder is getting me nowhere. Help!

Me and 'Emily' both work in a small, friendly department in a huge and complex organisation. I'm the newest employee; Emily's been here for around five years now. We're late 20s/early 30s. She's popular and well-liked, and really good at her job.

About a year ago, Emily started going through some personal life turmoil. People were happy to pitch in and cut down on her workload while she dealt with things at home. After a few months, though, I started getting really worried that the stuff she was still doing wasn't coming along very fast, and we had deadlines coming up. Emily's role overlaps with mine to a higher degree than it does anyone else's, so my job was going to really suffer if her part wasn't getting done.

After I shared those concerns with the rest of our team (repeatedly, since at first people just reassured me Emily was good at her job and wouldn't let people down), and people started asking to actually see Emily's files, it turned out that she'd been doing nothing at all work-wise for nearly two months. Cue chaos. Most people were teetering between concerned and furious - on the one hand, it's hard to summon up massive amounts of sympathy for someone who split their work hours between Facebook and going out to long lunches with their boyfriend, but on the other hand this was totally uncharacteristic for Emily.

In fact, most of the personal turmoil she was going through was totally uncharacteristic for Emily as well. She was flipping back and forth between her husband and the new BF, talking divorce one day and dismissing it the next, ditching a huge amount of her old hobbies and interests and getting really negative about everything. She seemed stressed and ill all the time. She would talk a lot about wanting to 'sort [her] life out'. She wasn't herself.

So we were worried, and because of that she didn't get in massive amounts of trouble over the not-doing-any-work thing. (She was offered paid time off or help through our EAP, but refused both.) Instead the department held an intervention-style meeting in which it was made pretty clear to her that she needed to pick up the slack. I was a bit worried at the time that she seemed to be dodging most of the responsibility for it (talking vaguely about things just taking longer than she'd expected, and so on), but was mostly relieved that at least the problem was being addressed. And I thought things would change now.

Except it's been a year, and they really haven't.

It's difficult to describe Emily's approach to work, but mostly the problem is that she's doing very little while constantly complaining about how overworked she is. We're sure that this isn't actually the case; her list of responsibilities is much smaller than everyone else's, and they're responsibilities others of us have had in the past, so we know what's involved. Her boss has suggested weekly timesheets to demonstrate how much time she's spending on what, but she says she doesn't have time to do them. And the responsibilities she does have are being done half-heartedly and overwhelmingly crappily, usually late and never above minimum requirements at best.

But the weird thing is she seems to genuinely believe she's overworked and nobody appreciates her contributions. She's talked about this repeatedly, growing hugely agitated each time. She accepts no responsibility for the project she messed up last year (even when it's couched as 'I know you had a hard time last summer', she responds with 'I didn't let it affect my job', even when it clearly, demonstrably did). She does things like dropping by my desk to complain about how she has ten reports to complete and doesn't know how she'll find time to do them, when I'm sitting in front of a pile of fifty of my own; when I pointed this out she just looked at me baffled, as though I wasn't making any sense. Last time we had a meeting in which people asked her if she'd met any (any!) of her deadlines for the past month, she produced a graph she'd drawn of the number of times people had phoned her office extension over the month and how long each phone call was, to demonstrate how busy she was. It was in full colour and everything; it must have taken her ages. (It also showed less phone calls that most of us get, too.) And no, she hadn't made a single one of those deadlines. It is really, really bizarre behaviour.

As mentioned above, I'm the one whose job is affected by this more than anyone else's, but it's not like everyone else doesn't know about the problem. They do, they're worried and frustrated too. And yet, nothing gets done. Everyone's just stumped, basically; talking to her supportively doesn't do anything, phrasing it as 'you're letting other people down!' doesn't do anything. Our immediate boss has changed four times in the last year, so there isn't even a proper record of what's happened; our organisation is huge and really weirdly structured, and she's just sort of fallen through the cracks. I've spoken to people within our team both formally and informally, requesting that something at least gets done, because this situation is bad for our work and doesn't seem to be any good for Emily either. But nobody wants to make it any more official or aggressive than it's already got, because they're worried about her mental health and think such steps might just make it worse without improving things in the office.

I really don't know what to do. We're working on a new project now that's my first big responsibility, but Emily's assigned to work on it too, and already she's dragging her feet and making it hard to get anywhere. There's nobody else who could easily be swapped in instead of her; I could go over the head of my team manager and officially request it from the next boss up, but that would mean having to make an official complaint about Emily at a very high level, and pretty much everyone on my team has already requested that I not do that. Our HR are useless and don't consider this sort of thing to be within their remit. And hell, I don't want to make Emily's life worse either; I really liked her before all this kicked off, and it's miserable seeing her stressed and unhappy all the time. I don't want to tip her towards a breakdown.

So after all that, and with apologies for the length, what I'm looking for is ideas on how to tackle this situation - with Emily, with my immediate team and immediate bosses, with the big managers above us. Bonus advice on how to stay calm and constructive about the whole thing would be appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
When I had something like that happen at a job - I ended up getting fired. It sucked, but it was also the best possible thing that could have happened. I was terrible at the job (and am much much happier now, and actually like what I'm paid to do). Could she be trying to get fired to get unemployment?

That said, when I got fired, I knew it was coming (I was ridiculously behind at my job - there was no way to catch up. It was both my negligence AND that there was more work than I could do, though. They hired 1.5 or 2 people to replace me). I don't know how she could possibly not know how badly she's screwing up.
posted by bibliogrrl at 8:29 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow. All I can say is continue to document what is going on with supervisors and on paper, without complaining, just treating it like you're providing information that as a boss, they need to know, and continue to try to do your job.

It doesn't seem like intervening or trying to be supportive of Emily is helping in the slightest, and may be causing you further frustration. Instead, be cordial and friendly with her but don't try to solve her problems for her.

Regarding your new project, don't give her any responsibilities that will cause significant problems if/when she fails to complete them. I might try something like breaking her responsibilities into small little tasks and just stay on her about them, e.g. on Monday, "Hi Emily, Just wanted to see if you've put together the spreadsheet for the project? Yeah, if you could send it to me by the end of the day, that would be great." Etc, etc.

Don't give her big goals that she will fail to meet, break it up into little achievable pieces and offer encouragement and support each time she completes one of those pieces (she has had plenty of support for failing to do anything, I don't think that is something she needs from you).

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 8:29 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

...that would mean having to make an official complaint about Emily at a very high level, and pretty much everyone on my team has already requested that I not do that.

Why not do this?

Your co-workers know that stuff is going on, but they don't have the same working-overlap relationship that you have with her, so your co-workers might not be comprehending all of it as you do.

You have no responsibility for her personal life outside of work, other than that it is severely affecting work.
posted by TinWhistle at 8:31 AM on June 7, 2011 [18 favorites]

If your coworkers don't want you do make an official complaint, what do they want you to do? Either they are willing to help you out at the team level, or they want you to deal with it yourself, in which case, you'll need to go to a higher up. You can perhaps bring it up a week into the project: Emily is falling behind in ways X, Y and Z, so I cannot complete my parts or the entire project on time. Either we need to fix this among us, or I need to go to Big Manager to get someone else assigned to this projcet.

I also think it would be helpful for Emily to actually see consequences to her actions.
posted by jeather at 8:43 AM on June 7, 2011 [14 favorites]

IANAD, but Emily's behavior matches mine right before I was diagnosed with clinical depression. In fact, getting fired from my job was one of the events that finally prompted me to seek help, which resulted in the diagnosis.

A depressed person may actually feel like their workload is overwhelming, even when it doesn't appear to be so to the outside observer. Please have some compassion for her. If she is clinically depressed, just getting to work in the morning could be the major accomplishment of her day. (I'm not saying don't be angry - you have every right to be upset, imo - but your beef should be with management who has let someone linger on the payroll who is not doing the work they're getting paid for.)

Is there anyone who is close enough to her to suggest she seek therapy? It may even require that person to find a therapist and physically accompany Emily to the appointment. That's what it took for me - a concerned friend noticed what was going on, and practically dragged me to the doctor.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:43 AM on June 7, 2011 [12 favorites]

Ummm.. she's having an affair that is affecting her work and she's getting sympathy?

I think you need to talk with your manager and tell them that you understand that they all have personal ties to this woman, but you just can't rely on her for your team and ask that they assign someone else. Bring examples of why you are already behind and what she hasn't done, how you've tried to get her to do the work.

If they refuse, ask what will happen when the project comes in late.
posted by rich at 8:43 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and ask them for exactly how they'd like you to deal with her, documentation-wise, workload wise, and expectations, and if you should copy them on all correspondence so they can track issues.
posted by rich at 8:44 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think you're doing anyone else any favors by coddling this woman. I'd escalate this matter immediately.

I went through a divorce and I know there are hard days. But she has to put her personal life aside at work as best as humanly possible.
posted by PsuDab93 at 8:44 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

She's popular and well-liked, and really good at her job.

Because of this, I would tread carefully. If your colleagues are telling you not to push this up the ladder, then don't push it up the ladder. You don't want to piss off your other colleagues and have this end up looking like you have some problem with Emily who's really so wonderful (when she's not).

You know way too much about her personal life. I would try to ignore that as much as possible and be as professional as possible. Make sure you send stuff through email and keep copies (ie don't just have undocumented conversations) so you have a record of her lack of contributions to this project.

Bumping this up is likely to irritate your colleagues. Emily will probably figure out it was you (one of your colleagues might tell her). She likely wouldn't get fired right away anyway. And her work patterns might not change. So you could end up with everyone pissed at you, but nothing else changing. That is not ideal.

Do your job; keep your head down.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:52 AM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is a management issue. If she's not doing the work she's given, that's a problem. You need to put your foot down and document how she's failing and then make a formal, documented, complaint.
posted by unSane at 9:04 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My approach would be: ask your colleagues if they are willing to pick up her slack, so that your projects get done in a timely manner. If you get no takers, ask them what they feel you should do, as the person who stands to be directly affected by her behavior. My feeling is that no one will step up, and then you can make it clear that if they are asking you to not do anything while at the same time offering no solutions, then their request to keep quiet is unreasonable. After this has been made clear to them, I'd escalate the situation so that no one can say you weren't up-front and above board.

Or...would you feel comfortable taking her out to lunch and laying things out on the table?
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:05 AM on June 7, 2011 [24 favorites]

I've noticed that sometimes well-behaved, reasonable employees are asked to put up with nonsense because managers just don't want to deal with trouble-maker employees. Your manager should be holding Emily accountable, and escalating to the higher-ups if that doesn't persuade her to change her behavior. Instead, your manager is fostering a dysfunctional, counterproductive group dynamic on his/her team, in which bad behavior is protected and even rewarded. Personally, I'd be looking for a new job, or at least a way to switch teams within the company.

The way I see it, you have two options if you want to keep working there. You can either escalate directly to the higher-ups and deal with the fallout from your team, or you can approach your manager with something like: "I need XYZ in order to successfully complete my project. You and I both agree that Emily's work (or lack thereof) is preventing XYZ. So, I've thought of three possible solutions: 1) you could move Emily off my project and hire a replacement; 2) you could hold Emily accountable for her actions and give consequences if her work doesn't improve; or 3) I could file a complaint with the higher-ups regarding Emily's behavior. I'm not looking to punish Emily, I don't want to hurt her, but I'm not willing to let my project fail simply because our group can't find a way to address the problems with her work. I need your support as my manager to find a solution."
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:07 AM on June 7, 2011 [39 favorites]

I'd first divide this into two categories: things that aren't your business, and things that are your job. She whines when her workload is lighter? Irrelevant, a distraction. She has a track record of non-performance and has been assigned to your project? Major risk to your project's success, your job to manage.

Ok, so how to manage it. You think she's dead weight. You're probably right. Can you succeed with the other staff you have available? Make a plan that very carefully observes what conditions help her succeed and perform, if any, and doesn't expect anything unrealistic. And without scuttling the project in any way, you need to document her role and answers to questions like "why can't Emily do that?" They think she will do more than you think she will, so be ready to justify your opinion there when you go to ask for more help.

You also don't want to be blamed for her non-performance on your project, so do everything right towards her in terms of making her part of the team (e.g., invite her to the kickoff meeting, have a one-on-one about her skills and how you really want her to play X important role and what does she have time to commit to?). Then get her on paper as basically saying "this is what I have time to do," and then demonstrate that even when you take only what she offers to commit to, she misses those deadlines. Enlist your direct supervisor in thinking about how best to take advantage of her skills, given that she does seem to have more work than she can handle.

All along, consider that it's possible that this might be the one project she completes. If you know her work style better than anyone, maybe you'll be the only one whose expectations will meet her where she is at in a way that helps her successfully meet them. Of course, don't blame yourself when it isn't, but go into this hoping that she will live up to your expectations and the commitments she makes to you. It may also help to be compassionate in all the ways you deal with her, not letting her off the hook, but internally accepting that she must be having a very hard time, and outwardly saying that you don't want to add to a workload that is already overwhelming but you do want her skills and experience to benefit this effort to the extent possible.

And again, ignore all of these other distractions. It's annoying but so are a lot of things, and it's your job not to let stupid stuff interfere with getting the work done.
posted by salvia at 9:10 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think I can offer better advice than has been given already, but feel compelled to point out:

She's... really good at her job.

No, she isn't.
posted by Specklet at 9:34 AM on June 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

I hate the corporatespeak term, "manage up" that I always seem to hear in my reviews, but I think it applies here. Unless your supervisors really understand the workloads and responsibilities on each employee, they are not going to be aware of problems with Emily. I'd start with a heart-to-heart all those even peripherally concerned before you go into formal documented complaints. And make sure that the supervisors understand that you don't want to rock the boat with Emily or the other colleagues, but that you want the work to get done on time and well.
posted by lily_bart at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2011

Our HR are useless and don't consider this sort of thing to be within their remit.

I don't understand this, and I also feel that your immediate supervisor is really not doing his job to support his team and take responsibility for this difficult situation.

I'd say go to your boss and suggest (since it seems like all people do in your company is suggest things) a course very much what Meg_Murry posits above, but with at least one added step:

1. I can't get my job done relying on Emily. I need you to assign someone else to help me.
2. If you can't assign someone else, I have to know I can rely on Emily. That means I need you to make her accountable for her responsibilities with our project. Regular progress reports and real consequences when she misses a deadline (like writing her up formally) are the way to do that.
3. As an alternative to having the formal complaint go in her file, you could give Emily the option of the EAP again. I'm sure this could be coordinated through HR. I'm just looking for a solution here, not trying to get her fired.
4. If this doesn't happen, I have no choice but make this complaint official. I don't want to, but Emily's actions are keeping me from getting my own work done.
posted by misha at 10:14 AM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

You and your team want to be compassionate, which is a fine thing. Talk to her supervisor, phrasing it as (genuine) concern: E is not working at her previously great level of productivity and competence. She has had turmoil in her private life. The team is concerned about her, and, honestly, it's affecting everyone's performance and morale. We all want to know how we can effectively help her resolve whatever's going on.

From that point on, it becomes supervisor's problem. Document E's work, and the effect it has on your project. During your regular meetings w/ supervisor, note that the progress is affected by Es (lack of) performance. Be matter-of-fact. You have no need to resolve this problem. You have every expectation of having the resources needed for your project.

Does your company have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? or good benefits for mental health care? Encourage E to make use of these resources.
posted by theora55 at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2011

@theora55 - FWIW, OP mentioned 'Emily' rejecting EAP and PTO.
posted by kuanes at 10:44 AM on June 7, 2011

Do your own work and document, document, document. Your musical chairs supervisors will need lots of supporting documentation to do anything.

Meanwhile, as an HR person, I'd like to point out that many corporate EAP programs are well-equipped to help you deal with this kind of situation - dealing with Emily, the rotating cast of supervisors, your misguided band of peers, and your own frustrations. And they are very familiar with the politics of their home organization.

Finally, I want to second the idea that a real failure/rejection of some kind may be exactly what Emily needs. She is living in limbo, and it does her no long-term favors to let her coast along like this, pissing everyone off and making no progress on her issues.
posted by SMPA at 10:54 AM on June 7, 2011

Personally, I would leave this job. The management situation that allowed this to happen is not one that will benefit you. Going to hr hasn't worked. You're just setting yourself up for more work and the potential to fail your project and look bad to the company yourself.
posted by sweetkid at 11:22 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

yeah, I'd start looking now but in the meantime, do whatever you can to shrink her responsibilities. Maybe don't even ask if someone can replace her but you just say you need an additional person on the team.

Is the work she is doing ancillary or part of the building blocks of what you need? In other words, if she were writing the help documentation and you were in charge of getting the actual program done then I would deliver the program and say, "Emily will deliver her portion when she is done". Or, if she were a QA person, I'd deliver it and say, "here it is. It hasn't been QA'd so whenever Emily does that, I'll be happy to revisit".

Also, who is the project for? Is it for someone who is outside of your immediate department? Maybe if you just let them know, matter-of-factly, "I'm sorry we won't be able to make the deadline next Friday since I have nothing from Emily at this point and she needed to deliver her entire portion by 3:00 this afternoon." Then that would get someone else pushing from outside of the department.

Good luck - I have a similar situation here and I have basically said that I won't work with "Emily" anymore because I always end up working nights and weekends because she hasn't done her part.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:36 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get your boss and HR in the same room and explain that no one is handling the Emily situation and that it's the biggest risk in the project. If your boss doesn't put her on a performance improvement plan within two weeks, start looking for a new job.
posted by brainwane at 11:48 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every week, on Friday, take a baseline of what has been done and what was not done. take it to your supervisor and tell him/her "this is what I have done, this is what is missing. We are behind X days now."


Don't make it more confrontational that just a statement of fact. If you do this you don't have to demand anything, you are doing your work and reporting the progress of the project and what still needs to be done. At some point they will panic and pull other people in to do the slack.

Depending on how much you internalize this, that is can you be satisfied with doing your work in this manner, you may need to escalate it at some point. Be prepared to quit/find another job and lay it down as simple as she goes or I go... and you may well have to go.
posted by edgeways at 11:55 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ultimately you are dealing with a management problem even more than a co-worker problem. Emily is the symptom that could apparently have been dealt with over a year ago.

If you don't want to look for new work, the best you can do is be very factual about what you can get done, and deliver on it. If folks ask you to take up more of the work because your co-workers don't do theirs, politely inquire about compensation for the effort. Keep everything based on what you can promise, your performance, etc. Don't get into reviewing other people's mental state or motives if your manager isn't willing to be a part of those solutions. Just stick to how their production or actions impact the amount of work that gets done.

If you are made to feel you should be doing more for less to make things work, go ahead and use every resource available to protect your job, including discussion with HR.

It is possible that this organization doesn't want to become functional, in which case you'll need to decide to live with this world and how it treats you, or move on.
posted by meinvt at 12:04 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going to push back against some of the advice being offered here. I think you need to decide which is more important: fixing this issue with Emily or having your job. You could possibly have both. But you need to decide if fixing this stuff with Emily is worth the possible damage to your reputation. I think it's highly relevant that your coworkers don't want you to pursue this. Do you know why? Is it because they don't suffer when Emily doesn't do her work? Or is it possibly because they've known her longer and maybe even like her better than they like you? Would they back you up if a supervisor came down and asked around about Emily's performance? Or would the supervisor be told, "We told Anon not to pursue this."

You also say you are the newest person. Are you very confident of your standing in the office?

I know it's easy to get really caught up in bad stuff like this at work. It feels wrong, and like it should be dealt with. But it seems like your supervisor isn't interested in dealing with it. If that person hears about this from their boss, that won't necessarily make them love you.

To expand on what I said above: you know far too much about Emily's personal situation. Like, why do you know she was given time off and refused? How do you know she's not using EAP benefits? These are very private issues. Are there boundary issues in the whole place?

And are you absolutely positively sure that everyone agrees about Emily and they're not just sort of humoring you?

I think it's a very serious thing to bump up above your supervisor to essentially tattle on someone.

I like the approach edgeways said, just above. Think about the problems you are having in this project. Set up a timeline or work flow or whatever you do. Then, if you don't get certain pieces of information or work that you need, go to your supervisor and say, "How should I move ahead in this situation?" That makes it your supervisor's problem to help you, and not your job to get someone to deal with Emily.

The other thing... has Emily already not done something for this project? Or are you expecting the worst?

Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering why Emily is so protected. There may be some relationship she has, politically, that you don't know about.

I also agree that you should start looking for a new job or some kind of lateral move within the company.

Keep Emily's personal life out of this and don't be a tattle tale. I think it is imperative, however, that you ask for an extra person for this project. Do this without mentioning Emily at all, if possible. It doesn't sound like your managers have any idea what actually goes on there, so frame it any way you like.


You seem overly caught up in Emily's drama. I know that you work closely with her, but still, you've let this effect you WAY too much on an emotional level. It's not healthy for you.

Start distancing yourself from this woman and remain professional. Rely on a purely functional and professional demeanor when dealing with her. Keep it to work, only. Keep it about the tasks in play. In other words, keep your distance.

Everyone else seems to be helping Emily slide. Don't you be involved in that. In case no one has mentioned this - Emily's work is not your responsibility, Emily's well being is NOT your responsibility. Everyone shielding her is hurting her in the long run. Don't be a part of that.
posted by jbenben at 12:46 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Way back when I was a cook, we had a waitress in the restaurant who didn't cover her share of tables. She was related to the manager, so she had no reason to fear being terminated for her poor work ethic. Also, she suffered from some sort of mental illness. One day, she had a total break from reality and went wandering off down a busy city street, carrying a coffee pot. They found her in the waiting area of the local cable company, still holding the coffee pot.

I have enough distance on these events to feel sympathy for her now, but at the time she made my life miserable. Plates piled up, food got cold, my manager was a screamer. The other waitstaff eventually divided up her work, just to keep things running smoothly. I served a few tables myself, heaven help us all.

Maybe you can arrange with your team members to do some of Emily's workload while she wanders down the path toward whatever her reward will be. I do think it's smart to document, but you'll alienate your team members if you pursue this too far. You'll need people on your side to help you get the work complete.

It's my strong impression that many workplaces harbor folks like your Emily. If management turns a blind eye for whatever reason, it's up to the staff to make the best of things. I apologize if that sounds like I believe it's a good thing to enable behavior like Emily's. I don't feel that way at all. In my opinion, the only good here is preserving your job.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 1:37 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

« Older Help me find a "Presentation appliance"   |   Cake puddle avoidance. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.