My co-worker is increasingly flaky. What's the ethical thing to do?
August 7, 2017 6:31 AM   Subscribe

One of my co-workers has become increasingly flaky, forgetful and late. We share duties so this means I have to remind him to do things, or do them when he forgets. He's always apologetic, but the underlying behavior isn't getting any better. I'm thinking of talking with our boss about it, but I don't want to throw my co-worker under the bus.

Types of things that have been getting worse:

- failure to complete time-sensitive work
- not getting to work on time because of oversleeping/missing his alarm
- careless errors due to being overwhelmed or trying to do too many things at once

I have seniority over him but we have similar job descriptions. He knows when he's screwed up, feels really bad and says he'll do X, Y and Z next time to make sure that it doesn't happen... but then it happens again. I'm frustrated with having to double check his work and frustrated by the fact that I feel like I can't rely on him to get his work done when I'm depending on him to pull his weight.

I feel like I've exhausted all the other options besides talking to management, but I want to be very VERY careful before I raise the issue with our boss. I don't want to rat on him or throw him under the bus.

What is the right thing to do here?
posted by MetaFilter World Peace to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like your colleague might be experiencing some mental health problems. I don't have a clear solution for you, but this might be the most productive way for you to frame the problem in your own mind. If you have the kind of relationship that allows it, it might be more productive in the long term to ask him how he is in himself, as opposed to how he is about work. Good luck.
posted by matthew.alexander at 6:39 AM on August 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

Could you ask your manager to institute a morning standup or scrum? Make it a casual all-hands meeting that happens precisely at the start of the working day. Everyone stands up (important!), puts their phones away, and takes 30-60 seconds and describes what they accomplished yesterday and what they plan to do today.

It might be enough to encourage your junior co-worker to be on time and be aware of their time-sensitive issues. If he is truly overwhelmed with tasks or if he's just slacking, it will become apparent to everyone in very short time. If he continually misses the meeting, that will surface even quicker.

I'm not suggesting this as a passive-aggressive away to get the junior coworker fired for incompetence or tardiness. It's a nice teamwork tool that doesn't consume a lot of time and keeps everyone on the same page for complex tasks. It also helps you mentally organize your own day and decide which tasks are important to handle first and which are needed later. Both of these features are something that could benefit your coworker.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:44 AM on August 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

As someone who has been this person -- for reasons -- many times, I definitely would appreciate you sitting down with me and saying, Look, you're dropping balls all over the place. Here's the impact it is having on me. I haven't yet addressed this with our manager, and I wanted to talk to you about it first. I hope you are ok, and I also need these things to change.

That would be highly motivating to me, anyway.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:45 AM on August 7, 2017 [86 favorites]

I've had issues like your coworker during times of stress and depression in my life. I agree that you should take him aside and kindly ask if anything is wrong, without prying, and if there is anything you can do.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:47 AM on August 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

I like the idea of gently asking if everything is okay. I'd suggest doing it out of the office, maybe over coffee or lunch, since he may be reluctant to talk about this stuff at work.

Personally I find that daily stand-up meetings and scrums cause a loss of motivation and productivity, but YMMV.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:16 AM on August 7, 2017 [20 favorites]

Also -- if it's having a negative impact on your work, I want to clarify that you should discuss it with your manager if necessary (assuming your manager is not an insane loon), and that you aren't responsible for helping your colleague "get better". If you can advocate for yourself kindly, that's the best.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:18 AM on August 7, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am sometimes your coworker, for mental health reasons, and would appreciate you having the sit-down with me before going to my manager, about how my work is affecting you as a big-picture discussion vs. just one-offs when specific things happen.

That said, I certainly don't feel a coworker would be required to go to me before going to my manager. If that's not a discussion you want to take on, you don't have to. You can go to your manager and make it their problem, assuming they are somewhat reasonable managers - that's what they're getting paid for.

FWIW, I would be eternally mortified, probably to the further detriment of those mental health issues, if I knew that a workplace-wide solution like a scrum had been implemented, inconveniencing all of my coworkers, because of my own screw-ups. And from the other side of that I'd be really annoyed and upset if my workplace initiated something like that because of one coworker's lateness or tendency to errors. I recognize that might be a reasonable solution in some fields and work cultures, but not others.
posted by Stacey at 7:27 AM on August 7, 2017 [21 favorites]

First, amazing sockpuppet name. Second, I think you owe it to this person to be really direct and clear about what is going on.

He knows when he's screwed up, feels really bad and says he'll do X, Y and Z next time to make sure that it doesn't happen... but then it happens again. I'm frustrated with having to double check his work and frustrated by the fact that I feel like I can't rely on him to get his work done when I'm depending on him to pull his weight.

It's not entirely clear from your question, but I get the feeling that the kind of sit-down that chesty_a_arthur suggests has not happened - it's more a situation where you have repeatedly pointed out the problems as they arise, rather than a more general discussion. I absolutely would prefer that kind of discussion if I were your co-worker to you talking to management, but if that has happened, or if it does and nothing changes, you absolutely should go to the boss.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:43 AM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would also say talk to the person before talking to your manager if possible. If they've said they feel terrible and will do x/y/z to make sure it doesn't happen again next time, but then it does happen again, I think it would be reasonable to have a bigger-picture discussion along the lines of "[thing] has happened again and although you've said you'll do x, y or z in future to make sure it doesn't, that doesn't seem to be working out - can we take a look at the wider picture/pattern and think about ways to mitigate this or stop it from happening next time?"

It's a conversation to be had from a place of kindness, definitely, and you could use it to segue into the "is there anything else going on in your life that you want to talk about/that I can help you with" conversation.

I think the thing to be clear on is that you want to find a solution that will actually work, even if that's "we acknowledge that you're not in a good place to do [thing] right now and I will pick up more of it for a bit".

Shame is a powerful motivator for making up solutions that sound perfect that you can't actually follow through on, and shame is likely to be a factor in this whether it's mental health stuff, ADHD-type stuff or just general life crisis/realising you're not on top of your game right now stuff.

You want the real "what is going to make this work" answer, not the one that sounds really good and gets you off their back in the short term but they can't follow through on in the long term. Look out for responses along the lines of "I'm really sorry and I will do it perfectly next time", especially if there's a pattern of that not happening, and go probing if that's the first answer you get.
posted by terretu at 7:47 AM on August 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

If your manager is a good manager, they are not going to fire him or put him on a PIP (not immediately anyway), they are going to tell him he's always been a good employee, and they were surprised to notice the quality of his work getting a little shaky, and they'll ask if he's got other things going on that are impacting his life and his focus. Then they start making suggestions of ways they can help him out, basically to bridge the gap at work until he gets his focus back and/or to provide resources that will help him get his focus back. These are all things you can do, as his senior coworker, except that you have a different toolbox of suggestions than your manager would.

You can offer things like encouragement, patience, and understanding, as well as task assistance (I’d recommend the kind where you tell him what you’re doing for him instead of seething about it silently) and most important – strategies to help you help him. Assuming he’s got something major going on, and there will be deadlines he’ll miss. What’s most important to you – many apologies? Advance notice that he’ll be late? A list of what items he can and can’t do for you? What if he committed to telling you N days in advance that he’ll be able to handle X but can you please reassign subtask Y to somebody else so that his original assignment XY will be done in time? Find out if it would help if you assigned him less work – i.e. the stress of having deadlines and overload could be logging him down and making it worse, or maybe that’s his motivating factor and he will reliably do 60% of the workload assigned no matter what that load is.

That would just be an agreement between the two of you. On the other hand, your (mutual) manager can offer him those same types of plans, and make it official (i.e. not just when he’s working with you but across the company) and can have that taken into consideration so that he’s not in a panic about annual performance reviews. Your manager can offer company resources, and if he’s in a medical problem, management can give him reduced hours of medical leave. So there’s benefits to talking to management about him (or encouraging him to talk to management) if you think management can and will help him. Of course if your management team is jerks, maybe you don’t go to them, you can be helpful individually as above, and encourage him to read FMLA laws.
posted by aimedwander at 7:48 AM on August 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think it is fine to go to management now -- your coworker is clearly aware there is a problem and has not managed to fix things on his own, and this isn't just randomly choosing to "tattle" on someone to get them in trouble -- this is actively impacting you and making your life worse. I would frame the conversation more as "I'm having trouble doing my job effectively for X reasons" as opposed to just complaining about the coworker. I'm not entirely clear from your description whether the coworker is legitimately overwhelmed/overworked and maybe the solution is bringing on another staff person, or perhaps more training work help or having someone actively manage your coworker on time management systems, etc., or if he's just not completing work that he really should be able to complete -- and sorting through those options/implementing any solutions like training/additional staffing are 100% management's job and not something you have the ability to really deal with.

There is a ton of talk about mental health issues above, but I'm honestly not really sure how this is super relevant. You are not (presumably!) a therapist or other mental health professional, and even if you were, it would not be appropriate for you to diagnose and treat a coworker. Suppose your coworker discloses to you some mental health issues. What are you going to do with this information? It doesn't actually solve the underlying problem that it's unsustainable for you to continue basically doing two people's jobs for one person's paycheck, and it's not like you have standing to require your coworker to seek any sort of treatment. Certainly it may make you more sympathetic, but I think you can deal with the situation with kindness and compassion regardless of whether there are mental health issues at play -- there's no need to be cruel in any case (and it does not sound like you want to go that direction!) Mostly I think it will make you feel guiltier when you inevitably have to go to management anyway.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:07 AM on August 7, 2017 [10 favorites]

being overwhelmed or trying to do too many things at once
Being scattered and stressed are classic symptoms of an overworked employee.
posted by sageleaf at 8:44 AM on August 7, 2017

Don't go to management. You're talking about tardiness, incomplete work, and quality problems. These are things your boss should already know about. So there are two possibilities: Either your boss does already know, or your company doesn't find it important to implement systems to catch extremely basic problems. If the former, your boss knows, and your input is unnecessary. If the latter, your company probably doesn't care about quality, and your input is unnecessary.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:47 AM on August 7, 2017

Yes, ultimately it doesn't matter what the cause is if the person can't do or isn't doing the work. It could easily be depression. So what? The work still has to get done. It is on the employee to seek medical accommodation if such is appropriate, and OP is presumably not in a position to grant that accommodation, though he can implement it gracefully if HR finds it appropriate to grant.

This may sound a little hard-nosed, but OP is not apparently already a friend of this employee. Fishing for highly personal health information is not going to help anyone or anything and may indeed poison the relationship. Kindly letting him know that his performance is unacceptable, that the next step is taking it to your mutual boss, and that he should speak to HR about their EAP (or whatever, as appropriate) if he is struggling with certain issues is about all that can be done.
posted by praemunire at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I guess the best way to approach this would be helpful if I had a better understanding of how your relationship is with this person on a personal level. Do you consider yourself friendly enough to be "friends"? If so, I'd approach the submit to him directly before doing to management.

However, management is probably aware there are issues but may not be aware of the full spectrum of how bad it really is until you inform them - coming from experience on BOTH sides of a situation similar to yours. They know basics - he's late sometimes, okay. But if you're covering for him and completing tasks that should generally be assigned to him, unless you speak up - they won't really know.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 8:55 AM on August 7, 2017

rainbowbrite beat me to it - a lot of these answers are compassionate, but I fear that asking your coworker what's going on in his life could set you up to either become his quasi-therapist, or else put you in a position where you feel guilty/responsible for absorbing his inadequate performance to protect him from the consequences of his situation. This is really crossing a 'workplace professionals' boundary that I don't think would be healthy for you - and if you're a woman I think this becomes even more fraught.

Questions that are slanted towards what you can do for him would be the wrong tack, I think, because it puts the responsibility of fixing his behavior on you. I do think that chesty_a_arthur's script could be appropriate, if you're willing to try it as a courtesy, so long as you're focusing on the 'this is what the impact is on me, this is what I need to change or I'll need to escalate' part. You can certainly go to your manager now, too, but it would be great if a come to jesus talk worked with your coworker - and if it didn't, you'll be able to say that you have tried to resolve it directly with the coworker yourself.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:00 AM on August 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

When I'm frazzled and start to flake, I tend to flake on certain types of things while other types of things I keep nailing.

Just a thought that if you see a similar pattern with this coworker it might work well to discuss redistributing tasks so you take the things he/she is flaking on while he/she takes a larger share of the other things, with the goal being to get overall effort balanced out to 50/50 between the two of you.
posted by duoshao at 9:11 AM on August 7, 2017

If you want to take this on (maybe it's beneficial for everyone in the end), I think working with this person to set up an accountability structure is probably the fastest way to get your problem solved. Use calendar meetings heavily so he's got visible deadlines, share a whiteboard if you can, and the two of you can have a daily 5-minute stand-up at the start of the day* and maybe again at the end for a while if you need to. And you may be the soft leader of this whole thing, but try to get him to jump in and help improve the system as the overwhelm (hopefully) subsides.

I would try this before I try going up the chain. If it doesn't work, you can legitimately say you tried.

*This seems super annoying, I know, but I finally asked for it on my team and it has been useful on multiple axes, and now I wouldn't do it any other way.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:22 AM on August 7, 2017

Whilst it is always desirable to extend a degree of kindness and compassion to your coworkers you are not required to do their work for them long term. Even if you are friends with this person it would not be in anybody's interest for you to 'cover' for them in the long-term.

As you are not this person's supervisor, why do you have to pick up the slack? Unless the workflow is such that your work follows on from their work this does not have to be your problem. If they are dropping the ball and you simply feel obliged to pick up the slack stop. Not wanting to pick up the slack long term is not a crime, you don't have to do it. At the very least make sure your own workload does not increase to a point where the quality of your work suffers as well.

If the workflow is such that you have to pick up the slack absolutely have a chat explaining how this is affecting you and how it needs to stop. Also explain unless it does stop you'll have to speak up because of the adverse effect on you.

But it is not your job to brainstorm this with your coworker and come up with a solution - that's between them, the boss and possibly HR.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:59 AM on August 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am your coworker. I am overworked and don't know what to do about the multiple projects on my plate that require equal amounts of attention. I am up late at night trying to mentally solve problems and tasks associated with these projects, which is making me so exhausted that coming into work on time is just another project unto itself. I know I'm letting you down. I know things are slipping. I don't want to keep doing this to you. But I need someone to help lighten the load, preferably by putting a project or two on pause so I can catch my breath. That someone should be my manager, not you.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:15 AM on August 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

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