Co-Worker Problem? How to Complain, and Not Look Like a Jerk

lazy coworker

90% of people polled said they wanted to tattle on a bad co-worker | Source: Thinkstock

Your cubicle-mate who brings tuna every day for lunch may be annoying and loud talkers in your open-plan office might make you want to tear your hair out. Yet many would agree that the most troublesome of co-workers is the one who does nothing at all.

Colleagues who shirk work (and pass the burden on to you) are a thorn in the side of responsible employees everywhere. Nearly 90% of people who responded to an online poll by Career Realism said they wanted to expose a co-worker who they felt was getting away with something.

While you might dream of revealing your colleague’s online shopping habits or extra-long lunches, confronting the issue head on isn’t easy, nor is it guaranteed to get the results you want. How can you get someone to shape up without coming across like a backstabber or tattletale?

Before you run to your boss, take a step back. Unless another employee’s poor work ethic is really affecting your ability to do your job, stay silent. Even if your motives are good, you’ll come off looking like a petty meddler.

“If your slacking co-worker isn’t impacting your ability to do your job or your ability to advance in the organization, move on and focus on your own work,” Susan David, the co-founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, told the Harvard Business Review.

In cases where your co-worker’s Facebook addiction is making it difficult to complete your own assignments, start by approaching him about it directly, rather than taking the issue straight to management. A polite yet candid conversation can sometimes work wonders.

“If you think your co-worker might not realize the impact his or her laziness is having on you, or if you think she can be shamed into pulling her own weight if she’s called out on her behavior, consider having a direct conversation,” HR expert Alison Green wrote in an article for U.S. News & World Report.

You can also politely refuse to cover for your colleague’s slipshod work or missed deadlines. Once others stop picking up the slack, it will become more obvious who the weak link is your office, and your manager may address the issue on his own.

frustrated young man in office

Rather than getting frustrated about lazy co-workers, address the situation proactively | Source: iStock

When addressing the issue with your co-worker directly doesn’t work, it might be appropriate to talk to your boss. Explain the situation as diplomatically as possible and express your interest in finding a solution to the problem. Don’t focus on how the office slacker should be punished; if your boss wants to issue a reprimand, that’s their job, not yours. And whatever you do, don’t make the situation sound personal, no matter how much you dislike your colleague.

“You must define the issue as a business problem, not a personal complaint,” Marie G. McIntyre of Your Office Coach wrote. “Otherwise, your manager may view it as a personality conflict. And bosses really hate dealing with personal employee squabbles!”

Above all, you want to distinguish between legitimate concerns about a co-worker’s behavior and malicious tattling. Serious issues should be brought to the attention of management (especially if they involve illegal or unethical behavior), but running to your boss every time someone takes an extra-long lunch is a risky move. Earning a reputation as the office snitch can hurt your relationships with both your colleagues and your boss.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that it damages their credibility as an employee,” Linda Willey, a human resources director at Jacksonville, Florida-based trucking firm Nextran Corp., told Knowledge@Wharton. “You are not going to promote someone who has a history of being a tattler.”

Ultimately, the best way to deal with co-workers who aren’t pulling their weight may be to take a long-term approach. Aim to acquire more influence around the office, perhaps by taking over projects where the problem co-worker reports to you, J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of Career Realism, wrote in a LinkedIn blog post. Not only will you actually have the power to address your co-worker’s poor work ethic head on, it also advances your own career.

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