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Dave Conrad: Unproductive worker? Don’t assume they’re lazy

June 8, 2018 GMT

Dear Dave: I cannot stand it when people drop the ball when others are counting on them. I am referring to some of my co-workers who just don’t complete things and come up with a thousand reasons why they didn’t get the job done. Most of the people in my department are very good about doing quality work and meeting deadlines. We count on everyone doing their fair share and making sure work gets finished on time. Please write something about this problem, and let me know how we can get these people to get the job done. — P

Dear P: Thank you for pointing out this huge business problem. Similar to you, I cannot stand it when people you count on do not complete their share of the work. When we join an organization, we have a job to do, and we need other people to do their part so we can complete ours. Good workers rely on others to be conscientious and completion-oriented, so things are done right and on time. It just works that way — or should.

We all know those people who have an excuse for everything. These people probably used the “my-dog-ate-my-homework” excuse when they were young and carried the same mindset into their jobs. They slack because they know they can “dream up” something to say to their boss or coworkers to get themselves off the hook. Good workers end up carrying their load because they just cannot trust these “slackers” to do their jobs — and do them right.

Then, we have the workers who always get things done on time, but the quality of the work is so bad it must be redone by other people. Either the work done just does not fit and does not make sense, or it is unusably weak and so full of holes it cannot be used. I often think the slackers realize their work is bad but also realize there are smart, effective people who will cover for them and make their work usable. These smart, effective workers have become enablers of those “drop-the-ball” slackers. The good workers know the slackers will screw up, and they just grab the work and say, “Alright, let me do this.”

What we have here is a true management problem. Your manager must be totally oblivious to the problems or chooses to not do anything about it because the work is getting done. He or she doesn’t care how the work is getting done; they just care it is getting done. In any case, I blame your management for letting these problems perpetuate. Good managers know when there are gaps in the action, and they address them.

What you can do

I recommend you work with the best workers in your department and become champions of producing consistent quality and timely work and to be very direct about your expectations of others to deliver on their share of the load. Some might not agree with me, but I think you deserve to proudly proclaim you work hard and expect others to do the same. But be careful; you don’t want your manager to think you are taking over for his or her neglect. Be firm and be sincere in your dealing with this issue.

I also suggest you investigate why these slackers have become experts at doing nothing or very little. Is it because they are overwhelmed with their work and are struggling to keep up? Is it because they do not find their work enjoyable and are bored to death — which is a reason, but not an excuse? Or, is it because they simply do not know their job and what they are supposed to be doing? These questions should be investigated so a clear picture can be developed as to why performance is poor. If people are lazy, that is one thing. If people don’t know their roles and goals, that is an entirely different matter. Your manager should be assessing these things.

If the problems cannot be fixed with peer pressure, then it might be time to go to your boss with your case and level with him or her about the problems and the lack of productivity caused by them. Remember, you cannot be persuasive with your expectations and observations if you do not have proof. Accordingly, you need to have specifics about what was not done when and what problems were created by the incompletion of work.

Managers need results, and they are accountable for making sure their teams and departments are up to speed. I am sure a little bit of reality might make them sit up and take notice.