A reader writes:
How do I deal with a manager who clearly gives special treatment to a coworker? She is very irresponsible, and yet my manager takes her lateness to work as almost cute behavior on her part. A couple of times, my coworker did not even show up to work but my manager never took appropriate action. They have a good relationship, and any other manager would have already fired my coworker for her behavior. How should I handle this situation? It makes me sick sometimes.
Well, you really don't know what's happening behind the scenes. Maybe your manager did take action--it's unlikely that you would know about it. Your manager wouldn't share that with you, and your coworker, if she's like most people, probably wouldn't confess to you that she's in trouble.
There could be other explanations, too, that you wouldn't have reason to know about. Maybe she's getting her work done, so your manager isn't too concerned about her lateness. Or, your coworker could have a health condition that causes absences, and she could have worked out accommodations for it with your manager.
Of course, it's also possible that what you see on the surface is all there is to it, and you have an irresponsible coworker who's getting away with her bad behavior. If that's the case, then maybe your manager is simply a bad manager and not willing to address it with her. There are certainly plenty of bad managers out there -- maybe even more than good ones -- and you'd have a lot of company if you have a boss who doesn't know how to hold people accountable.
But no matter the explanation, the answer for you is the same: Aside from being annoying, is this affecting your work? If not, you should stay out of it because it's really not your business. But if it does impact your ability to do your job (because you have to take on her work when she's not there, or you're dependent on her work in order to do your own job), then you can raise it with your boss from that perspective, keeping the focus on that aspect of it. (You should also raise things that aren't affecting you if you think you manager doesn't know and would want to, but in this case she appears to know.)
There's sometimes an exception to the rule above, and that's if it's significantly affecting your morale. Personally, as a manager, I want to know if my people are demoralized by a coworker's behavior. To be clear, I don't want to hear about it over and over, but I do appreciate a one-time heads-up, delivered in a professional way. But be aware that not every manager agrees with me and yours may not, so it's a judgment call.
Ultimately, you can only control your own work, and that's where you should keep your focus.
Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.