The conventional wisdom in this situation is generally to mind your own business unless the lazy coworker is impacting your ability to get your own work done. But that’s not always the best course of action. Plenty of managers appreciate a discreet heads-up about staff problems … but how can you know if your manager is one of those or not?
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To some extent, the answer depends on your relationship with your boss and what they’re like. If you have a good relationship with him or her and they’re known to value directness over protocol, you might be able to simply say: “Hey, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to raise this, but I’m concerned about how often Bob tries to get me to take on his work. I’m happy to help when it’s needed, but I see him chronically spending an enormous amount of time socializing rather than working, and I feel like he wouldn’t need my help if he focused on work more. Can you give me advice about how to handle this?”
Notice that this is couched in terms of asking for their advice on how you should handle it, rather than you dumping it in their lap to handle. If he or she is a good boss, he or she is going to handle it themselves anyway—hopefully by paying more attention to how Bob is spending his time and addressing it with him if he or she sees that there’s an issue. But by asking his or her advice, you make it less about “tattling” and more about seeking his or her guidance.
Of course, there’s still an element of tattling in it. But tattling shouldn’t always get a bad rap—there are some things you should tell your manager about. Even the most perceptive manager won’t see everything that goes on, and when someone is taking advantage of that, it’s nice to be clued in.
Not every manager agrees, of course, but the good ones appreciate getting a discreet heads-up about something they might not have known about on their own. Of course, employees need to realize that the boss’s take on the situation might differ from theirs, but as long as the employee doesn’t mind that, a good manager will be grateful to be filled in on something that might be a problem.
After all, good managers want to know if their team is getting demoralized by a coworker’s shoddy performance, even if it’s not impacting their work directly.
To be clear, a good manager doesn’t want to hear about it repeatedly, but a one-time heads-up, delivered in a discreet, professional way from a solid employee, is generally appreciated.
Now, if the coworker is affecting your own work, then the answer is even more clear-cut. In this case, you should always alert your manager. Offer up specific examples of the problem, and keep it impersonal and unemotional—your tone should be even and measured, not frustrated—and explain that you feel uncomfortable bringing this to the manager but it’s affecting your own results and the company overall. And then ask how you should handle it.
Of course, you can always try talking to the coworker directly too, and that’s often a good first step. But typically, behavior problems of this sort rarely change without direct intervention by a vigilant boss.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.