You’re already thinking of someone. They’re always past deadline, they don’t pull their weight on projects, they turn in sloppy work, take extra-long breaks, scroll social, and ultimately—bring you down.
We all know what we would like to say to lazy coworkers, but what can we say that will actually help solve the problem? Or, at least, what will get to the bottom of the issue?
Before you say anything to your lazy coworker
Don’t assume laziness is the problem.
You may not know the whole story. Sure, sometimes coworkers can just be lazy, but the problem might be the result of something else entirely—they might have too much on their plate, someone or something you can’t see is holding up their work, they’re dealing with a health problem, they have a different working style than you do, or perhaps they’ve been inadequately trained.
And sometimes what looks like laziness can be, well, useful. Eisuke Hasegawa, a professor at the University of Hokkaido in Japan, studied laziness in ant colonies and found that “colonies with a significant percentage of do-nothing types are actually more resilient. They have a reserve workforce to replace dead or tired worker ants.” (There’s also a word of warning about burnout for the worker bees among us in that statement.)
But remember this: If the lazy coworker is not directly affecting your work, stay out of it. Chances are, someone else has noticed the problem, or will. Don’t intervene with a coworker if their laziness doesn’t affect you.
But alas, sometimes what looks like laziness is, well, laziness. And it gets in the way of your work.
What to say to a lazy coworker
Ask if there’s something going on
Don’t accuse them of being lazy. Again, you might not know what’s really going on (they might have a lazy coworker you can’t see, holding them back too).
Instead, ask if there’s something going on. Executive and leadership coach Debra Doroni advises approaching them in “a non-threatening, non-judgmental way to try to understand what might be preventing them from pulling their weight.” She recommends starting with:
It seems like you’re not very enthusiastic about this project. Is there something going on?
Asking this question and really listening to their answer can reveal something you didn’t realize was going on, or it could call them on the carpet.
Let them know how their inaction this is affecting your work
Talk to your coworker about how their lack of contribution is affecting your work. Let them know that by failing to complete their tasks, your work is suffering.
Let them know how the problem is affecting you. Don’t assume they’re lazy. Give them an opportunity to let you know why the problem is happening. Offer to help them find a solution—but don’t offer to do the work.
You could say:
Hey Michelle, I noticed that you haven’t finished projections for next quarter. I need those in order to plan for my team, which is due to my boss by Friday. When will you have those ready? Is there a reason for the delay?
Hi Ray, it seems like you’ve been late on the last two assignments, which has put me behind, too. Is there something that’s holding you up? Maybe I can help you solve the problem or we can ask our manager to help us out.
I really need your support in this project, which I feel like I haven’t been getting. What can I do to make sure you know where you fit into the work that needs to be done?
When addressing the problem, avoid the passive voice
It can be tempting to speak in the passive voice to avoid pointing fingers at the lazy coworker: The products aren’t getting to me on time, and it’s making it impossible for me to meet deadlines. But if you’re in a meeting and the boss is asking you why you’ve been late on your work, and it's the result of having a lazy coworker, you’ll throw yourself under the bus if you speak in generalities.
Still, few people will feel comfortable calling out a coworker by name, especially in a meeting. Instead, you can call them out metonymously. That is, refer to the team or organization rather than to the person by name: Quality assurance has sent me products late for the last three weeks, and that makes it impossible for me to meet deadlines. I have reported the problem, but the problem still persists.
Don’t pick up their slack
Don’t do the work of a lazy coworker. If they’re not completing tasks and projects, you’re not the one who needs to do it for them.
If they’re actively getting in the way of your work, talk to your manager.
Enlist the help of an ally
If you have a coworker you can trust, discreetly let them know what’s going on. The next time that lazy coworker brings you down, you’ll have an informed witness who can speak up on your behalf, or back you up when you do.
Talk to your manager
“If approaching your coworker doesn’t work,” Doroni says. “You might consider enlisting the help of your manager/leadership by saying something like,‘some members of the team don’t seem to be pulling their weight on this project. Could we possibly meet as a team to reset expectations and get everyone on the same page?’”
Talk to your manager as early as possible. Don’t wait until the day a project is due.
If you’re comfortable using your coworker’s name, you could say:
I’m concerned about being able to deliver a plan to you by Friday. I’m waiting on projections from Michelle, but they’re two days late despite my reminding her. That being said, I plan to deliver a plan regardless, but it won’t be very accurate without those projections.
Let your boss know why the problem is late without assuming why Michelle hasn’t done her part. Commit to doing the work you can do.
Consider letting your manager know who is not pulling their weight (unless they know, they can’t do anything about it) and how it’s affecting your work and the health of the business.
If management won’t intervene
“If management or leadership is aware of the problem, and doesn’t seem to be willing to act, you need to decide whether you are prepared to adjust your work style and expectations to the situation,” Doroni says. “Is the opportunity to work in this company, for this boss, on this project, etc., worth putting in more than your share in the short term for a potential long term payoff?”
Even if it’s not worth staying with the company, you may not be in a position to leave. That’s the reality for so many women dealing with bad coworkers. There are things you can do to help nudge the lazy coworker along and CYA.
1. Make sure responsibilities are clear
If you have a coworker who is consistently dropping the ball, document who is responsible for completing certain tasks or projects and share it with the lazy coworker and your manager (and their manager, if you don’t report to the same people).
Document tasks with due dates, the name of the person responsible, and statuses—this will make it easy to see at a glance who hasn’t been pulling their weight.
2. Don’t gossip about the problem
Talking trash about the lazy culprit is not going to solve the problem. It’s tempting, but avoid the temptation to gossip to other colleagues. If you need to blow off steam about your bad coworker, talk to a friend outside the office.
3. Copy your manager on emails
If the problem persists, copy your manager or the lazy coworker’s manager on emails. If you’re sending your coworker a note asking where that report is, copy your boss so they’re in the loop too. Knowing the boss is watching can also pressure your coworker to speed up their work.
Proceed cautiously, though. You don’t want to appear passive aggressive. It’s best practice to copy your manager on emails if you’ve talked to both the coworker and your manager about the problem already. But if you’ve been unable to broach the subject, you might simply add to the note: Copying you here, [manager name], so you’re aware of the timeline.
4. Don’t let them hold you back
While your coworker is still riding the lazy train, the best thing you can do is a good job. Don’t let their laziness hinder the good work you do.
About our source
Debra Doroni, MBA, PCC, is an executive and leadership coach and principal of Debra Doroni Leadership Partners, LLC. Debra supports professionals to define what “balance” means to them, focus less on what they are “doing” and more on who they are “being” so they can raise their impact, and achieve professional and personal lives that fulfill them in every way. Debra’s coaching is grounded in more than 25 years of experience as a health care executive. Having been compelled in the aftermath of cancer treatment and professional burnout to transform her own professional and personal life, Debra specializes in helping leaders thrive in the face of burnout and to make major professional transformations. She is currently pursuing a doctor of psychology degree in leadership psychology at William James College.