advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

I have an employee who’s a slacker

I work for a charter school system at the administrative level. I manage a total of about 60 people, ten of whom report to me directly. Most are dedicated, hard-working individuals, and a pleasure to work with. They inspire me to give my best each and every day.     

      I say “most” because there’s one individual who just doesn’t put in as much effort as the rest of us. He seems content—even happy—to skate by while everyone else is giving it their all. I’ve been managing for years now and it seems there’s always one slacker in the bunch. I have a sibling in management consulting, and she’s noticed the same thing. We often joke about it! In my case, he’s actually pretty good at what he does…he just doesn’t do much of it! For instance, it’s not unusual for my team and I to work evenings and/or weekends when the work demands it. But he never does. He also uses every one of his vacation and personal days, often traveling to exotic locales and generally living the high life. I wish my Instagram was as interesting as his! He’s very popular around the office too, in part because he spends so much time chatting with his colleagues. If only they knew how little he does! I can’t fire him because he’s well-connected and does his job. Nobody reports to him either, so his overall impact is pretty limited. Do I simply tolerate this behavior? Or should I be more concerned? I have so many other things to worry about… – Name withheld

Back in the day, what your colleague is doing might have been called ‘soldiering’.

Workers would deliberately slow their pace of work, doing just enough to keep from getting fired, but little more.

This was motivated primarily by a sense of self-preservation. The brutal pace of factory work in the late 19th/early 20th century would burn workers out if they weren’t careful, both physically and emotionally. So ‘soldier’ they did. And many an ‘efficiency expert’ (like Frederick Winslow Taylor) twisted themselves in knots trying to stop it.

Your circumstance is a bit different, however.

Historically, soldiering was done in collaboration with one’s coworkers. Older, more seasoned employees would convince (or pressure) their younger, or more ambitious colleagues to work at a slower pace than they were capable of. That way, even the weakest could keep up. Anyone who refused to play along risked being ostracized, threatened…or sometimes worse.

In your case, though, your employee seems to have decided to soldier on all by himself.

This could be for any number of reasons. I assume he’s salaried; if so, there’s little financial incentive for him to do more. Whether he burns the midnight oil or takes long lunches and cuts out early, he’s still going to be paid the same. And if he’s as well-connected as you say, he needn’t fear the ax.

You wonder if you should be concerned? That would depend on his coworkers, and how they feel.

If he’s as popular as you say, that’s reason enough to exercise some caution. Should you seem to be picking on him unfairly with your attempts to ‘motivate’ him, that could negatively impact the morale of your workgroup more generally, and adversely effect their overall productivity. Employees don’t like it when one of their own is singled out in a way that doesn’t seem justified, or for reasons they don’t understand. If you choose to fight this particular battle, in other words, you may risk losing the broader war.

Keep in mind too that there may be things this individual does that his colleagues genuinely value, but of which you may not necessarily be aware. Perhaps his light schedule allows him to help out his co-workers when they find themselves in a pinch? Or maybe he takes on unpleasant tasks that no one else is willing to do? His colleagues may even appreciate his good-natured tales of travel and adventure, which may foster camaraderie, or add needed levity to your otherwise busy workplace.

Of course the other, more troubling possibility is that his colleagues are as aware as you of just how little he does.

And they may have come to resent it.

If that’s the case, you should indeed be concerned. On the surface everyone may seem to be getting along famously, but bubbling beneath this polite exterior could be genuine frustration with him, and how little he does – and bewilderment as to why you’re not doing more about it. The low bar he sets—and that others see you tolerate—may sap his coworkers’ energy levels, and keep them from contributing to their fullest potential. His influence may be more damaging than you realize.

So what, if anything, can you do?

Without the power to fire someone—or at least credibly threaten to—the short answer might seem to be: Not much.

But that’s not necessarily true. I would remind you that most people want more than just a paycheck from their job (although that’s certainly important too). In a word, we also want to feel successful in our work. Whether it’s to excel personally, or contribute to an organization that’s achieving its broader aims, most of us want feel as if we’re doing well. Clearly your globetrotting colleague feels this on some level too. Why be so active on social media if you’re not at least somewhat concerned with how other people perceive you?

The flip-side of this sentiment is that most people wish to avoid being seen as a failure. This is something you can use to your advantage. I’m not saying you should make this guy feel like a complete screw-up, but there are certain things you might do that gently suggest he’s not the rock star he might like to think he is.

A good place to start is simply asking him to do more.

Sure – in all likelihood he’s going to decline, or come up with some lame excuse as to why he couldn’t possibly. Fine. Great, even. Listen, and don’t push back (and don’t be surprised if he’s busier than you thought). But keep asking. The point here is not to get him to work harder (at least not initially). It’s to rob him of the false sense of success he feels by making it clear that he’s not exactly pulling his weight.

Enlist his peers in this effort too, if you think you can. When one of them feels overwhelmed, suggest they reach out to their colleague for help. Again, he may wheedle his way out of it, or simply refuse. But the more times he has to turn people down, the more he’ll be reminded of his own subpar efforts. Keep at it, and he may eventually start upping his game just to get everyone off his back.

One final thought: Am I correct in detecting just hint of jealousy here? You say he does a good job, and is otherwise pleasant to work with. Maybe part of the issue is that you and the rest of your workgroup are overworked? Weekends off, and using all of your vacation days – that doesn’t sound like ‘slacking off’ to me.

It sounds like a healthy work-life balance.

So perhaps take a page from his book and indulge in what sounds like some much needed and/or deserved time off? Maybe take a trip somewhere exotic yourself – or encourage the rest of your employees to do the same (before they start soldiering too)?

At the very least, it’ll spruce up your Instagram.

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