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’m responsible for about 60 people, most of whom are dedicated, hard-working, and inspire me to give my best each and every day.     

      I say “most” because there’s one 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 gives it their all. I’ve been managing for years now, and there always seems to be one in the bunch. In his case, he’s actually pretty good at what he does…he just doesn’t do much of it! It’s not unusual for my team and I to work evenings and/or weekends, for instance, but he never does. Instead, he uses every last one of his vacation 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 with his colleagues too, in part because he spends so much time chatting with his colleagues about his adventures. If only they knew how little he does! I can’t fire him because he does his job, and is well-connected. 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 done primarily out of a sense self-preservation. The brutal pace of factory work in the late 19th/early 20th century would burn workers out—both physically and emotionally—if they weren’t careful. 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 sometimes pressure) their younger, more ambitious colleagues to work more slowly than they were capable of. That way, everyone could keep up. And anyone who refused to play along risked being ostracized, threatened…and sometimes worse.

In your case, however, this individual seems willing to soldier on all by himself.

That could be for any number of reasons: If he’s salaried, there’s little financial incentive to do more. Whether he burns the midnight oil, or takes long lunches and cuts out early, his paycheck remains the same. And if he’s as well-connected as you say, he needn’t fear the ax.

So how concerned should you be? That will depend on his coworkers.

If he’s as popular as you say, that’s reason enough to exercise caution. If, in attempting to get him to do more, you appear to be picking on him unfairly, you risk damaging broader workgroup morale. Employees tend to resent it when one of their own is singled out for scrutiny for reasons they don’t understand.

Keep in mind too that his colleagues may genuinely value their coworker for reasons which you are not aware. His light schedule may mean he is able to help his colleagues out in pinch, for instance – or perhaps he takes on tasks that no one else is willing to do. They may even appreciate his good-natured tales of travel and adventure, which could add needed levity to your busy workplace.

The other, more troubling possibility of course, is that his coworkers are as aware as you of how little he does – and wondering why you aren’t doing more about it. The low bar he sets—and that others see you tolerate—may sap their motivational levels, making your workgroup less productive than it might otherwise be.

So what, if anything, can you do?

Well, without the power to fire someone—or at least credibly threaten to—the short answer might seem to be: Not much. But I would remind you that most people are looking for more that just paycheck from their jobs (although $ certainly is critical).

In a word, we want to feel successful too.

The flip-side of this is that most people hope to avoid being seen as a failure. You can use this to your advantage.

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

Sure – in all likelihood he’ll come up with excuses as to why he couldn’t possibly. But be patient and keep at it. Enlist his peers in this effort too, if possible. Have them reach out to their colleague when they feel overwhelmed, or have more to do than they can comfortably handle. Anything to subtly (or not so subtly) remind him he’s not exactly pulling his weight. I’m not saying make feel like a complete screw-up, just not the rock star he may like to think he is. He may start upping his game just to get everyone off his back.

Finally, am I correct in detecting just hint of jealousy your part? You say this individual does his job capably while at the same time taking weekends off, and using all his 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 some much deserved time off yourself? Maybe take an exotic vacation too – and encourage the rest of your employees to do the same (before they start soldiering as well)?

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

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