What Can You Do About a Lazy Coworker?

The working world can be a bit of a mess. With everyone gunning for promotions and pay raises, doing their best to lead ethical, but efficient, money-making companies while still beating out the competition, things can get intense.

Despite the chaos, you love your job (or at least tolerate it). But what should be done when you have a coworker holding your team back? When you’re a lazy worker’s peer, and not their boss, what can you do?

In a Harvard Business School study, a large percentage of participants said they lost work time avoiding or worrying about toxic coworkers. Their own performance and dedication to their organization declined because of it.

Illustration of coworkers working in the same space together. Lazy Coworker pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Though you may feel a coworker doesn’t show a strong work ethic or a desire to contribute, you probably don’t know everything about the situation.

No one wants to be a tattle tale, cost someone their job or risk their own in the process, but at some point you reach a crossroads where you either have to put aside your frustrations with a coworker or you have to address them.

If you’ve decided to do something about your workplace slacker, follow these steps to address the problem effectively and with as little drama as possible.

Assess the situation

Before you get to solving the problem, take a step back and look around. What is your office like and what are your relationships with your coworkers like? Are these things conducive to a healthy work environment?

“Communication with colleagues should be different than communication with friends or family and in other personal settings,” said therapist Erica Steenbergen, who works on peer-to-peer relationships.

“If your colleagues like you, that’s icing on the cake, but what’s more important is having an effective working relationship because they’re colleagues before anything else.”

Coworkers first, friends second

If you’ve found that you have good friendships with your coworkers, that’s great, but it may make addressing issues with those peers more difficult.

No one wants to reprimand their friend or get them in trouble with higher-ups. And that’s not the only issue. Studies have found that though becoming friends with coworkers can increase workplace morale, it can also cause emotional exhaustion.

Start a new job with the intention of establishing professional relationships with your coworkers, Steenbergen said. That can be harder than you think — we have a tendency to focus on being liked first.

If you missed that step, that’s okay. Having workplace friends can make work happier and more creative and exciting, but it will require some extra sensitivity when you address your problems.

Be direct but sensitive

If you’ve reached a point where problems with your lazy coworker need to be addressed, being direct is the best way to go, said Kim Sass, who has been working in human resources for more than 20 years.

It can be uncomfortable to address an equal, especially a friend, so practice talking through your concerns with another coworker, friend or family member first to make sure you get the language and approach right.

“You don’t want to be accusatory and put them on the defensive,” Sass said. “Saying something like, ‘This is my perspective. Help me to understand…’ makes it about you, not them.”

Point out what you’re hoping to fix and describe the impact of the problem without attacking your coworker and their work. Offer a solution and assistance, not just a complaint.

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Keep your feelings out of it

In your direct approach, or if you eventually have to bring the issue to a boss or manager, it’s important to keep your language clear and concise, as well as devoid of emotions.

“Things start to cross the professional boundary a bit if we include our feelings about it,” Steenbergen says. “It starts to feel like you’re talking negatively about a colleague…, speaking negatively about a person’s character or bringing in your own opinions and theories.”

Though you may feel a coworker doesn’t show a strong work ethic or a desire to contribute, you probably don’t know everything about the situation. Assuming, and then acting on those assumptions, is what makes a conversation with a boss sound more like tattling than a desire to create a better work environment.

Coming from a place of wanting to improve your workplace, and honing in on what you’re looking to get out of this conflict resolution, can help you dial back those emotions and focus on the task at hand.

Dealing with your coworkers can be difficult, especially when they aren’t doing the job they’re being paid to do.

But, just as in any relationship, being honest and approachable as well as understanding can make solving problems easier and can open a dialogue that allows for a more positive outcome.

Natalie Maggiore

Natalie Maggiore is a journalist and teacher living in Chicago, whose passions include aggressive hockey watching, a quality bowl of queso and learning about the infinite void that is outer space. Her writing mainly pertains to pop culture and entertainment, but she enjoys creating content pertaining to mental health, social service, human interests and nature. Follow her on Twitter @nataliem31 and Instagram @natmag31.