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The other day I spoke with Pat Kenny on his Newstalk show about a recent survey suggesting that employees without children are expected to work longer hours. Some interesting comments from listeners were read out on air.

(Listen back here:

There is a big general theme behind this topic: those resentments large and small that can make the workplace so unpleasant. No one likes the feeling of having their time valued less than a colleague’s. No one enjoys working with a slacker. It’s tough being part of a team where you have to carry one or more of your fellow team members.

This theme has come up a lot with clients over the years. I’d like to share some principles here for how these frustrations can best be addressed.

The most important thing is to put your finger on what exactly the problem is. So start with some basic questions.

1. If Person X is slacking, is this translating into more work for me? This question helps establish whether or not there are material consequences to me, beyond a feeling of annoyance or grievance, in what’s going on. There is a big difference between just witnessing someone cutting corners and actually having to be the one to make up for the cut corners.

2. Is Person X being granted accommodations that are unfair? This requires careful attention to context. For example, if a colleague (female OR male!) is granted permission to pop out of the office to pick up the kids from school, how is the 'unfairness' of that to be calibrated? Do you really want to be the person who finds it lamentable for a parent to be given that bit of latitude so they can perform this important role for their children? What would your favoured alternative scenario be? That they stop picking up their kids? That they have some pay docked as punishment for being a loving parent? (And do you even have full information on the pay arrangement they have with your employer?) That they leave the job because of an incompatibility between work commitments and parental commitments? Is that really the hill you want to die on? Do you want your employer to be someone who is unsympathetic to working parents in their employ? Is there not a world of difference between the school scenario above and, say, a selfish colleague who repeatedly nips out quietly for some ‘me time’ over a quiet coffee, leaving others to work through?

3. If Person X is indeed slacking, with negative consequences for my workload, what is the best response? Is it to seethe with resentment (and/or bitch about that person with others)? How energy-depleting! Is it to passive-aggressively sabotage my own output, as a way of getting back at Person X? How contrary to self-respect! No. The best response is to make a call: raise the issue, or stop giving the matter further unproductive energy.

4. If I decide to raise the issue, with whom should I raise it? Person X or boss/manager? Big question! Is an approach on this to the person themselves likely to resolve the issue? If not, then why would I do it? If the answer is: ‘For the satisfaction of giving them a piece of my mind’, then don’t do it. It’s too fraught with risk. As for approaching your boss/manager, how confident are you that this won’t have unforeseen consequences? Do you, for instance, want to get a reputation as a snitch? Do you want to get Person X into trouble? (Are you sure about that?) And whose job is it—yours or your boss/manager’s—to catch poor performance and address it?

As you can see, I am inclined to set the bar for intervention pretty high. There are reasons for this. I have heard too many unpleasant stories from people who have made the wrong call, and with disastrous consequences in terms of workplace atmosphere. And I have worked with too many managers and employers to believe that undermining another employee behind their back without very good reason is the royal road to showcasing your own merits as an employee.

I am not—repeat: not—saying that action is never warranted. Sometimes it very much is. Sometimes, indeed, that action may include planning an exit from what you have concluded is a dysfunctional or unfair workplace.

Bottom line, however: your job is to do your job. If there is somebody who is sabotaging your ability to do that, or taking advantage of your high standards and goodwill, or making you look bad by their own underperformance, then you may well need to take action. But anything less than that is in all likelihood not your problem to solve. In the last analysis, you are there to do your job, not to police or micromanage other people’s behaviour.


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