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My coworker's problems are ruining my life

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work for a large company but in a small sales office with a manager and 2 other salespeople and 2 support staff. The issue is that one of the other salespeople went through a messy divorce with difficult financial issues, etc. This was two years ago. While what has happened to them is none of my business it has affected the office atmosphere in a big way. The manager continues to cut this person undeserved slack and looks the other way when they come in late, leave early, take another three hour lunch, etc. Their excuses are sometimes good (kid related...even that is now way old), but usually stale and repetitive..."dropping my car at the dealership, traffic is bad, doctor or dentist appointment or simply...I will be in whenever." These examples are amplified tenfold when the manager happens to be out of town. They are simply not there when they should be.

The problem is that we are a sales organization that depends on each other and this person is simply not carrying their end of the log. The other salesperson and support staff totally agree with me but if I go to the manager to discuss it I risk being the one who is not sensitive to the "needs" of this person or their new situation.

This person is a nice person, well liked in the office by people in other divisions and draws the predictable amount of sympathy due to their new situation...but they are also in my view a manipulator, scammer, excuse-laden, and lazy to a major fault.

My question to you is how long is the statute of limitations on something like this? Forevermore? In my view, if I was the manager I would give that person six months of leeway and then I would feel compelled to call them in and suggest that they need to make different personal arrangements and that it is affecting their performance on the job.

It seems that managers take one of two paths when an employee goes through a crisis -- both of them wrong. The first is the hardline, "your personal problems are not my problem!" path and the second is what you're going through right now, the "you poor dear, let me get you a cup of tea while everyone else picks up your slack for, well, forever." What should happen is somewhere in the middle. Absolutely, you should give someone who is going through a difficult time some slack, but you also need to make sure the job gets done.

It's definitely tough for managers to find a way to do this. Especially when the tears come out and the "well, I'm a single parent now..." And the manager feels bad and the coworkers feel bad and the customers? Well, forget about them. Except you cannot forget about the customers, so the coworkers are picking up the extra work, and this isn't right in perpetuity either. (It is right in the short term and it is right in the long term for something that is not getting better, like if your coworker had cancer and was not milking the situation.)

But all of this is the manager's problem to solve and you're right that you will not be looked on kindly if you run in and complain about John. You'll be reminded that his ex-wife ran off with the investment banker, doesn't pay a drop of child support and left him with poorly potty-trained three year old twins. How dare you not be supportive! Or something similar. So, what can you do? First, evaluate: Is he really a manipulator and scammer and lazy? Was he lazy, manipulative and a scammer prior to the divorce? If the answer is yes, that explains the marriage problem. But, if the answer is no, he does need support.

Still, this is an office and not a support group, and you have a job to do. And so does he. And so does your manager. So, it's time to dump the problem where it belongs: Squarely in your manager's lap. Do not complain about the ever absent coworker. Do not cover for him either. But do not complain about him. Complain about the situation, but don't blame it on him. Like this:

Situation: John is late because his car is in the shop. Two customers need to be dealt with at the same time. You go to the manager and state: "John is not here. We have two customers. Which one should I focus on?"

Situation: There is a stack of paperwork a mile high because John hasn't done any of the paperwork for a week. You go to your manager and state: "The paperwork is piling up. I can either do the paperwork or I can do X. I cannot do both. Which one should I make my priority?"

Situation: John says, "I have to leave early to pick up the twins!" Your response: "Ok. When will you get tasks, A, B, and C done? I need that in order to do D, E, and F by tomorrow's 9 a.m. conference call?" John, "Can you do it? Thanks man! Gotta run!" You: "No, I cannot. You need to speak with our manager before you leave to determine what needs to be done. I'll call him over."

The key thing is not complaining about the person, but ask how the work is going to get done. The first is none of your business. The second is your business, so keep it there.

And one other thing you can do, if John wasn't a horrible coworker prior to the divorce, is to take him out to lunch and say, "Listen, it's been two yeas since Shelly left. We've been covering for you, and picking up the slack, but it's not going to keep happening. I'm concerned that if you don't pick up the pace corporate is going to come down on you." And throw it back in his lap. This is John's new normal and he does need to learn how to live within those parameters.

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