Career

How To Deal With An Underperforming Colleague

We’ve all worked with someone who wasn’t pulling their weight at work. Maybe they miss deadlines, make a lot of mistakes, or perhaps they’ve somehow landed (or been promoted to) a job they’re not qualified for. Or else they might just be downright lazy. It can drive you nuts, but if you’re afraid to say something in case it negatively impacts you, read on.

Sound familiar? When it’s a part-time or an entry-level job it’s not a huge deal. But by the time you’re starting to get a solid grip on your career, it can be hugely frustrating and even affect the quality of your work and chances to progress. And that’s when things start to get messy.

Psychologist and management consultant Ellen Bard has seen more fraught workplace relationships than most of us will ever know, so we turned to her for a step-by-step approach to diagnosing and dealing with underperforming colleagues.

Here are her words of wisdom.

#1 How bad is it, really?

Yep, complaining about your coworkers is pretty much a national pastime. But Ellen’s advice is to have a good look at the situation and come to an honest conclusion about whether it’s genuinely affecting your work. “Are they really bad, or just not matching up to your standards? Are your standards realistic?”

When considering their performance, Ellen warns that you might be influenced by biases (don’t worry, we all have them). In particular, the halo/horns bias (a type of confirmation bias wherein your overall impression of someone leads you to have positive or negative opinions of their neutral attributes) might come into play: “It’s rare – though not impossible – for someone to be bad at every aspect of their job. The individual might only be poor at timekeeping, but that one issue is influencing your feelings about all of their work.”

#2 What, specifically, are they not good at? 

If you’ve thought about it hard and decided that, yep, they’re objectively underperforming, and that that’s a problem for your own work, it’s time to turn that general hunch into a clear understanding of where your coworker is letting the side down.

Start documenting everything – making sure there’s a paper trail at work is always a good idea anyway, as it can back you up in sticky situations. Discuss tasks and expectations via email, take notes in meetings and keep drafts and amendments until the end of a project. If your workplace uses a project management app like Trello or Asana, keep it updated with who did what jobs.

“Being specific will help you to work out the best way to handle it,” says Ellen. “Ask ‘Where or how are they bad at their job? Are they not actually capable of doing the work? Are they just lazy?'”

“One of the most common situations I’ve come across is the employee who was a great individual performer and was then promoted to management because of their technical excellence. But of course, managing people is an entirely different skill set to being great at your own job, so they gain a reputation for being a poor performer, despite the issue really being quite a specific one.”

#3 How are they affecting your work?

With your evidence of your colleague’s poor performance, you then have to measure the impact on your own work. Here again, Ellen advises that you be honest and specific: “How many of your own objectives does it influence? Are they mission-critical or nice-to-haves? Are you directing energy here to avoid other, bigger issues in your own job?”

There’s also a chance that they’re just lazy at their job – and while it’s annoying and unfair that they’re getting paid for twiddling their thumbs, according to Ellen, you might just have to suck it up. “If they don’t actually have any impact on your area, then, to be honest, you need to tough it out and ignore the situation. You probably have enough other things to worry about,” she advises.

Ellen also suggests creating contingencies and managing them with your insight into their work flow. “If they’re always late, give them a slightly earlier deadline. If they don’t follow instructions well, agree on expectations for a project in advance. Don’t leave anything to chance.”

#4 Stop. Feedback time.

Deep breath – this is where things get scarier. It’s easy to whinge, but it’s hard to fix something – and telling your colleague that they could improve is up there with fighting climate change and cracking the housing market.

“Give them some constructive feedback about the issue and an opportunity to improve. You could even give them suggestions or advice on what they could be doing instead. Make them an ally rather than an enemy. When they show improvement, make sure you positively reinforce these new behaviours with praise,” says Ellen.

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Grab a coffee and have a discussion.

There could be unforeseen benefits for them as well. “I’ve seen people who’ve ‘maxed out’ in organisations, that is, reached a point beyond which they’ll never be promoted, because none of their managers or peers ever gave them feedback about a single critical area.” So, handled correctly, you’re likely doing them a favour, too.

Once you’ve given them feedback, continue to keep track – you may not be the only person who’s noted their poor performance and you may be called on to take part in formal proceedings, “and it’s not a fun thing to get involved with, but the more factual your notes are, the easier it is.”

#5 Take it to the top 

If you’ve exhausted all other avenues, given them a chance to improve and seen no change, it may be time to escalate it to your boss. But rather than going behind their back, Ellen recommends being direct. “Tell them you’re going to mention the issue to your manager. You might couch this in terms of ‘getting them more support’ in a particular area.”

For example, “If they never meet deadlines, you might say that you can see their workload is unmanageable at the moment, so you’re going to mention it to your boss to see if you can get them some support. Often, this on its own will be enough to get the person to step up.”

While having that person fired and getting someone better might seem like an oasis in the desert, “This will just bring a new set of issues, so if you can, it’s best to work with what you have.” Come with solutions prepped so you don’t feel like you’re just complaining. “Can any work be reassigned? Has the person got too much on? Are they having issues at home? Did they not get enough training? Could they be mentored?” This will show that you’re proactive and solutions-oriented.

When they’re more senior

But what if the colleague in question is more senior than you? “You probably need to be even more careful; making notes about interactions can be even more critical. Understanding your manager’s drivers can be really helpful; sometimes a more senior person isn’t doing what you want them to do, but they might be fighting battles on other fronts, or doing things you have no idea about because they’re protecting you. You could also probe – without spreading gossip – to understand if the issue is affecting other members of the team.”

You might also undertake creating a culture of asking for feedback in the office. “Ask for feedback yourself, and encourage others to too, and see if you can get to a place where your manager asks you for feedback.”

If everyone is a problem, it might not be them

If you think all your colleagues are bad at their jobs, it, er, might not be them. “You might want to reflect on what the common denominator is between them… [which is] probably you,” says Ellen. “In this case, you either need to lower your standards, move organisations, or change your role.” Word.


Vivienne is a travelling freelance writer/editor, feminist, Harry Potter nerd and co-founder of Taylor Hermione & Co, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes safe relationships, consent and gender issues to teenagers in Australia. Find her on Twitter @VivEgan41 and Instagram @vivalogue