Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. How do I deal with a lazy co-worker?

I have a co-worker who's become too comfortable in her job; she knows she is retiring in several years and seems to have thrown in the towel. Her job is to great visitors, but she sits at her desk with earbuds in and a scowl. Everyone now comes to me instead. She is to open the office at 8 a.m., and she arrives late. She is unfriendly, and I'm receiving complaints from others, to the point that people won't even deal with her. She also has long, long personal calls at her desk that take me off tasks throughout the day.

I'm spoken with our supervisor and asked for him to do something. Others have as well, and nothing is being done. This morning I was stuck behind a five-car accident, and I had to call our supervisor and ask him to open the office because I knew she wouldn't be here. I was still able to make it into the office before her. This is the final straw, and I said something to her about showing up late. I've also talked to her in the past about her attitude. Right now I'm not getting anywhere. I have written an email to send to her, so I have documentation, but should I do that? Nothing is working, and the boss isn't doing anything. I love everyone in the department and don't want to find a new job, but when you sit next to a negative person who doesn't do their job, it starts to drive you insane.

Green responds:

Your boss is the bigger problem here. Your boss is the one whose job is to manage her, hold her accountable for her behavior, tell her when something isn't acceptable, and enforce consequences (including firing her) if she doesn't meet a reasonable bar for performance. Your boss knows about the problems and knows how frustrated others in your office are getting, and he's still choosing to do nothing. Apparently, he'd rather deal with everyone else being frustrated than have a difficult conversation with your co-worker. This is on him.

As for what you can do: I don't see any point in emailing her to create documentation.
You're not her manager and don't need to document performance conversations you'd had with her. And her performance isn't in dispute; everyone seems to know that it sucks. Your choices are really (1) find a way to live with the situation, (2) push your boss harder to address the problem (doesn't sound likely to succeed, but it's possible), or (3) decide you're not up for working somewhere that allows this kind of thing and that you will look elsewhere. But as long as your boss doesn't care enough to take action, your co-worker is unlikely to respond to pleas from you.

2. My boss is furious after my co-worker pranked her.

Today our boss came to my desk to talk to me, in an open-office area of about 40 cubicles. Her back was turned to my co-worker. As she was talking to me, my co-worker pulled out a fake spider and put it on my boss's shoulder. My boss turned around, yelled, was in shock, and told her, "How dare you! I am afraid of spiders! If you do that again, I will seriously quit!" She then called my co-worker an obscene name and stormed into her office and slammed the door. Our team sits pretty close to each other, and we all just looked at each other in shock. My co-worker who played the prank was shaking and tearing up. So she Skyped and emailed our boss an apology.

My co-worker became nervous when our boss didn't respond and kept her door closed. I advised my co-worker to give her time and let her cool down. As the day went on, my boss sent me work-related emails, and I assumed she would slowly come around. But later in the day, she wrote a complaint to the owner of the company and the HR manager and copied my co-worker, who told me the email said "How dare you do that," and that this is harassment.

I agree what my co-worker did was wrong, but can she get fired? What are your thoughts?

Green responds:

Legally, yes, she could be fired, but it's pretty unlikely she will be. It's more likely that she'll be told not to pull pranks on people in the office again, which is a reasonable outcome.

I don't fault your boss for having a strong initial response; some people are terribly freaked out by this kind of thing (although certainly her reaction sounds a bit ... uncontrolled). But it makes no sense that she'd send a letter to the owner or HR; she's a manager and has the authority on her own to talk to your co-worker and make it clear she shouldn't do something like that again. She doesn't need to borrow authority from anyone else, or have them handle it for her. And it's certainly not harassment in the legal sense. I would have expected her to handle it professionally once she'd had a chance to calm down after the initial shock, and it doesn't seem like that's happened.

3. I'm excluded from events that male co-workers are invited to.

Recently, our company hosted a client counsel where some of our larger customers come in to participate in discussions about our product and industries, etc. The event was organized by a management team member, and part of the agenda called for a half-day golf event off-site.

I had no idea about this golf event until the day of. I am the only mid-senior level manager who was not included, and I also happen to be the only mid-senior level manager who is a woman. My direct counterpart (same title) in a different business unit was invited -- and he was the golf partner of our CEO!

My direct counterpart also has three years less overall professional experience than me (we are the same age, 30, but he took three years off after college, so I have eight years versus his five years). He also has worked at our current company two years less than me, and makes a substantially larger salary! I know this is none of my business, but I can't help but let the resentment grow. Not to mention, his output is about 30 percent of mine.

This is not the first time I have been excluded from these kinds of networking and team-building events, and I am really beginning to get extremely frustrated. How do I approach this? Do I bring it up to my manager? HR?

Green responds:

I'd actually start with HR on this one because it's an issue of discrimination, and HR is (or should be) trained to take that seriously. Say this: "I've noticed that I've regularly been excluded from networking and team-building events that the men on our team are invited to, most recently the golf outing organized by Rupert. At this point, it's become a pattern that appears to be based on gender, and I want to make sure that it stops."

Also, while it's possible that the salary disparity between you and your less experienced colleague has nothing to do with gender, it's also possible that it does -- and particularly against a backdrop where the lone woman on the team is being professionally excluded, that's something that your company should be concerned about. So you might factor that into your overall picture of how this company treats women as well.

4. The same people on my team keep getting stuck with all the work.

I have a few great employees who have a great work ethic and who I can depend on in a crunch, but I feel that their workload is unbalanced. I am using a wall Gantt (visual board) to assign tasks and visibly show small-task due dates that the employees have to volunteer for. But if no one is signing up for the task, then one of my great employees will step up, even if they already have enough work to fill the day. How do I go about spreading out the workload?

I thought about having a rotation of employees for the tasks, but some employees are better at a certain tasks than others. I cannot really assign each employee to a task as some tasks occur more often than others. I have also given thought to limiting the number of tasks a certain employee can take on until the workload is distributed more evenly. What are your thoughts on this?

Green responds:

You need to start assigning work. Otherwise, you're going to have exactly what you have right now: The best people stepping up when no one else is, resulting in uneven work allocation. Part of your job as a manager is to think about which work is going to which person and ensure that it's spread out in a way that makes sense.

Limiting how much work someone can take on will just force you to assign work anyway (since your employees who volunteer will be restricted from doing it, and no one else is stepping up), so skip that step and go directly to assigning work yourself.

That doesn't mean you can't have some degree of volunteering built into your system, but first I'd look at how it's impacting your best people: are they getting stuck with a disproportionate amount of the undesirable projects? You don't need everything to be perfectly proportionate (you might even want to reward the best people's work ethic by giving them a disproportionate amount of the interesting stuff!), but you do want to ensure that people with initiative don't end up with worse projects or a higher workload than others.

5. Does my employer have to act on a doctor's note?

I have degenerative spine disease, which is made worse by sitting. I have a doctor's note requesting that I have an adjustable-height desk, so I can stand as needed. My employer 
provided one that didn't work out well with my desk. I have found another desk that would work well because it is the whole desk that raises and not an apparatus you put on the desk. Does my employer have to provide an ergonomic solution since I have a doctor's note? My doctor's note also suggests this work station as a way to avoid potential surgery.

Green responds:

In general, employers aren't legally bound to follow the requests or recommendations in doctor's notes. Good employers will try to if it's practical, but they're not legally bound to. However, if you're covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, then they're required to work with you to try to find a reasonable accommodation (which might be what your doctor is recommending but might be something else -- although what your doctor is recommending sounds pretty reasonable).

So the question you'd want to look into is whether your condition is covered under the ADA (which doesn't list specific conditions other than AIDS, but does cover physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities").

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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Published on: Sep 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.