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‘My Co-worker Doesn’t Pull His Weight’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I work on a team of three — Fergus, me, and our manager, Lucinda. Fergus and I both have the same title. I have been with the company for about six years, and Fergus joined just before COVID hit and we all switched to working from home. We both mostly work on our own projects, which are delegated to us by Lucinda, but sometimes she will send us both a project or task and ask us to decide who will handle it or will ask us to work together on it. It’s usually in a casual way, like “Can one of you look after X, Y, Z — details below” or “Can both of you look into this?” Sometimes these assignments are quick jobs, and sometimes they require more work over a longer period.

With Fergus’s predecessor, this was not a problem. We were quick to communicate with each other and divide these ad hoc projects between us or discuss who would look after what. It always felt balanced and fair. However, Fergus does not volunteer to take any projects that aren’t specifically assigned to him and does not weigh in on projects that we should both be working on.

If during a team meeting Lucinda asks us to decide between ourselves who does an ad hoc project or task, Fergus will remain silent until I speak up first. I have insisted during these meetings that we delegate the projects there and then so there is no confusion or time lost, but with projects that come by email, and with the ones we are supposed to do together, it is harder. He will ignore all emails unless he is specifically asked to do something, so I either volunteer or ask him if he can take on a task. To be fair, he does usually say yes once I ask him, but I feel the burden to make sure these tasks are acknowledged and delegated falls to me. I have also waited a few days after Lucinda has sent us projects to give Fergus a chance to acknowledge them, but it is usually radio silence until I take the lead.

Lucinda has asked how I find working with Fergus, and I have mentioned this issue. She told me I need to be more assertive in telling Fergus to take his fair share of the work. But as Lucinda oversees all our projects, I think she would be better able to judge who has the capacity to take what. She has told me that she has had to manage Fergus more closely because he has a habit of procrastinating. She has also said that sometimes she will give tasks to me and not Fergus because she knows I will do them more quickly and with less input from her. I have asked about the possibility of being given a more senior role but have been told this is not possible, which has also irritated me.

Technically, I could manage most of the extra work, even the projects we are supposed to collaborate on, but I am starting to feel resentful. I like my job, though, and this is a small complaint. Perhaps I am being too sensitive and need to be more assertive with Fergus. 

As annoying as Fergus is — and he is! — your boss might be the bigger problem.

She’s abdicating a central part of her responsibilities — delegating work and making sure it’s assigned equitably — and leaving you to do it for her, even though she knows that means it won’t get distributed fairly and you’ll be left with a greater burden.

It’s one thing for a manager to delegate work the way Lucinda is doing it if all the members of her team respond fairly — meaning that people pitch in to take on projects as their workload allows and aren’t content to let someone else handle it all each time. But when that’s not happening and, instead, one person gets stuck carrying the weight of the other, the manager needs to use a different approach.

What’s particularly aggravating is that you’ve talked to Lucinda about the problem and she has told you, in essence, to deal with it yourself. When she says to be more assertive in getting Fergus to do his fair share of the work, she’s telling you to exercise authority that you don’t have. You shouldn’t have to cajole a peer into doing his part, and frankly you don’t have the standing to do that, even if you wanted to! The person who needs to address this with Fergus is Lucinda, since she has the authority … and it’s her job to talk to him when his work habits cause problems.

Moreover, if she is going to rely on you to semi-manage Fergus, and since she acknowledges that she’ll often send tasks your way because she knows you’ll do a better job, she owes you a conversation about being given a more senior title beyond “it’s not possible.”

But as for what to do … well, one option is to do exactly what Lucinda suggested and be more assertive with Fergus. You shouldn’t have to do that, but it might be the only practical way to deal with it. That means that when Lucinda sends the two of you projects to work on, you choose on your own how you want to divide everything. Then, for the projects you don’t want to take, you’d just say to him, “Can you take this?” In fact, one way to look at it is that by staying silent, he’s giving you first dibs on what you want to work on and then you can send all the rest to him.

It sounds like you’re doing that right now anyway — by necessity, since otherwise work won’t ever get divvied up — so the change here would just be doing it right from the start and not waiting for him to jump in on his own, since you know he’s not going to.

But I’m also curious what would happen if you adopted some of Fergus’s work habits. If Lucinda is okay with him not stepping up to volunteer for the projects she sends, then what if you just … didn’t either? I’m guessing you probably don’t want to do that because you’re a conscientious person, but it may force her to finally address the situation or change the way she assigns work.

There is also a middle-ground option, which is to hang back like Fergus does, but let both him and Lucinda know ahead of time that you’ll be doing that. First, you could say to Fergus, “I’ve generally been the one to respond to Lucinda’s requests and either offer to take on the work myself or ask you to. I need us to share that responsibility more equally so it doesn’t all fall on me. So for at least the next month, can you be the point person on those requests and take the first stab at responding to them?” And then you could say to Lucinda, “I’ve asked Fergus to be more active about claiming some of the work you send us, and I’m going to be giving him space to do that. So at least for a while, you won’t see me stepping forward to claim things as quickly as in the past. It’s important to me that he and I share the responsibility of divvying things up, like you’ve asked us to do.” Either Fergus will step up and do this piece of his job, or he won’t and it’ll be clear to Lucinda what is happening without you feeling obligated to step in and fill that void.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Co-worker Doesn’t Pull His Weight’