How to Deal With Co-workers That Aren't Pulling Their Weight

While working with others can make it easier to tackle large responsibilities and projects, it can also be incredibly stressful. Whether you like it or not, co-workers are typically a significant part of your experience in college and in the workforce. Sometimes, the reality is that you can be stuck working with someone who isn’t holding up their end of the deal. We know that situations like these can be extremely frustrating, so we gathered together the best ways to deal with a co-worker who isn’t pulling their weight—because no one has time for that!

We spoke to Colleen O’Brien, a marketing and management professor at Carthage College with more than 22 years of experience in corporate finance with SC Johnson and the IIT Research Institute in Chicago. With her vast experience in process improvement, strategic planning, team leadership and management, she helped us pinpoint five steps to approaching and dealing with this type of situation.


1. Begin with preventative measures

With any problem, especially one involving a co-worker, the best way to deal with it is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. If you’ve been assigned to a group project with someone or have been given a task to take on with a co-worker, ensure that you’re taking preventative measures right from the start!

“Group work can be very frustrating when all members are not perceived to be contributing equally,” says O’Brien. “There are some actions you can take at the beginning of the work to try and prevent this from happening.”

So, how exactly do you initially approach the beginning of the project with your co-worker(s)? The key is to lay everything out there so that everyone is on the same page.

Define your roles

Working with others typically involves splitting up into different roles. “Define and assign specific roles for each team member and allocate individual tasks,” says O’Brien. “Make sure to include expectations regarding output and timing.”

While specific roles are subjective to the specific project or task, you can typically expect to assign a group leader. Assigning a group leader rather than allowing one to form naturally can prevent conflict and ensure that someone is there to encourage and motivate the group to fulfill their responsibilities without falling behind.

Outline a contract

Recording everything agreed upon by the group in writing is another great way to make everyone to stay accountable. O’Brien recommends outlining a contract under which all the team members are agreeing to.

“This document needs to be used on an ongoing basis to ensure that the project is continuing on schedule and all team members are delivering in accordance with what they agreed to,” O’Brien explains.

With all the roles and responsibilities detailed on paper as well as a schedule, you and your co-worker(s) know exactly what you’re responsible for—so no one should fall behind!

Establish group norms or rules

In addition to establishing roles and a written contract, O’Brien also suggests establishing norms or rules concerning group behavior that all team members think are important. That way, if one of your co-workers isn’t complying with the established rules, you can take the appropriate measures, such as giving him or her a warning.


2. Communicate early

Communication is key for a reason! Another initial step you’ll want to take on with co-workers, especially if you’re noticing a problem with their work ethic, is using your words. O’Brien explains several different ways you can approach your co-worker and communicate the situation in a helpful and positive manner.

Delay judgment

“In the event that a team member is not contributing, there are a couple of things you can do,” says O’Brien. “First of all, sit down with the team member and ask if there is something getting in the way of the member meeting their obligations to the team.”

Sometimes there is an underlying reason for a co-worker’s lack of effort, stemming from a more personal issue. It's imperative that you delay your judgment and frustration to understand where a co-worker is coming from before jumping to conclusions.

Be empathetic

Showing empathy for a struggling co-worker and making it known that you’re there for them can be one of the most positive ways to communicate with them. O’Brien explains how this is helpful when figuring out your co-worker’s situation.

“Ask if there is anything the team can do to help,” O’Brien advises. “Often when individuals are approached in a very empathetic and humanistic way, they are more likely to respond in a positive manner.”

Remember, you should be fostering positive communication and relationships among your co-workers, so a little empathy can go a long way!

Don’t let the situation fester

Ultimately, the most important way to handle a co-worker who isn’t pulling their weight is to discuss it early on so that the situation doesn’t become worse. You’ll want to avoid pent-up anger or any sort of gossip about an underperforming co-worker because it certainly won’t help in the end.

“Don't let the issue fester,” says O’Brien. “It is important to communicate early. Again, expressing concern first as opposed to contempt can help the team get to the bottom of the issue.”

Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself either! “I always confront the person straight-up,” says Karina Lee, a junior at Carthage College. “As far as group projects, this is college and we’re all adults.”

Although discussing the issue early on can be tough for many reasons, it prevents a lot of stress, anxiety and frustration that can come with an unresolved problem.

Related: 11 Things You Should Never Talk About With Your Coworkers


3. Make your supervisor aware of the situation

While communicating with your co-worker is extremely important, sometimes it doesn’t always do the trick.

“I always try asking other group members first so that we can all talk to [our co-worker] together,” says Sierra Eno, a junior at Carthage College. “If that doesn’t work, [I suggest] sharing your concerns with your professor or supervisor.”

If you’re past the point of empathizing and understanding where your co-worker is coming from and they’re still not delivering, then it may be time to consult your superior.

Make him or her aware of the situation

While it may be tempting to go to your boss and complain about the situation, whining will not get you the results you desire. Instead, use this opportunity to simply make him or her aware of the situation.

“Ask your professor or boss if they are aware of any issues that could be getting in the way of the individual doing their work,” says O’Brien. “Identify what you have done to date to try to get input from the team member.”

By bringing the situation to your supervisor’s attention, you’ll receive more professional assistance and understanding if you need to bring up any further issues down the road. Plus, they just might have the solution that you need.

Ask for advice

While you’ve approached your professor or boss and notified them about the situation, use it as an opportunity to learn about how they would move forward.

“Ask for suggestions about how you might proceed from this point,” O’Brien recommends. “Approach the meeting with your professor or boss as a request for advice, not a complaining session.”

Again, we know that it’s super tempting to complain and vent your frustrations, but asking for advice to resolve the issue rather than becoming angrier about it shows a lot of respect and professionalism on your behalf.


4. Find a way to work around the individual

If at this point you still haven’t made any positive progress with your co-worker (it can happen sometimes!), it might be time to take matters into your own hands. If the project allows for it, O’Brien suggests working around your co-worker’s responsibilities.

“If you are not getting your team member to contribute, I suggest to find a way to work around the individual,” says O’Brien. Again, this is subjective to what your project calls for, but it may require splitting up their role and taking on a little more responsibility yourself.

Sometimes, it’s a necessary and last-resort effort

However, if you’re worried about taking on too much, remember that it’s better than nothing at all. If your professor or boss has already been made aware of the situation, it will be quite clear to them who put effort into the project and who didn’t.

Related: 4 Types of Difficult People You Will Probably Work With & How to Deal


5. Consider finding a replacement 

If all else fails and you absolutely cannot find a way to make up for your co-worker, there’s only one thing you can do.

“If that person's knowledge is integral to the final deliverable, you have no choice but to ask that they be replaced with someone else,” O’Brien explains.

Remember, it’s your grade or job on the line

“If you can’t pull your weight then you’re getting kicked to the curb,” says Karina. “I never put anything less than my best out and I expect the same from the people I work with.”

While it’s certainly not easy to replace a co-worker, especially one that you have a close relationship with, it’s ultimately your grade or your job performance that’s on the line here. Don’t be afraid to do what’s absolutely necessary to fulfill your responsibilities!

Co-workers. While they can be extremely helpful in group projects and large tasks, sometimes, they can be anything but so. With these five steps in mind, you’ll be better equipped to not only prevent the situation initially but also to approach and handle the issue if it’s inevitable!