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What Do I Do About the Coworker Who’s Not Pulling Their Weight?

And other questions you’d rather not ask your own HR Department

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

I have an employee who religiously takes her lunch break every day, no matter how busy we are. I do most of her job for her anyway, but it especially irks me when I find her in the kitchen for an hour reading a book — especially because she usually tells me how overloaded she is every time I ask her to do something. All the while, she knows me and the rest of the team are frantically trying to hit our (and her) deadlines.

I’ve asked my HR department if I can bring it up in her six-month review (which is coming up), but they told me absolutely not. They claim it opens us up to the risk of being sued. That, however, seems crazy. So one, is that true — and why? And two, if so, what else can I do to keep her insistence on lunch at a certain time every day from affecting both our productivity and my mood. — Grant B., Houston
Certainly to your HR department’s surprise, neither federal law or Texas law requires lunch breaks. In fact, if your company grants a lunch break, it gets to set the rules — e.g., how much time and whether it will be paid. Keep that in the back of your mind as I address each issue you’ve raised.

  • She takes an hour for lunch. What does your company policy state she’s entitled to take? Most policies cover their nonexempt employees (employees who receive overtime and other protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act), but exempt employees work as many hours in a week as needed to get the job done — no lunch break required!
  • Six-month review discussion. You’ve received some really shitty advice from your HR team. As her manager, the review is your time to discuss her performance, and you’ve already highlighted some behaviors that may be problematic: collaboration; dependability; sense of urgency; accountability; commitment. It’s your job to have your team working together to meet department goals. If her behaviors create obstacles to your department’s success, it’s your ass on the line, not the HR rep’s.
  • They claim it opens them up to the risk of being sued. Even if the employee is entitled to a one-hour lunch break per company policy, as the manager, you determine when that lunch break is taken. As long as you aren’t being discriminatory in scheduling the time — e.g., men always have noon to 1 p.m. but women are assigned different schedules each week — it’s your role to manage the people resources most effectively to get the work done. Perhaps the employee has a disability and has requested a “reasonable accommodation” regarding mealtime. This is probably unlikely, but as her manager, you need to be informed of what that accommodation is so you can schedule around it.
  • What else can I do to convince her to alter her lunch schedule? See above: You don’t have to convince her of anything. She’s on your schedule, not hers.

Go back to your HR department and let them know that her behaviors are impacting your department’s productivity and morale. Remind them that the unfair treatment she’s receiving could result in a hostile work environment claim from your other employees, so you’re going to address her behaviors head-on during the six-month review. Then make sure you follow through — both with her and your HR people, letting them know that there’s no legal reason as to why you can’t manage your employees’ schedules as you see fit.

What’s the best way to adapt to the office culture at a new job? I just started at a new place, and while I don’t hate the new culture, it’s not exactly me either. I don’t want to become a Stepford wife, but I’m not sure if being me will endear me since it’s not an exact match. Is there a happy medium? — Ben A., Chicago
Getting a feel for an organization’s culture is something you should do before accepting a job offer. There’s no excuse for not knowing it — or a company’s values or political leanings — when there’s so much information readily available. There are articles highlighting pro- and anti-LGBT companies, apps for pro-Trump companies and lists of companies with unique and exciting cultures. Armed with all of this knowledge, you can tailor your interview questions and responses to show you’re a culture fit or push the interview into areas where you have concerns.

Once in your new office setting, you should be able to sense pretty quickly where the cultural quicksand is and decide how to act. For example, if “fuck you” is the standard term of endearment among your coworkers but you find such language offensive, you’re probably out of luck. Either you’re going to have to ignore it or provide some creative, clever and colorful alternatives. Other things are easier to make a stand about. For example, if drinking at lunch is a cultural norm, find a different space to eat or just say no when the booze makes its way around the table.

Mostly, though, questions and concerns like these usually come down to “buyer’s remorse.” So review the reasons why you took the job in the first place. Were there professional goals you wanted to achieve — an opportunity to learn new skills, gain exposure to different methodologies or add more keywords to your resume? Keep those firmly in mind when asking yourself if your new company’s cultural norms are compromising your values, beliefs or integrity. It might very well be that you’re simply using something like too much profanity or drinking at the office as an excuse for the real problem — the job itself isn’t turning out to be what you’d hoped.

Now, if the culture is the problem, focus on how quickly you can add to your resume and then get out. Bending a little to fit in isn’t becoming a Stepford wife, but having your will broken certainly is.

We had a guy just leave our company who sent a half-genuine, half-CYA goodbye email to our @ALL account. I didn’t really mind it, but there were some super hot takes going around the office — both about what he wrote specifically and goodbye emails more generally. What’s your opinion of them? — Cory S., Fort Lauderdale
I’ve never understood individuals who send out an @ALL email when they depart. Even the most well-intentioned emails — i.e., the ones that talk about how wonderful the company is, how you’re proud to have contributed in some small way to its success, etc. — are self-aggrandizing.

The simple fact is that when someone leaves an organization, his or her departure always allows for convenient scapegoating to occur that no CYA email ever prevents. And if you didn’t know people well enough to personally say goodbye, why would you want to send an impersonal email in the first place? The new guys wonder who the hell you are; the more tenured people just shrug.

So when it’s your turn to say goodbye, follow these five simple rules:

  1. Make sure you’ve got the personal email addresses of the people you want to stay in touch with.
  2. Remember to ask select individuals if you can put them down as references.
  3. Be witty and charming for however long you’re still in the office because you’ll never know when your paths will cross again.
  4. Personally thank those people who deserve your thanks.
  5. Spring for the first round of drinks at your going-away party — that, people will never forget.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.