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WORKWISE: How to deal with an incompetent co-worker
Mildred Culp

How can you deal with a person who's incompetent? Can you trust that person on any level?

Bonnie Monych, president of The New WorkPlace Inc. in Houston, reports you can trust the person to jeopardize your health. She cites research confirming incompetent co-workers multiply your work load as much as 300 percent and increase your stress so much that a confrontation with them may be followed by a heart attack 12 hours later.

If incompetence can increase stress for you, you need to determine if the incompetence is willful before proceeding. Pamela Harper, president of Business Advancement Inc. in Glen Rock, N.J., which consults to high-growth companies, says you should first check your assumptions to determine if the person is capable of doing the job.

She mentions several factors - "knowledge, skills, ability, resources, systems, processes and priorities" - and suggests that willfulness might be prompted by cultural assumptions, conflict, even mental illness. She also says there can be a mismatch caused by organizational stress or a poor hiring decision.

Wally Bock of Greensboro, N.C.'s Three Star Leadership trains and coaches first-line supervisors to be leaders. He says there are methods for determining whether the person is incompetent, but "it's always a judgment call."

Has he done similar work before? Does he have the training for it? "Most of the time, if you can establish that they should know how to do it, look at their ability to perform the task and if they have the right resources," Bock says. "If they have it and aren't doing it, they're choosing not to do what they're supposed to do."

He also mentions that if the person avoids one particular kind of task, confidence may be the problem. That person isn't incompetent. The able person who's doing little most likely points to willfulness.


If the person is a co-worker, you may not be in a position to have him fired. Harper advocates remaining focused on your objective. A willfully incompetent person presents the challenge, she states, to "get around it and move forward."

Jim Bolton of consulting firm Ridge Associates Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., believes much incompetence stems from lack of accountability. He advocates formulating an agreement with the co-worker but says, "An agreement won't help someone who isn't capable of doing a job."

It is, perhaps, at this point that you decide to resign from all tasks that involve working with the person or speak with a supervisor. However, Wally Adamchik, president of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting in Raleigh, N.C., observes, "Of course, in this scenario, we need to wonder where the supervisor is in the first place and if the incompetent peer is related to him. If the super is unaware, then we need to explain the situation. If he is aware, ask if he intends to apply corrective action and if he understands the bad signal it sends to let the behavior persist."

Adamchik further states a conflict-averse supervisor may not be helpful: "If all of this is making you look bad and you want to keep your job, you need to get the conversation started. Often the boss is aware of the situation and grateful for you to be there to make it right."

If you can't decide what to do, consider which mountain is greater - the one through the door out of your office or the one into your supervisor. Then, think about whether there's an alternative between the two.

Mildred Culp comments upon the workplace in national media. Look for more of her helpful information at Copyright 2007 Passage Media.