Dear Dave: One of my co-workers is a great guy, but he is not doing well in his job. Two of my other co-workers and I have been covering up for many of his mistakes and we have even done some of his work so he won’t get fired. I think we could get fired for doing his work, and I am nervous about this possibility, because I like my job and my company. So far, I can’t believe my boss has not caught wind of what we are doing. What do you recommend? — D

Dear D: First, let me say that you folks are very generous and caring. I also want to say that you cannot go on doing your co-worker’s work. Your help is helpful, but it might help you end up in the unemployment line.

Your boss hired this worker because your boss believed that he had the skills and the know-how necessary to do his job. If your boss would find out that you are covering for your ineffective co-worker, your boss has every right to let you go. Simply, you are making a huge mistake.

It appears that you and your co-workers are productive workers, so I believe you must be surprised that this person was hired in the first place. It is so devastating to see someone flounder and not be able to do what they were hired to do. We can see the anguish in the faces of the faltering employees and they — in all likelihood — will be looking to the more successful employees to reach out and help them.

When I was a sales manager, I would travel with my sales representatives and listen to them make presentations to their customers. I did not sit there and smother them like they were fumbling children; rather I tried to sit at a distance, so they could own their work. Many times, I would hear weak and unrehearsed presentations, and I could tell that the customers were quite uncomfortable and even irritated to varying degrees. Often, both the customers and my sales representatives would turn to look at me for what I thought. In my early years as a manager, I would jump in to save the day. However, as I matured as a manager, I would let things play out and let the sales rep sink or swim. It was “tough love.”

You could say that I was incorrect in not taking over the presentation. And, trust me, if the success of the presentation and the relationship of the customer was extremely crucial, it was unbelievably difficult for me to keep my mouth shut. I found that I could say something positive to support the presentation and then turn it back to the sales rep. In this way, the sales rep would learn a great deal about the need for preparation and practice and the customer would – in all likelihood – be less frustrated with the encounter. If I had totally taken over the presentation, my sales rep would have learned nothing, except that he or she were embarrassed by the experience and that I was seriously angered.

Sometimes, we have to just leave things alone and let people learn from an experience — even if the lessons learned are quite humbling and embarrassing. This reality may apply to your co-worker, too, and he needs to learn how to take care of himself and do the job he was hired to do.

Cut the cord

Your co-worker is in need of many things and — quite possibly — should never have been hired for the position. Your company is made up of many moving parts, not least of which are the skills and abilities of key people in vital roles. If the wrong people are hired, nasty things could happen beyond the lack of output of one worker in one job: customers could be lost, workers can become angered, managers could be terminated, and a missing link in the “chain of success” could cause many other success factors to fail.

I would encourage your struggling co-worker to realize that his incompetence is his problem and not yours to overcome. I would tell him that you have your own work to do and you certainly do not want to put yourself in a situation where your performance suffers and that you could be singled out by your boss for gross incompetence. I think all of us have found ourselves in situations where we needed help and support by others. However, once the assistance was given to us, we may have — or should have — realized that we must take over and just do our jobs.

Your co-workers are probably just as frustrated as you are and more than likely want to sever the assistance “help line” so they can get their work done. They may have ideas of how this can be done, so talk to them and come up with a plan. I would bet anything that your discussion would lead to the fact that you all must put a halt to your excessive assistance.

But, remember, if you abruptly and totally drop your support, your co-worker will suddenly fall on his face and your manager will wonder what the heck happened. It will become apparent that you have — without permission — been covering up for your coworker. This is a betrayal of your manager’s trust.

I guess what I am saying is, let things become what they will become and quit doing your co-worker’s work. You can offer words of guidance and suggestions for doing things, but your co-worker needs to seek help and come clean with your manager about his inability to perform and his need to become better trained and more confident in his work. But, stop the enabling!

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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