Snoozing on the Clock

Elaine Varelas offers advice on how to handle a coworker who sleeps on the job

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: A coworker routinely falls asleep at his desk—and nods off in meetings! We learned he started freelancing on the side, so he’s probably tired from the late nights. This isn’t fair to the rest of us and will look bad if any senior people see, but my boss doesn’t say or do anything (she says she has never seen him napping). What should I do?

A: Managing people is never easy—and being a coworker of someone whose behavior is considered out of the norm or unprofessional isn’t easy, either. Your boss might not notice the sleeping habits of this coworker—or, she does know, and she’s aware that he struggles with a medical condition or is experiencing an adverse reaction to prescription medication or a host of other issues. You suggested that late nights spent freelancing are the reason for your coworker’s napping, but are you sure this is true? Or is that an unfounded rumor around the office? Consider the range of possible explanations before jumping to an uncharitable conclusion about your coworker.

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You say that the situation is unfair to you and the rest of the team. It is not a matter of it being “fair” to you at all—in fact, it has very little to do with you, unless it’s directly affecting your work. If your work is impacted by your sleeping coworker, there are a couple of ways to approach the situation. I always recommend talking directly to the person first. In a private conversation, say “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been falling asleep at your desk recently, and I don’t want senior management to notice. What’s going on? Is everything alright?” This will give your coworker the opportunity to explain, if he is comfortable doing so—he is under no obligation to you if the information is sensitive. Perhaps he’ll tell you that, yes, he’s been freelancing in the evenings. But he also might share that he’s taking a new medication that he’s still getting used to, nursing a sick child, or dealing with any number of life’s stressors. Try to be a supportive coworker instead of immediately throwing the person under the bus or adding to the rumor mill.

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If the behavior does negatively impact your work, go to your manager and simply state your concern for your coworker without casting accusations: “I’ve noticed that Bill has been having trouble staying awake in meetings. It’s causing problems in my own work, and I just wanted to make sure you were aware of it.” But remember, speak directly with your coworker before taking this step.

You might also need to ask yourself if it’s strictly the sleeping that’s bothering you or if it’s the idea of his freelancing that bothers you. If it’s the fact that this coworker is doing extra work on the side that really annoys you, that’s another issue altogether. However, as long as it isn’t against company policy and it doesn’t affect his work, your coworker can do whatever other work he wants. If your company is his primary employer, he does have a responsibility to make the work he does there a priority and needs to make sure it is done accurately and in a timely, professional manner and that his colleagues have what they need to do their jobs.

Freelancing is a very common way for people to supplement their income, and it should not be a source of workplace conflict. Your colleague could be doing freelance work in his field, or he could be driving for Lyft. He might be saving up for a vacation or for his children’s college funds. Either way, as long as it does not affect his performance or your performance, it should be a non-issue.

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