Help! My Co-Workers Don’t Follow The Rules and It’s Driving Me Crazy!

Dear Work Coach,

I am a government employee who has become really irritated at work about something that is out of my control.

Here’s my issue: I am an employee who is always on time and always puts in my full amount of hours. However, I have co-workers who show up at seemingly whatever times they please each morning (sometimes 9, sometimes 10:30) and then leave in the evenings before they’ve worked their full “shifts” because there’s no supervisor left in the office to watch them. The fact that this goes on has made me lose respect for my boss because I see that he does not enforce standard rules. And I can’t fathom how these co-workers of mine have the balls to do this!

I don’t want to stoop to their level (plus, I simply can’t work the later hours that they do) but I constantly feel like a sucker for working 8 full hours each day. I’d like to just ignore their comings and goings, but my office is at the end of the hallway to the exit and I can’t help but notice it. I’m tempted to just keep my door shut, but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t come in to ask me questions that are work-related…

So my question is this: How do I not let things at work that are out of my control bother me?



Dear N,

First, let me say I really feel for you. I think this is a question many can relate to. Thanks for asking it here.

Your first sentence gets to the heart of the issue: what your co-workers do is out of your control. And your last sentence shows that you are aware that the real answer is not about controlling them or changing their behavior in any way. You just want to know what you can do to keep from being driven nuts by their behavior and the unfairness of it all!

I am struggling to come up with a good answer that won’t also drive you crazy. I’ve seen this many times, and the truth is that most times there is nothing a person in your situation can do other than finding a way to let go of thinking about this in terms of right or wrong, or that you are somehow getting the short end of the stick because of others behavior.

Clearly, it’s not fair. No question you are right about that. But the fact that it’s bugging you to this extent raises questions about whether you are happy in your work. Just a thought. If you are happy (other than this one thing), please skip to the next paragraph. If not, this may be a great wake up call to forget about those people and start thinking about yourself and what would make you really happy. Is there something else you’d rather be doing? (If the answer is “I would, but I can’t”, please read a post I just wrote on my other blog: What If I CAN Be Happy???!!)

But if you are happy in your work or for whatever reason must stay there, here are some things that would be helpful for me to know:

  • Is there any way you can get your office changed so you can’t see the people coming or going? (I’m not kidding. Sometimes what we don’t see doesn’t bug us as much.)
  • Is this something you can discuss with your boss or would you worry about being seen as a snitch? Are these employees doing critical jobs? Is their work getting done? Does their behavior impact on your workload? Are other people just as upset about this? (It becomes a much bigger deal if work is not getting done.)
  • Out of curiosity, is this the only thing about your boss you don’t like? I’ve worked for great bosses (in government and other types of jobs) and this has gone on there too – although not quite to the extent you are seeing! I still respected my bosses, so there may be more to the whole situation in your case.
  • I wonder, in general, about your relationship with your boss. If you are close to your boss and have his or her trust, you can certainly discuss things like this. Maybe s/he’d want to know. Would your boss be in trouble if this got around? (If you aren’t close, maybe something to work on? Jobs are a lot more satisfying when you have your boss’s ear in general.)
  • Do the people leaving early have special situations you don’t know about? I had employees when I worked in government who had physical conditions that made it ok to come in late and leave early, but not everyone knew about it.

Please forgive me for asking so many questions and trying to look at this from all angles. So often when I get a question, there are many levels of useful details I don’t know.

If your answers are that these people are just sneaking out with no special conditions, the boss knows but doesn’t care, and you want to stay in your job (which may very well be the case here), then we come down to the basic question of how to keep yourself from being annoyed by them no matter what else is going on.

And that’s the hardest thing. It really is about changing focus (meditation or for some prayer is a good place to start) and learning to desensitize ourselves to what others are doing. One way to think about it is…why should their choices have the power over you to make you miserable? So what if they break the “rules”? Is it your job to worry about that? There is a world of rule-breakers out there, but I’d rather live my life proudly by my own values. Otherwise, I’d lose too much energy (and sleep) worrying about all of THEM!!! (-;

So, step one is deciding to only focus on what you have control over. Are you getting enough out of your work? Are there relationships you can build that would get you to different work or maybe even to a different job? Is there a project you want to work on or an idea for improving things you want to pitch to your boss? What kinds of fun things are you doing away from work? Is there something you’ve always wanted to try but never given yourself permission?

The more a person focuses on things to add richness to his or her own life, the less the other stuff matters. Not that it isn’t still WRONG. It is. But we’ve reached the point of SO WHAT? If you can’t change it and it’s not harming you personally (except in the idea of fairness, which I agree sucks) let it go!

You don’t have the power to change their behavior, but you sure have the power to change the way you feel about it. And, believe it or not, if you can work on perspective and attitude while focusing more on stuff that’s good for you, then you can even reach a point where maybe you can forgive them for being so weaselly in the way they treat their jobs and those around them. It’s been my experience that life gives you back what you give to it. Don’t worry about what they are getting away with. It really isn’t helping them in the whole scheme of things.

But think of it this way…if their selfish behavior gets you to change something in your life, hah! They’ve actually done you a favor. And once you get to that point, you can see them leave early and feel just fine about it. Which is all you can really do at this point.

I’ve brought up a lot of stuff that is NOT easy. Please know I never for one moment forget how I felt all those times when I was playing by the rules and saw people around me bending them right and left. I HATED it. And yet, as the years went on, I learned that I wasn’t helping myself by focusing so much on what others are doing (or not doing).

And that’s when I learned the trick of building on things I can control (and enjoy) and letting go of stuff I can’t control. Not that I manage perfectly every time, but I promise…it does get easier.

Hope this helps, at least a little. Please let me know how it goes.

Good luck!

Ronnie Ann


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Let’s get to the heart of the matter…

    “I am a government employee who has become really irritated at work about something that is out of my control.”

    Government employees…not doing what they are supposed to be doing…what a shock!

    These are our tax dollars working for us. Report it to your mayor/congressman/senator. Report it to your local/state new program. Or just protect your job and do nothing…they’ll change you in a couple of years.

    • I am a government employee as well and can tell you that this goes on throughout our agency. How can you trust the employees when supervision does the same thing? It’s a no-win situation. I’ve been in my position for 18 years and it has only gotten worse.

      What a joke!

      • Dear Janet,

        My favorite thinking on this comes from journalist Tom Brokaw who said something along the lines of “the real world is like middle school with all of its petty adolescent behavior. The trick is to approach your interests with the joy of a child and situations like a grown-up.”

        Enjoy all that is outside of your work life and/or seek out new opportunities; it may make working in a dysfunctional environment more palatable.

        Good luck,

  2. I totally appreciate your comment, morethananelectrician. For the purposes of this blog, as a work coach, I answer the best I know how to address the questioner’s dilemma. But as a former worker (and boss) in a government agency, I was often frustrated by what was deemed acceptable behavior – and by how hard it was to make the changes I wanted. All too often, when it came time to cut costs, I had to get rid of the people who did all the work and keep people who were barely contributing because of the rules. It drove me buggy!

    Just to let people know…there are a lot of government workers (like N) who do a great job and give it their all. The toughest things is finding ways within the system to get rid of workers who aren’t pulling their share.

  3. Concerning fellow workers who don’t follow the rules, you are right to be frustrated. It is very common for workers to abuse a lack of supervision and this, of course, affects overall morale. Much of the problem is related to employee selection. I have developed a test that measures nine workplace attitudes. They include respect for authority, empathy and self-discipline. I believe if people are hired with “disruptive attitudes,” problems will result. You can learn more by going to my blog

    Dale Paulson, Ph.D.
    Association Research Group

  4. I think it just depends what these people were supposed to do. I mean, as N. says, he/she cannot work the same hours as other people (which is not a problem, it’s just how it is) . Maybe others are more willing to pull an “all-nighter” before an important project deadline. OK, so they are sometimes late on other days, when the workload is lighter.

    Economics 101: work is measured in output/results, not in working the same 8 hours every day (Ok, this does not hold in some public relation jobs, but it’s true for most).
    In case you are wondering: yes, I am a guy who doesn’t stay the exact number of hours every day. But the number of tight deadlines I pulled, I can assure you that if you ask my boss, I’m one of the most valued employees. I probably do more valuable work than others, but there are fixed rules and salary scales, so the salary does not always measure up with that. So what? Do I feel morally cheated or something? Err… no, everyone has a different abilities and lifestyle choices.

    My basic point is: there is no right and wrong here (at least not how N. defines them). As long as you don’t have to work more all the time because the others work less (if this is indeed the case, you should complain!). But otherwise, I don’t really see your problem.

  5. Great discussion! This seemingly simple question brings up so many meaty issues.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I would like to clarify that these co-workers of mine do not work longer hours to get their projects done. And do you know why that is? Because they are assigned less work (or in the case of one, essentially NO work) because they don’t produce quality work! So it’s the curse of doing things well…you’re asked to do more things! And that’s where I feel a bit bitter. It’s hard-wired into me to have a good work ethic, and not into others. I don’t want to change it in me – I like being a hard worker. I guess I just wish everyone in my office was like me! For now though, I’m just trying to keep my head down and mind my own business. I hope that by working hard, my accomplishments will be recognized and I’ll move ahead…while the others will most likely stay right where they are. Thanks for hosting such a helpful blog, Work Coach!

  7. Thanks, N. And thanks for clarifying your situation.

    Just to say it again…I have been in your shoes and watched people who hardly work and don’t even seem to care get easier assignments and treated with kid gloves, and it sucked. You are right to decide to focus on what YOU do and not on what they don’t do. Just a quick word….hard work and head down is not as effective as hard work and some solid, steady networking when looking to get ahead. (-;

    I have a feeling you can make something good happen for yourself if you do your best to forget about what you can’t control (there were unfair things everywhere I’ve ever worked!), shine where you are, and keep your eyes open to new opportunity. But remember also to think about other types of employers where this kind of stuff is not quite as easily accepted.

    Good luck!

  8. I have a similar problem at my office…except my boss is part of the problem, too! He and my co-workers always come in late and rarely ever make up the time by staying late. Two hour lunches are often the norm too. I don’t know what to do, I’ve become a little bitter because I seem to be the only one following the rules.

  9. Hi Kitty!

    Ugh. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrated you must feel.

    Interesting concept “rules”. Many of our laws purposefully have squiggle room built in that allow for interpreting rules to adjust for local custom. If you really are the only one conforming to a different way of acting, then it doesn’t really seem to be the rule, does it?

    How you handle this depends on whether this is just one group within a larger organization where your boss might get in trouble for what s/he is doing or whether the company allows for a more flexible atmosphere as long as the work gets done. I once saw the head of a team within a division doing exactly what you said and it was NOT appreciated by his boss. In fact, he was fired. But in some cases, it’s cool. As I said, much depends on how this matches to and/or is viewed by the whole company.

    But I’m more interested in whether you are happy otherwise. Do you feel part of the team? Are you able to get your ideas heard? Do you feel treated fairly otherwise? If so, how others behave as long as the work gets done doesn’t matter. If not, there may be a mismatch that is good for you to pay attention to now.

    It might be worth thinking about whether this is a job you actually want and, if so, what you can do to feel more comfortable. People are different and sometimes this is one of the ways it comes out. And if it’s not ok with the company, this won’t go on forever!

    But if it is ok with the company, then it is fine for you to mention to your boss that you’ve noticed people coming in late and taking longer lunch hours and wonder if it’s ok for you to do that once in a while too. How comfortable you feel bringing up the issue and how s/he reacts as well as how you feel about the whole situation, will tell you a lot about your place in the office and whether this is the right place for you in the long run.

    As always, my answers have to try to include a variety of possibilities since I don’t have all the details. But in a nutshell, there are three basic options: (1) look for a new job; (2) lighten up and join in the more flexible atmosphere (while still doing your best of course); or (3) continue as you are and forget about what others are doing; that’s their choice and they’ll have to live with the consequences if any arise.

    Hope you can work this out. It’s not worth letting a job drive you nuts. How they act is up to them; how you feel about it is up to you. And if it just doesn’t feel right, you start looking.

    Good luck!

    Ronnie Ann

  10. Dear Ronnie Ann,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. It gets even more complicated because my department is kind of a “satellite” and my boss’s boss probably only interacts with him 4 times a year or so…so there is really no direct supervision of my boss….which is why the work ethic is the way it is and trickles down to everyone else, I suppose.

    He is a nice guy and I do feel like part of the team…my opinions, etc…are valued, but it gets to a point where you feel like a schmuck for having a real work ethic. I have been looking for other work..but so far no luck.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share this with you.

  11. Ah! Thanks for the explanation. Kitty.

    I find it helps to be able to say stuff out loud even if we basically know the answers. Glad this site could at least give you a chance to get it all out! Also happy to hear that your boss is a nice person and you do feel part of the group.

    I’ve had a zillion jobs (ok. maybe that’s a slight exaggeration) and I’ve found each place has its pluses and minuses. Sounds like you have two big pluses – a nice thing to remember while you look for the job that really matches you. And…please forgive me…but it’s also a chance to see if you could redefine what “real work ethic” is. To me it’s less about the hours and time at the desk and more about getting the work done while creating an atmosphere where people feel able to participate in work as well as ideas. To me, this sounds like a place where flexibility might pay off in good results.

    Personal note: I’m notorious for not being great at getting in on time and for spending lots of time schmoozing or taking thinking walks (it’s how I stimulate my brain) , but I always make it up in the quality of work I deliver and how I treat people around me. Not everyone would call that a good work ethic, but for me it is. As I said, each person has to define what it is for themselves and then try to find a job that matches who they are.

    But it might be fun to see if you could explore your own view of work a little and maybe learn to enjoy what sounds like a special situation. Maybe yes; maybe no. I just wanted to make sure I mention that option. (I wouldn’t be a good work coach if I didn’t.)

    I wish you all the best in finding the job that feels right for you! Meanwhile…at the very least, see if a little reframing (thinking about it from the other person’s perspective) or even zen breathing (in eight, out eight, gently and slowly) might not help lighten your feelings. (-;

    Good luck!

    Ronnie Ann

  12. I don’t mean to imply that I have a superior work ethic because of the time I put in or the amount of work I do. Believe me, I do my fair amount of schmoozing….but I guess what I don’t understand is that when the boss sat us all down a couple of years ago and said “everyone needs to be at work at 9am,” but then no one is….or, you can wear blue jeans on Friday, but then the boss wears them on Tuesday and Thursday, too…I just don’t get it. I have simply lost track what the rules are supposed to be. I have a few co-workers who are pursuing advanced degrees…and they even do their homework at work!

    But I do value your input and you’re right…it is good to vent now and then.

  13. Agreed. Believe me, I can understand how confusing and frustrating this must seem from your perspective. Would be very helpful if your boss simply met with the team and addressed some of these issues. For any bosses out there reading this…please keep your team up-to-date on what’s expected of them. And, if you do set rules and then change them or let them slip, just let your staff know that too. (A lot like parenting, I think.)

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us, Kitty. I know you are NOT alone. But I also want to add that I actually recommend more flexibility like this in the workplace – bosses just need to make sure the policy is understood by everyone. Otherwise, it really isn’t fair.

    Again, all the best!

  14. Caitlin P says:

    I am currently in a job that I am very good at. However, my husband and I moved 5 months ago so I had to find a new job. It is in the same line of work, but a different small business. I am a technician for a private practice optometrist and the other technician has been here for 3 years. Everything started out okay until I learned how to do everything. Now, I get stuck doing all of the cheking in/pretesting for patients while the other tech sits on the computer. I ask her for help and she says she’s “too busy” to do it. That’s fine. Maybe she was then. Another time I asked for help so I could make a phone call for the doctor, she said “I’d rather not because I’m not feeling well and I have to work tomorrow so.. I’d just rather not.” If I had the option to ‘rather no’ do my job at work, I would! I cannot believe someone would say that. And heaven forbid that she have to work 2 days in a row!! Also, she comes in to work wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of the uniform so she cannot work with patients (even though she did once!!). She always sits on the internet shopping for random things not work related and she is getting paid for it. The boss is pretty lenient so she hasn’t noticed, but I feel like I’m doing all the work and she is getting paid for nothing.

    • Caitlin P. says:

      I want to talk to my boss about it, but I am afraid I will come across as a tattle tale and it will just make everything more awkward.

      • Caitlin,

        I recommend you gently ask your colleagues to help you out a little here. Gently let them know of your concerns, perhaps say, “Help me understand. I was under the impression that I needed to do this like _____________. Can you help me out here? Thanks!”

    • Caitlin,

      Over time, your boss will notice. Volunteer for opportunities and eventually you will catch your boss’s eyes. I imagine she’s not blind (subtle joke, there) to the difference in motivation between the two of you.

      Another option is to seek out other opportunities in your area…that will allow you to use the equipment more. Or take three deep breaths and talk to your boss about being interested in more work with the computer, etc. Most supervisors don’t complain when their employees say that they are “ready for more.”

      Good luck,

      • My boss tells me how I am doing a great job with everything, and she even said how the other tech hasn’t done much of pretesting lately so I should have her do it, but she wont. The one day that I said, “The doctor wants you to do this today so I can work on something else…” she did one, and I ended up doing the rest. I really don’t think the boss notices because she is so laid back, she isn’t strict about who does what so I don’t think it will matter.
        I have actively been seeking other employment and had an interview, but they changed their mind and wouldn’t let them hire someone full time. I am waiting to so I can tell her that I have another offer for more money and see if that might turn things around.
        I’m sick and tired of it and it is starting to stress me out enough that I am just exhausted and crazy all the time and I don’t see it getting better. I ask her if there is anything I can do because I don’t know what do to on slow days or between patients and she doesn’t really have anything so I just sit and wait and I feel like it’s a huge waste of my time and her money!

      • Caitlin,

        Hang in there. Can you find anyway in the interim to help the office streamline operations or maximize efficiency. Sometimes an improvement to processes can help grow your reputation, etc.

        All the Best,

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