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How some people get away with doing nothing at work

All hail the jobless employed.

A cartoon of a man with his feet on his desk, leaning back and tossing a pen.
Your suspicions are right: That one guy at work really doesn’t do anything.
A-R-T-U-R via Getty Images/iStockphoto
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

In theory, Nate works 40 hours a week in the operations department at a major fintech company. In reality, Nate works one hour a day at most. He moseys over to his computer whenever he gets an alert on his phone that he’s got a task to complete. Otherwise, he spends most of the day doing, basically, whatever he feels — he sleeps in, he watches TV, he does household chores. His only real restriction is that he can’t stray too far from home in the event he is needed for something.

“I don’t have a problem with being asked to do work; it’s just I’m not really being asked,” he says. Maybe he could take more initiative and try to take on more, but he gets good performance reviews and raises as it is, so he figures, why bother? Plus, it’s not like he can waltz up to his boss to announce there’s no real business reason for his existence. “How do I initiate that conversation that’s, ‘Hey, I haven’t been doing much of anything this whole time, I need more to do’? You don’t really want to draw attention to it,” says Nate, which is a pseudonym. Vox granted him anonymity to speak for this story for obvious reasons, as we did all of the workers interviewed.

Strongly suspecting that a certain person isn’t doing much, or not nearly enough to fill up what is ostensibly an eight-hour day, seems to be a near-universal work experience. Many people have also, at some point in time, been that less-than-occupied worker. Sometimes, it’s intentional. Other times, like in Nate’s case, that’s just how the corporate cards have been dealt.

These jobless employed are a persistent presence in the working world, their existence a bug that’s become a feature. There’s a percentage of every job that’s bullshit, and in their case, that’s 90 percent, minimum.

“It’s not good for the culture. It can engender huge resentment from the person’s colleagues, especially if they themselves are overworked, and you do see that combination a lot,” says Alison Green, a career columnist and expert who runs the website Ask a Manager. “It also raises questions for people about whoever is supposed to be managing that person. Are they incompetent? Do they suck at managing?”

Nate doesn’t think his boss or anyone is really aware of the problem — his company laid off hundreds of workers earlier this year, and he made it through. He shows up at office social events once a month to put in face-time and is generally well-liked. He’s read stories about companies tracking remote workers to make sure they’re actually working but feels pretty confident his company isn’t. “If we did,” he says, “I don’t think I’d be employed.”

So for now, like many people, his jobless employment status continues. And he’s not alone.

Hanging out, 9 to 5

Reporting for this story, I spoke with multiple people who are essentially funemployed, or at least one meaning of it, who sit around at work all day with very little to do. What was most surprising was that many did not exactly love the situation and felt somewhat conflicted.

Take Charlie, a data scientist at a financial company. For his first few years at the firm, he was pretty busy, but after his last promotion about five years ago, his workload has dwindled. He’s not super motivated to change the situation, though he worries this will ultimately be detrimental to his career. “I feel like I’m falling behind,” he says. “I definitely want to move to a different company, and I’m hopeful that when I do that, my work and my mindset will change.”

The Thursday and Friday prior, he worked from home and “literally did not do a second of work.” The following week, on a day he was working from the office, he read two chapters of his novel and took a small nap. The day we spoke, he took the call — which was about how he wasn’t working — from his office. “Whenever I work from home, it’s easier to go work from my couch or lay down or do whatever, go on my PC a little bit. Even in my office here, and actually today there are a bunch of people for some reason, but it’s normally pretty empty. It’s not like I have the peer pressure of people working around me,” he says.

Charlie’s company cut workers this year, but he wasn’t really worried about it one way or the other. “I almost wish that I could get laid off and have a generous severance package,” he says. “That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

One engineer told me he’s enjoying the freedom of having an incredibly light workload, but he knows it won’t go on forever. He also has to be intentional about keeping up his skill set so he doesn’t get too rusty. “I forget how to do stuff that I knew how to do,” he says. One government affairs representative says she completes the work for her eight-hour shift in two to three hours each day, which, again, is nice, but is also unsettling. “I get paid,” she says, “but I feel useless and like I could be doing more.”

Green believes it’s not uncommon for people in these jobless employment situations to have complicated feelings about it. They feel guilty, or they get bored, or they’re paranoid they’ll get caught. “They worry that at some point someone’s going to notice,” she says.

To be sure, not everyone feels bad. Tom, who works in sales, appears to be a bit of an expert in getting paid for work he’s not doing. His boss at his last job forgot to inform HR that he’d quit, so he collected a paycheck from the company for a while before anyone figured it out. Now, at his new job, the company doesn’t even know where he’s based — he’s in the United Kingdom, they think he’s in Kentucky — and there’s minimal oversight. “I’m able to slip through the cracks most of the time,” he says. If someone asks what he did over the weekend, he’ll say he went to the Kentucky Derby or something, because he doesn’t want anyone getting suspicious.

He works commission and, suffice it to say, rarely meets or exceeds sales targets. So when he’s looking for jobs, he adjusts accordingly. “I search for jobs with the highest and most generous base salary for obvious reasons,” he says. He’s not losing sleep over his ruse — he says his mental health is great. “I’ve tried at work before, and it just wasn’t worth it.”

From the outside, it can be a little hard to square how to feel about this. On the one hand, if someone’s getting a paycheck and doing very little, it’s sort of a good-for-them scenario. On the other hand, it can engender resentment, especially among their colleagues who aren’t so oblivious to what’s going on.

“These people are often kind of gadflies, they’re hanging around the coffee machine, they’re stopping by people’s desks, and they become the subject of urban legends a little bit,” says Joseph Fuller, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “It’s a phenomenon that’s been widely witnessed, let’s put it that way.”

Pretty much everybody has at least one person at work where they look at them and think, “Seriously, what in the world does that guy even do? And how does no one notice???” It can be even more baffling when those people keep advancing, which they often do. Promoting the incompetent has been a thing for a long time.

Blame the boss

There are endless reasons why people at work wind up with little, if anything, to do. Maybe the project they were hired for is no longer a priority, or the tasks they were in charge of, by and large, are now being handled by technology. Maybe they never should have been hired in the first place, or they were brought on board too soon. Maybe they’re super fast at their jobs, or they’re really good at being secretly lazy, hiding in plain sight.

Whatever the context, the boss is often to blame. The biggest component of how this happens is poor management.

“You get managers who are either so disengaged that they truly are oblivious to the situation, they’re so disconnected from the work that they don’t have any sense of what the person is or isn’t doing or results they should be getting that they’re not getting,” Green says, “or you get a manager who does have a general sense of it that is so passive and nonconfrontational that they can’t bring themselves to do anything about it.”

It may be the case that someone’s manager is cut — part of why laying off middle managers can be a problem — so they don’t have a real direct boss anymore who knows what they’re supposed to do. Perhaps their new boss is too swamped to pay attention, or they just don’t really care as long as the company’s making money. It might also be the case that their boss, new or old, isn’t doing much, either.

Bobby, an engineer at a tech company who’s been sitting on his hands for about a year, says his supervisor seems really busy with meetings, so he doesn’t think he has much time to notice beyond some vague conversations about “utilization” every once in a while. “I feel like his plate is full, unless he’s doing a similar trick where he has the appearance of motion,” he says. “I haven’t drilled into it, but it’s always in the back of my mind. Is he really working as hard as he says he is?”

Bobby was brought on too soon — the division he was hired for wasn’t even remotely close to needing engineers to do actual work. So he spends his day doing research and development for his own tech projects. When he doesn’t feel like doing anything, he goes hiking or swimming or plays video games and watches movies. He gets to spend more time with his kids.

“It’s like being on vacation all the time, with occasional scrambling to do a thing, then doing the thing for a couple of hours, then going back to the rest of my life,” he says. “Even though I feel guilty about it sometimes ... it’s not really my job to tell a multinational company how to run a business or manage their employees.”

The experts concur. “At the end of the day, it’s the company’s responsibility, the leader’s responsibility, to manage their workforce and know who’s doing what and where and what’s the output,” says Bryan Creely, the career coach who coined the term “quiet quitting.”

Change is hard, even when companies need to change

As much as the private sector is supposed to be able to move fast and adjust, that’s just not the case. Change isn’t easy. Sometimes, a position just exists because it always has. Certain processes have certain roles in them, and nobody wants to take the time to scrutinize whether those roles are still needed.

Fuller, the Harvard professor, offered up a hypothetical example. “There’s a checker to check checkers, and we don’t need that anymore, but there’s a position called ‘Check Checker,’ and we’ve always had one. It’s on the succession plan, it’s on the promotion path,” he says. “The process that person is in and the job they’re in is an artifact of the way the process was designed, the way the budget was set, the assumptions about how the process works as opposed to how it actually works.”

A lot of white-collar work is related to risk aversion and having several eyes on decisions or processes, so there is some kind of built-in excess capacity by design. It’s a margin of safety, even though said margin can be excessive. Whether or not leaders know that, adjusting can be harder than leaving things as is.

“Managers may well realize they’re not using their staff well, but whether they do or they don’t, it just gets really hard to change those processes without somebody making that their priority,” says Carrie Bulger, a Quinnipiac University psychology professor who specializes in industrial-organizational psychology. “If it doesn’t feel like it’s broken, then no one’s going to make noise about fixing it.”

There’s no way to say, “Hey, I’m just chilling, or I think the guy over there is”

Remote work makes it easier to get away with not doing much because there’s no one looking over your shoulder to see what’s happening. It also makes it more palatable — you can find a lot more ways to entertain yourself during the day from your house than you can from your cubicle. Still, bosses should be able to tell the difference, wherever a worker is located. “If you have managers who know how to manage effectively ... it shouldn’t be any easier for someone to slack off,” Green says.

Being in the office does not guarantee you’re working, either. People slacking off on the job long predates remote work.

Marty, a policy analyst at a federal agency, goes into the office every day, though he generally stays until about 2 pm — his boss doesn’t come in often, anyway. He uses his extra time to practice music and read. He and his colleagues, many of whom are also bored, will sometimes pick research papers to discuss to pass the time.

He’s not concerned someone will notice what he’s up to because he can just close his office door. Plus, he’s got a mouse jiggler. “What’s ironic is that I’m seen as the high performer on the team, and I’m also confused,” he says. “I think it’s because they’re also just making up stuff to do as well.”

To the extent that this is an issue that needs fixing — which is debatable — there aren’t any easy answers. Experts say it is generally a bad idea to rat out a colleague who’s not doing work unless it’s really impacting you, and it can be a very bad idea to rat out yourself. You can try, but it’s tough.

“If you go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m underutilized right now,’ you’re basically putting a target on your back,” Creely says. “It sounds good on paper — you get paid to do nothing — but especially if you’re not well-connected, eventually that’s going to come to an end.”

Tom has no plans to alert his employer to his circumstances, nor is he super concerned about what his habit of picking up workless jobs will mean for his career. People would be surprised to see how easy it is to get positive references from other departments when it’s time to move on to the next job, and he really doesn’t think anyone has picked up on what’s going on. “I don’t think I’ve ever really occupied one minute of somebody’s headspace,” he says. “As long as you’re nice and polite and can manage to forward the right things to the right people.”

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