Dealing with Free Riders

Each year, some FYP groups inevitably have a free rider, i.e., someone who for whatever reason doesn't contribute much to the project. Whatever the reason, free riders can make the other teammates feel disappointed and upset. If your group seems to have a free rider, here are some possible ideas to help you deal with the situation.

Diagnose the Problem

Before accusing anybody of being a free rider, stop and think. Why do you feel that he/she is a free rider?

  1. Does the person attend all the meetings?
  2. How many times has the person failed to do what was expected by the group?
  3. Does the person understand what he/she is supposed to be doing?
  4. Is the person capable of doing what he/she is expected to do? Have any expectations been unrealistic?
  5. Does the person have too many personal commitments, like too much coursework or a part-time job?
  6. Does the person have any family problems or health issues?
  7. Does the group listen to the person's ideas or shoot all or most of them down? (This can be very discouraging and reduce motivation to contribute.)
  8. Based on the division of work, is the person able to work on tasks that he/she really enjoys doing or is good at? Or is he/she stuck with boring work that nobody else wants to do?
  9. Does the group affirm the person for the good work he/she has done (if any), or is the group usually critical or belittling of his/her work?
  10. Is there a super strong leader in the group who dominates decisions so much and is so hard-working that the person feels unimportant or unappreciated?

Think of Possible Solutions

If the group has consensus that one person is a free rider, then it's time to deal with the problem. The first step should always be to try to think of the best way to rectify the problem in a friendly, harmonious way. Asking your FYP advisor to split up your group to relieve you of your group's free rider is usually not the optimal solution. Here are some possible approaches to rectify the problem:

  1. If the person simply has a problem with time management, is there a friendly way to help him/her do better in managing his/her time, like more frequent meetings or working in pairs?
  2. Is it possible to redistribute the work so the person feels more motivated to work hard?
  3. During your group meetings, can you try to have more regular honest (and polite) evaluation of each other's progress?
  4. Is your group plagued with a competitive spirit which causes members to constantly lift up their own work, belittle others' work and avoid verbalizing any struggles, weaknesses or mistakes?
  5. If the group has a super strong leader who dominates most decisions and enjoys doing lots of work, can he/she learn to be a better and more empathetic leader so that the other teammates feel good about following his/her lead? Can he/she work more with the person to coach him/her to achieve his/her tasks?
  6. Has anyone communicated to the person that he/she is not only hurting the group but hurting himself/herself, as the project will affect future job prospects and could delay graduation in some cases?
  7. Has anyone reminded the person that at the end of the project each team member will complete a self-assessment report regarding each person's contributions and that grades will be given individually based partly on this report?
  8. Has the person's problem been brought up in a meeting with your group's FYP advisor?
  9. Have you talked to mutual friends about the problem and asked them for advice and/or help in talking to the person?
  10. Do the person's parents know about the problem? A group meeting at the person's home or a phone call to his/her parents may help.

Time to Split Up?

When all attempts to find a solution have failed, then you have three basic choices:

  1. Just endure the situation until the end of the project.
  2. Seek help from your FYP advisor or someone else (see above) to see if he/she can help resolve the problem harmoniously.
  3. Ask your FYP advisor to give the free rider an ultimatum to shape up or ship out.

The most common choice is to endure the situation until the end of the project, part ways after the project and let somebody else deal with the person later in life, e.g., his/her parents, employer or wife/husband. But ask yourself the question: is this really best for the person in the long run?

If you choose to take the matter to your advisor, keep in mind that the further along the project is, the harder it for the student to start his/her own solo project, so the advisor may be reluctant to split groups up after December.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

In most cases, the earlier that action is taken, the better! Avoiding the issue and just hoping it will go away often makes matters worse for the entire group, especially after December.

In any case, keep in mind that you are helping both your team and the free rider. In case he/she does change and do his/her share of the work, you will have helped him/her achieve his/her goals and your group achieve its goals. It also might be good to mention that eventually someone is going to make the free rider face reality (e.g., an employer or wife/husband). A true friend will try to help him/her face reality sooner rather than later.

What if you think someone is a free rider but other teammates don't think so or don't care? In that case, you can either talk to the person individually, seek your advisor's help or just endure the situation and try to be a friend, since you are a minority.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that many FYP groups and professional programming teams face issues like yours, so this is a good learning experience! Just be sure to learn from it, especially when you next pick teammates for some other project.

If you feel the situation you are in is unfair, also keep in mind that life is often not fair. However, there is a principle called "the Law of the Harvest" or "karma," which says we reap what we sow. If we simply focus on doing our best in our own responsibilities, then in the long run, we will benefit. Conversely, free riders will somehow suffer someday for their negligence.

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