Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dealing with deadweight workers
Amy Joyce

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiDO you work with a Costanza? George Costanza was the uncomfortable, unfortunate character in the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" who, although often unemployed, was almost as often finding ways not to work at work. He was the king of sleeping under his desk and passing projects on to others. But many times, the bosses did not notice his tactics.

You know the type. Some call them the non-productive workers. Others call them deadwood. And, according to the Hay Group, a human resources consulting firm, less than half the employees in major industries think their employers do enough to address poor performance.

That lack of action can cause major problems in a workplace. It knocks morale down to an all-time low. It can push out the top performers who feel they do too much work while others donít. The company can lose tones of money as it has to hire replacement employees and make up for the lack of performance. It can create a major lack of motivation among employees.

Deadwood drags

"Everyone knows who the dead weight is," said Clay Parcells, regional managing director of a management consultants firm. "It really affects morale at the organisation because people question the leadership, asking why they arenít doing something."

As a manager, Parcells is concerned with making sure he keeps everyone pumping at work. He meets with his people every quarter to discuss their performance. They set up goals and talk about what has gone well, what hasnít and "what I can do to help them," he says. They then confirm all of that information in writing and Ďmanageí it on a biweekly basis, he explains. "There are no surprises at the end of the year," when itís time for the big annual review, he adds.

To ignore or not to ignore

But many companies gloss over the deadweight folks.

"There is no question a lot of organisations simply struggle to deal with poor performers," says Tom Agnew, a senior consultant. He believes, as Parcells does, that too many companies do not do enough when it comes to performance reviews. Employees arengiven goals or told of expectations. And they are not held to goals or expectations throughout the year because so many companies give only annual reviews. If even that much.

In the Hay Group survey, 38 per cent of public-sector employees agree that their company has a fair system for evaluating individual performance, while 42 per cent of financial services and manufacturing employees agree with that statement, and 44 per cent of telecom workers agree.

A new plan is being worked that will shift from the decades-old general schedule pay scale, which provides predictable pay raises, to a system in which raises hinge on performance. For years, government workers have borne the brunt of jokes about their work ethic.

(Yes, yes, weíve heard them all: How many government workers does it take to change a light bulb? Forty-five; one to change the bulb and 44 to do the paperwork.)

Matter of motivation

But even among private-sector employees, that performance pay isnít always doled out fairly.

"Far too many employers tolerate ineffective and underperforming employees," says Kathy Albarado, founder of a human resources consulting firm. "Why do they do this? Because they may be uncomfortable with confrontation and would hope the problem goes away or fixes itself."

She also says companies may ignore the deadwood on the theory that anybody is better than nobody. "Recognising the workforce shortage that many industries face, they feel that a person who may even only produce 25 per cent of what their peers can accomplish is better than having no one in that role," Albarado adds.

Ignoring the Costanza syndrome is a major de-motivator of even the star performers. One of the top concerns they mention in Albaradoís employee-feedback surveys is "the practice of management in tolerating poor performers or deadwood," she says.

Albarado says she was amazed once when, through employee feedback, she found out that an employee was taking a nap at work each day. "This apparently was well known and tolerated among the local management," she adds. "They lost a good number of star performers in this division as a result of refusing to address this issue."

ó LA Times-Washington Post