Dear Dave: I work for a Rochester company and a lot of my fellow employees don’t produce, but still keep their jobs. It seems like the company will find more work for those that do produce, but some of us are getting burnt out and worn out. Many of us are 50 and older and are developing health challenges that make it difficult to produce at the rates that are set. So, what are we supposed to do? I hope my manager sees this. -- W
Well, here is my hard and fast way of responding to you — it is the fault of your management for letting things become this bad, and management is also to blame for not dividing work up appropriately, and not doing anything to correct the misalignment of workers and what they can possibly handle.
Simply, this pattern of “dropping the ball” by your coworkers has become embedded in your work culture. I see two major problems going on here: One is your managers are letting inferior workers keep their jobs and the other is the good, loyal, hard-working people (like you) have to work all the harder to carry these freeloaders. These are management problems that have become your problems.
Unfortunately, every company has at least a few loafers, or free riders — whatever you want to call them. These underperformers are fairly easy to identify and are usually the ones who consistently duck out of anything, particularly when the going gets tough. And, because they are skilled in their “duck and hide” craft, they are toxic to the company and the culture.
Workplace freeloaders are all very funny in the movies, but what about in real life? By some estimates, American employees may be idling away something on the order of $750 billion a year in lost productivity. Managers who tolerate loafers and work avoiders should chew on that figure. Unfortunately, the dialogue between managers goes something like this: “Hey, I have a problem with production that is causing work to back up.” The second managers says, “Give the work to Fred, because Leonard will just screw it up.” Final tally — Fred gets extra work.
Loafers generally fall into one of two camps: First, there are the underperformers whose problem is less attitudinal and due to the fact that they're in over their heads and can’t do the job. Second, you have the people who are more difficult to interact with, and who often have the skills, but are whiners and complainers and never get anything done.
According to a recent survey conducted by a leadership consulting company, 87% of employees said working with loafers has made them want to change jobs.
What you may be able to do
When employees become expert ball-droppers, you need to be bold and ask your manager to diagnose the problem and then offer coaching and training to help the employees better understand their work and their responsibilities. It could be that certain employees lack the skills they need to get the job done.
Also, point out to your manager that low quality and slow work are preventing the team from hitting deadlines. Promote the fact that understanding the reasons why people loaf can become a big part of dealing with the problem. If there are no consequences for doing nothing, and there are only benefits to be gained from it — some/many people will try to get away with it.
Something that may help you cope: If you are teamed up with employees who are notorious for doing nothing the worst thing you can do is let it get you down. Instead, encourage them to work by telling them it's only fair and that it might create a positive change by making them feel more useful. Sadly, this may fall on deaf ears.
Your manager probably knows which employees are free riders. Your manager may not be doing anything, because it is all too messy and — what the heck?” — your manager has people like you getting things done. It may be time to look for more fulfilling work. Be careful because loafers are entrenched everywhere. When looking for new work, you must assess the culture and the leadership. In short, don’t jump from one frying pan into another.
Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at email@example.com. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.