Leadership

Adventures of a coddled employee


Most people would feel very lucky to work for an organization that is reluctant to fire anyone. And, admittedly, that attitude is better than an intolerant one in which employees aren't nurtured to perform at their best. But there is a downside to keeping a person no matter what their job performance is like, especially when that person doesn't respond to attempts to reform him or her.

Case in point: I once worked for a company that divided employees into production teams. Occasionally, we would restructure for reasons such as efficiency or product focus (or because the CEO got inspired by the latest business trend he read about in the Harvard Business Review).

There was one employee who was continuously being singled out for performance issues. In fact, she'd been on double-secret HR probation about a million times. She'd survive the probationary period because her goals were strictly spelled out, but then she'd go back to her old ways. The problem was that no manager in this "kum ba yah" company wanted to be the one to fire her, so she would just be transferred to a new team in every restructure.

A fellow manager was once lucky enough to get her on his team, along with her personnel file which was roughly the size of two New York City phone books. Since he had a sense of humor, he had to laugh at the sight gag, but she soon became a real thorn in his side. Again, she would respond to expectations as long as they were spelled out in probationary terms but would revert to bad performance once the period was over.

Ironically, the company soon relocated and she, as well as the rest of us, was given a severance. She essentially escaped scot-free. Because of legal restrictions imposed by the company, anyone checking on her references was told only her dates of service -- nothing about her specific performance. As far as any future employers were concerned, she'd been an employee for four years for a successful company.

The coddling didn't do her any favors. She was a young person and should have been learning some lessons about the working world -- even the hard ones. She really should have learned that there are serious repercussions for not taking your job seriously.

Have any of you ever worked for a company whose reluctance to let employees go created a hardship for other employees?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

57 comments
Hans Schmidt
Hans Schmidt

I worked for many years in the civil service of a state whose capitol is about 140 miles north of "Babylon-on-the-Hudson". I started in a technical field. (not IT) Ended at the lower levels of the management heap, so I was exposed to a lot over the years, including supervision of district offices. Did you know that there are many ways to get (politically connected)people on the payroll of "competitive civil service" jobs without even taking a test? Can you guess? They are the hardest to get rid of. If a cat has 9 lives, they have about 90. They just keep coming back in different jobs, different agencies, etc. Fortunately, they are a small percentage, but they present exactly the situation described here. The rest of us had to clean up the messes they made. To pass over a lazy, incapable, politically connected person for a promotion, in favor of a hard working, well qualified & deserving individual, would result in complaints from the political "rabi" of the one passed over. (Perhaps a state senator or assemblyman.) Minorities were hard to deal with, because any attempt to even suggest improvements in their performance, brought down wrath from above. Some executive level minority persons worked outside of channels to do anything to promote their fellows, qualified or not. I remember well having my job threatened because in a performance review of a minority lady, I listed several areas that needed improvement. I liked her, and she did have the basic ability and was willing to work to a degree, but her conduct needed some improvement. I didn't want to get rid of her, I just wanted her to act on a more professional level. (She came from the "Big City") Now I know why one of my ex (retired and deceased) bosses let a politically connected jackass write his own performance evaluation. (Leaps over tall buildings in a single bound, etc, etc.) In that atmosphere, it's easier for a supervisor or manager to get fired, than it is to get an incompetent worker fired. ("They" can always find something...) So there it is...If the corporate (or agency culture) talks excellence and does the opposite, you might as well just go with the flow and CYA.

pshannonwatts
pshannonwatts

I was exactly like the employee you just talked about. I was coddled. I am a grateful recovering alcoholic/addict (1yr 2months) and at my work place, where, I was a manager I got away with everything. I called in, I came in late, and I finished projects late if I finished them at all. When I would get that "Talking To" I would straighten up long enough to be on good terms with everyone. You want to know why I was coddled. After I left the company I found out, they where afraid that if they fired me I might not make it. I worked for a company that cared that I was alive. Did I deserve all those breaks, NO; am I thankful now that I am clean and sober HECK YES. I am not defending being coddled; I am saying there could be another reason, even though everyone where I worked knew the reason but me.

ptheoc
ptheoc

Having been in mid managment a few times and ruled by it several times I think most mgrs are afraid to do their jobs even if it will help someone. I did not fear these tasks, but it stirred other mgrs (and mine) to urge me to go with the status quo. Imagine bosses (or parents) that knew and performed thier jobs.

vpresher
vpresher

I have observed this before but it was usually in reference to an employee who should have been let go but was not due to the color of skin. Many companies are scared to death of letting a minority go for fear of law suits even when the firing was legitimate.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

1. You have to objectively evaluate the employee and compare to the rest of his or her peers. Sometimes it's a personality thing and they aren't the worst in the barrel. 2. Document, Document, Document. If it isn't in writing, then it never happened. 3. You have to use all the tools in the box. Verbal counseling (with a note in record), training, admonitions, letters of counseling, changes in assigned tasks, flex hours, etc. However, you don't have to (and shouldn't) offer them anything that you don't offer all of your other employees. 4. If you're unhappy about their performance, and they're as happy as clams, then you need to redistribute the unhappiness. Put the consequences of their behavior (or lack there of) on their shoulders, not yours, their coworkers, or the company. 5. If they aren't happy, encourage them to find a job or company that they'd be a better fit for. 6. Is this person's performance a "short"-term problem due to something else going on in their life? Medical, familial, social, religious, legal? Make sure you know why they are having this problem - it may be something protected by law. If it's not, you may be able to help them over it. Otherwise, terminate. 7. During your final interview with that person they should fully understand why you're terminating them. If they don't, then you haven't done your job properly as a supervisor/manager. If they are reasonable people, they should even be able to agree that they would do the same if they were in your position. Sometimes they're not reasonable, but don't let that stop you from having security escort them to the door afterwards.

Kyser Soze
Kyser Soze

I contract out to a school district. They like my work and have offered me a job, but I am unwilling to take the pay cut. One of the talking points has been that once you get on with the district, you can never get fired. I guess that means I can slack off then, right? No, I have always worked like this, and I don't think I would change, so this is not a big selling point with me. Teachers cannot get fired, they just transfer from school to school until they find a principal who gives up on them and lets them finish out their time. If they screw up bad enough, they get transfered to the district. Most teachers are hard working, dedicated people, but when your kid hits a clinker, you know it and there is nothing you can do about it. Thank the union.

harddrivecafe
harddrivecafe

I have worked for several companies as either a contractor or as an employee and have seen many of the people that do not deserve to be there. I have talked to many HR people and they all have said that we have done it to ourselves by all these stupid lawsuits and laws. So now a company has to do everything three times as much as before. This way they have everything documented and proven just in cased there is a lawsuit. By the way most of you wonder why I said Too PC. PC is for politically correct not Personnel Computer. Just kidding I know we all here are better then that.

MumpsGuy
MumpsGuy

I've hired people by mistake and have had to clean up after them. It's not fun, but at least if you work with the person they might see it coming. I've seen a manager who talked the good game yet couldn't manager his way out of a paper bag. Interestingly enough though he knew how to hire very talented people, although once in the group he would never let them do anything that would showcase their talent. I guess he was concerned that they would show him to be a fool. In three years he had just about rolled the department staff over twice. I've also seen the staff member who was un-able to do the job, but continued in the position for some time. The young man had a really good gig. He lived in company provided housing, they paid for him to fly home 2x a month, and the company provided him with the use of a company car. Since he wasn't very long out of school, his programming skills sucked, and he spent most of his time during the week making flight arrangements so that he could go home for the weekend. He was let go, which I think was best for him and the company. This kind of stuff happens all the time. It's sad but I have to agree that one of the major causes of this is fear of law suites. How I wish I could retire!

OldDogs
OldDogs

Imagine two things. If all the dead weight in companies (and government) were fired? The products they produce could be cheaper, but we would have a lot more people needing government hand outs. I don?t know which is worse. God for bid that we would all ?earn? our living. As always some of us carry the rest, no mater how you carve it.

sr10
sr10

I was a manager, and I made a hiring mistake. "John" talked a good game, but when I gave him assignments, he couldn't deliver and refused all coaching. He did not live up to his commitments. So we started down the long road of progressive discipline. By the time we got to strike two, which was the written warning, it was obvious to all that he wasn't going to turn it around and was going to make us force him out. My CIO asked HR if we could lay him off and give him 30 days severance. HR declined; it actually would have been cheaper for the company if we had. It's exhausting to go through this process as a manager, plus I had to admit I made a mistake hiring him in the first place. One of my peers told another staff member that what I should have done is "passed the trash" to another manager. All the same, I thought it was important to clean up my own mess. I did not expect the rest of my department to carry a non-performer. I wouldn't approach the problem any differently today.

PhoneAdmin
PhoneAdmin

I have a coworker that does little more than play online games, fantasy sports etc. I wish there were some where else he could go! :) We just put a new web filter in and because as IT we manage it, he went and unblocked all of his time wasting play sites.

duckboxxer
duckboxxer

Here, we are government contractors. The coddled employee was a manager, yet repeatedly said that she didn't want to manage people. The client loved this person, because she would immediately run around like a chicken with her head cut off for anything she interpreted as a 'fire'. It became priority one without any analysis of the situation. This made it difficult for people to determine what their real priorities were. Status updates became needing to get things done ASAP. Fixing something broken or natural disaster related projects were bumped to the bottom. Personally she was a nice person, but VERY few inside this building cared for her professionally (or even respected her). She was essentially kicked out her department organizationally, and reported directly to the company lead here on site. The budget for our government agency was cut and layoffs were necessary. She really needed to go; her managerial skills did not fit her job requirements. Her name was on the list; some people internally celebrated.

ng_kai_choy
ng_kai_choy

It's not fair to the rest of the group (who have to put up with poor performance). It's also not fair (as the author suggests) to the poor performer him/herself. But I can see how a manager would rather transfer or promote the problem rather than address it.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Once you've made it past your probabtionary period, it is impossible to get fired. While I was in the army, we had a civilian that was completely unable to do their job. They didn't have the knowledge, education, or impetus to actually learn. So, this person turned simple tech jobs (repair this amp, replace boards on this radio, update the software on this computer) impossible tasks that someone else would have to do. The best part is that even though his performance reviews were poor, he couldn't be fired because nobody would ever take remedial action or "train" him. Blech...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

There's too much information in my profile, making it easy to track back to me with little effort. I don't mind personally, but telling HR tales out of school could harm an employer. I suspect others are in the same boat.

D.I.Y.
D.I.Y.

She did exactly was spelled out for her to do, and nothing more. This is a terrible trait for a SysAdmin, or any job that requires any sort of initiative. This pretty much means any job beyond burger-flipper, and I suspect even they are expected to improvise more than she was willing to do. At any rate, she was passed from one department to the next, and it is only by random chance that she ended up in IT in the first place. She made a lot of lateral moves, and no upwards moves! This is good for neither the company nor the employee, all to put forth some weird sense of a cuddly corporate culture (and a fear of lawsuits, I suspect).

mrkahatr
mrkahatr

I'll venture the guess that the company who is afraid of canning the minority because of the fear of reprisals is the same company who hired the person in the first place simply because they were a minority and so would make the company appear to not be bigoted. This is bigotry. A truly open company hires qualified people and fires unqualified people. This company is reflective of the population in their area without extra effort.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Incompetence crosses all boundaries of race, creed, or color. I don't care if you are the last remaining person of your race on the face of the Earth. If the justification is there and the paperwork has been done as required, you're gone. Plus, many southern states are "right to work" (for less) states. No justification is needed for termination other than "excess to requirements."

duckboxxer
duckboxxer

Try the Federal or state government. If you get a job there, you are set. Most of these people are just 'lifers' and do what they are doing till they retire. There are so many contractors that want to get Fed jobs. No way I'd take one of those jobs and do the same thing for the rest of my life.

mrkahatr
mrkahatr

I think you've hit it, Old Dogs! Let's say we put the welfare system back together. We'd take, say, 80% of the slackers' salaries from the company in taxes and they could fire the bums. Put them on welfare, getting 50% of their salaries (the other 30% would be lost in administrative waste, of course). The company saves 20% of current costs, production rises because of a better workforce and the higher morale of workers who don't have lazy people in their faces all day long. Meanwhile the slackers could spend their days watching other slackers like the cops who stand around road construction sites doing nothing except getting fatter... It could work...

RipVan
RipVan

How lucky you are to have a complaint like that against one person. There are at least 20 here. Worse stories than your best one. Terrible for morale (well, for the few who care, anyway). And someone earlier mentioned a good reason not to rock the boat. The elected officials are no better, as they have made this environment possible. If someone cared about the waste, inefficiency, mismanagement and incompetence, I would really do something. Honest...

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

within the realm of publicly financed programs - to the tax-paying public that winds up required to deal with the idicy on a daily basis in addition to paying for it.

rain.longson
rain.longson

I think I worked for that manager. He was never at his desk, we (the whole team) could go for days, sometimes weeks without seeing him or even being able to find him! I heard him say once that he did ONLY what was directly asked of him from his director and nothing else, that he was waiting for his 'buy out'. The company was in the process of downsizing, it took 5 years between his statment and his being 'bought out' before he was finally gone. In some ways it was good that he wasn't around and some ways not - when he was not around you could actually get your work done, but other times when you needed his sign off, just trying to find him to get his sign off could set back the whole project.

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

Shouldnt this be something for the transferring manager's review? Skirting the issue is not helping anyone and maybe one or two times is fine, but continually getting out of disciplinary responsibilities is not doing any good at all. Negative feedback sucks, but it is better than absolutely nothing isnt it?

m.daspit
m.daspit

It is very possible to fire a governemnt employee it just takes the time and effort to document the poor work performance. By the same token in the Air force we had a good motivator called 30 days cc (correctional custody) and let me tell you that works.

mrkahatr
mrkahatr

- Totally incompetent - No interest in learning - Someone else has to pick up the mess - Protected Yep, that's all it seems to take.

Java_ho
Java_ho

Keep these stories of coddled government workers in mind when you go to the polls. If you're voting - and I hope you are - remember that every new government program or subsidy requiring oversight (which is to say every dollar the government spends) entails armies of people with no incentive for excellence or innovation and virtually no consequences for incompetence. Have we forgotten Katrina already? The Department of Defense's $3,000 hammers and toilet seats? Think twice (at least) before voting for any candidate who thinks a government program is the answer for anything. After all, if a government agency every really solved the problem that is/was the reason for their existence, they'd have to go find real jobs somewhere else, a scenario that defeats the purpose of taking a government job in the first place. I weaned myself away from government contracts, some of which were quite lucrative, years ago to rinse myself of the experience of working amidst such an apathetic and incompetent lot.

Rascal1981
Rascal1981

I have heard of this sort of thing in the army but I didn't really buy into it as I have worked on a few military bases and found the opposite to be true (but my stay was not long so my answer is very limited and probably inaccurate due to my limited input). However that being said, I did work for a couple of agencies and experienced something similar and the fact that they NEVER got fired, transfered, anything was really quite a bother. It's sad but the fact is that the government can afford to waste money on such resources.

Inkling
Inkling

I saw something very similar. This woman was completely incompetent in every sense of the word. How she made it to a GS rating of 12 is beyond me. They eventually just created a position for her, promoted her to GS-13 and stuck her in an office in another building so they wouldn't have to deal with her.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

But the supervisor who did it was unable to do anything unrelated to the firing until it was all over. As I understand it, once you start the process, you have to document [b]everything[/b], including including time in and time out, length of breaks, what tasks were assigned, how they were performed, what resources support that task and their availability, etc. I don't think it quite goes down to the level of how much coffee is consumed each day or how many sheets are used when wiping, but I hear it gets darn close!

guyvii
guyvii

I am reading how people say that at times it is good to have someone that does not leave their boundries BUT it depends how tight they follow there job descriptions. Are they the people of person that if they see something wrong will not let others know. What if it is a safty issue? Safty is EVERYONES job. Just as Security is everyone's job. So things are group resonsiblities also. So it can depend if the worker is just careful or lazy. Unmotavated is ok, we are not judging their work ethics, just if they are dangerous to the company and others. Work is pretty relative.

jneilson
jneilson

A lot of people don't care to get on the corporate career track. They do their job, collect their paycheck and go about their lives. While initiative is generally good, I work at a company where there is too much and I often fix the mistakes of someone who tried to go above and beyond what their job called for.

keith2237
keith2237

Want a job where you can slack off, or totally ignore all laws and rules of common decency to be able to destroy the property of the company you work for? Join the Union. Then employers can't fire you no matter how lazy you are, or how much equipment you destroy.

Interested Amateur
Interested Amateur

A: Somebody's got to hire the stupid. Some civil servants could not get a job or keep it in private business. And government is supposed to be an example to private enterprise, anyway. The reason most of us work for private business is we don't want to become brain-dead. Interested Amateur

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Correctional custody works fine on the GIs, but no matter how much we'd like to see it, civilians just aren't eligible.

rrwitham
rrwitham

If the problem is fixed, then we are out of work. Also,"Work expands to the time allotted to it".

terry.grogan
terry.grogan

While I admire your resolve, if we refused to vote for candidates that were going to push their new programs, we'd have no government....

rrwitham
rrwitham

Read the book "The Peter Principle". It was written about 40 or so years ago, and it still applies to any bureaucratic institution (public or private). This "promotion instance" is called "kicking upstairs" in the book. Since the employee can't be fired or demoted they are promoted to a new position which gets the problem employee out of their hair

chrissimcoe
chrissimcoe

Sadly, that's how most of the federal (GS) system works, after 1 year they get their "job security" and it takes mountains of paperwork and tracking and proof that your efforts of "retraining" have failed to terminate them. And if they have any ounce of potential to be retrained, their status is maintained and they are just transferred to a job whose skills are much more elementary. Another problem sadly to say, is that some people of some generations are reluctant to learn newer technologies or methods, which makes the learning process difficult because of this stubbornness. I once had an employee work for me who could not grasp how to copy files to and from HDD's and floppies and it was 2004! But she was an example of being passed through the system from the days of typing pools. And the CPAC/CPOC system that helps "manage" them is more like a protective union for them. just my .02 for the day.

m.daspit
m.daspit

If you have ever been in a superisory role over anything but the most basic of assembly line work you understand that it is impossible to identify every detail of every job. You would have stacks of paper as high as the Sear's Tower. Unfortunately today companies and supervisors are reluctant to cause confrontation with a poor performer. The other workers, customers and stakeholders all suffer either directly or indeictectly. I have seen to many examples of this type of behavior in the last few years.

terry.grogan
terry.grogan

This particular person, and likely the subject of the article, are examples of people who do exactly what they are told to do. While I certainly agree that there are people who do no more than necessary because they are lazy, there are alot of employees who will do anything, within reason, you ask...but you HAVE to tell them to do it. This is an obvious frustration to those of us who natural leaders. Those people have the ability to see that something needs to be done and they do it. I have to admit that this revelation took quite some time for me to attain. I always felt that those people were lazy and the company should get rid of them...and never should have hired them in the first place. The problem is that if you did, you would be the only person working for the company. As jneilson said, that person was doing exactly what was outlined as their responsibility.

Interested Amateur
Interested Amateur

And you're right about health benefits being a burden on American exports. But, the reason is because America doesn't have universal healthcare like Europe, Canada, and Australia based on a federal sales tax. You've been bullfeathered about not being able to pay for it. You just spent it 3 times over freeing Iraqis, instead of on ailing Americans. We all get older, someday. Interested Amateur

vpresher
vpresher

The problems with unions of today is as you point out so well is management. They squeeze every penny out of the members and return very little. Along with this is the issue that they feed the members the idea that it is their right to have certain benefits without having to pay for them. Benefits such as health care and out of control wages. Many if not most unions jobs are non-skilled positions and just about anybody could do the work. When you pay someone $120,000 a year for walking around recording bar code numbers on a clipboard or $40 an hour for installing a couple of screws this amounts to out of control wages. Why should an employer of union workers be forced to pay employees health care benefits? This is one of the reasons why so many companies in the U.S. are leaving for foreign shores.

daveo2000
daveo2000

For a while the teamsters made a good job of acting this way but unions are, in general, a good thing. The Molly McGuires are often pointed to as violent examples of the birth of unions but people often ignore the facts of the mining towns that created the necessity of the unions. Left on their own, management will usually not show much concern for their employees. They become viewed as just another raw material that needs to be used effectively. That choice is often treating the employee like an alkaline battery: drain it of all energy putting as little care into it and throw it away when it stops working as well as you want. Check out the lyrics of the old song "Sixteen tons" and why it was written. Management has just as bloody a history as unions do.

ptheoc
ptheoc

Ahh GrassHopper, finally you perceive our goal.

rrwitham
rrwitham

I guess you're right. Same difference, though. Problem employee no problem to you anymore.

DesD
DesD

rather than kicking upstairs. and in this case, it sounds more like sideways moves, or Lateral Arabesques. great book, still.

gdutson
gdutson

That's pretty much the case in any large bureacracy, and more so in government settings. When we implemented a password policy (very basic at first, change 4 times a year, 6 character minimum) you wouldn't believe the outcry. You'll always have people who are resistant to change, and having worked in a few governmental positions I'd say it's more widespread in government for all the reasons dicussed in this thread.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

within the public educational bureaucracy! Nincompoops in charge of nincompoops...

alice.reid
alice.reid

It's a matter of who knows who and how they suck up to ego maniacs I believe!

rrwitham
rrwitham

According to what I have read "there are no worker problems, just management problems". Since management has the responsibility of running an organization, all events can be controlled by their decisions and/or actions. From Management 101 "Management can delegate authority, but not responsibility". This seems to be forgotten or ignored or not even known about by a lot of people in management. If management does not lead (take responsibility), then why is there management in the first place?

Kays07
Kays07

your management frowns on your taking note of things that need to be done and doing them. Seems far-fetched? Not so. A company I know tells its Business Unit managers to look after their own outlined work and not "poke their noses into things not their affairs"; so if that means that a specific BU member has to go along with a slightly slow machine or an unresponsive MIS, so be it. Or if you see a colleague struggling with 2/3 deadlined projects, please urge them strongly to do better work, but do not chip in/ do not guide. The above is a very basic example, but that's what the flip side also is...

igtddave
igtddave

We have a couple of engineers like this. They'll do their job, but only if it is spelled out. Then throughout the project, you have to keep bumping them along until the job is finished. It is quite annoying; however, in my neck of the woods it is harder to find a good engineer willing to work in the area vice playing baby-sitter.

daveo2000
daveo2000

It is clear from the managers weren't standing up and acting like managers but I think it is also pretty clear that anybody "doing exactly what is required of them" wouldn't pick up a profile that thick. It sounds like we are talking about a Dilbert-esque "Wally" here and not a well meaning slave to written instructions.

rcfguard-catchall
rcfguard-catchall

Terry; I think you are confusing Initiative with Leadership. Initiative is a persons ability, desire, and steps, to take action. Leadership is more about the art of getting people to follow you. Strong leaders typically create an inspiring environment which, if appropriate, may reward initiative. I think this dialog is more about the lack of initiative in individuals rather than about the leaders and the environments they create. All that said, I think there is room in the work place for all types of people. It's the manager/team-leads accountability to ensure the right mix is present, and that they are appropriately engaged.