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Dead-Weight Workers Drag Everyone Down
Morale Suffers if Laziness Is Overlooked

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Do 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 (including George Steinbrenner) did not notice his tactics.

You know the type. Some call them the non-productive workers. Others call them dead wood. 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 don't. The company can lose a ton 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.

"Everyone knows who the dead weight is," said Clay Parcells, regional managing director with Right Management Consultants. "It really affects morale at the organization because people question the leadership, asking why they aren't 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 hasn't and "what I can do to help them," he said. They then confirm all of that information in writing and "manage" it on a biweekly basis, he said. "There are no surprises at the end of the year," when it's time for the big annual review, he said.

But many companies gloss over the dead-weight folks.

"There is no question a lot of organizations simply struggle to deal with poor performers," said Tom Agnew, a senior consultant with Hay Insight, the research arm of Hay Group. He believes, as Parcells does, that too many companies do not do enough when it comes to performance reviews. Employees aren't given 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 percent of public-sector employees agree that their company has a fair system for evaluating individual performance, while 42 percent of financial services and manufacturing employees agree with that statement, and 44 percent of telecom workers agree.

The Bush administration is working through a new plan 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, we've 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.)

The change will mean government workers' performance will be measured by and compared with their private-sector counterparts.

But even among private-sector employees, that performance pay isn't always doled out fairly.

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

She also said companies may ignore the dead wood on the theory that anybody is better than nobody. "Recognizing the workforce shortage that many industries face, they feel that a person who may even only produce 25 percent of what their peers can accomplish is better than having no one in that role," Albarado said.

Ignoring the Costanza syndrome is a major de-motivator of even the star performers. One of the top concerns they mention in Albarado's employee-feedback surveys is "the practice of management in tolerating poor performers or dead wood," she said.

Albarado said 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 said. "They lost a good number of star performers in this division as a result of refusing to address this issue."

Amy Joyce's live online discussion athttp://washingtonpost.comwill return at 11 a.m. Oct. 18. In the meantime, you can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.comwith issues that might make an interesting column.

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