This column is the third in a series of four where I ask and you tell. The first column dealt with what people don't like about their supervisors. Then two weeks ago, I wrote about what you thought was the mark of a good manager, and why.
Today, we're on to the workers. I asked people to tell me what they, as managers, have learned makes for an employee who creates nothing but trouble, and what those employees should do to make work better for the company, and for themselves.
As always, you have many, many thoughts.
One common thread (particularly among managers in the government sector): Don't say no to something with the lame excuse, "But it's not in my job description!"
Yes, I realize that many employees are overworked and can't take on one more thing, but the managers who are upset are saying there are simply too many workers out there doing the bare minimum, with the expectation that they should be rewarded. Continually.
A Department of Justice manager said many of the office's employees are disgruntled because they haven't moved to the next level. "When I try to 'coach' them through a scenario to give them insight to see where they need to grow to become a GS14, they can't open their minds to it," the manager wrote in an e-mail. The manager's suggestion? "Ask yourself: 'Could I have done anything to have prevented or resolve the situation -- even if I didn't have to according to my job description or what I believe is my job???' " (I'm not including the many capital letters that further showed the manager's frustration.)
"Sometimes folks just need to be a bit critical of themselves and focus on keeping the problem from happening the next time versus blaming someone or something else. We should ban words or phrases like 'that's not my job.' "
Donald Dodson, a retired federal manager, said that such "not my job" excuses come from disengaged employees, and he believes they cause serious problems in the workplace. He calls one of those groups "retired in place."
"They . . . can see a retirement date in a few years. This doesn't mean they plan to retire; it means they have a safety net if job demands become too great," he writes. "They try to avoid accepting work responsibilities at their grade level and, if left unchecked by management, will create problems and frustrations with other workers in the office."
The second group of disengaged employees is those who have faced disciplinary actions for poor performance or misconduct.
"Despite the disciplinary actions taken, these 'trouble employees' may choose to remain within the organization without improving their habits or performance. Some stay because they have nowhere else to go and others stay because they want to get even for the perceived injustice done to them by management."
Obviously, the manager can't tell other employees what is happening with a colleague. However, that trouble employee may "spin to fellow workers that he or she is a victim," Dodson wrote. "It is important that managers be aware of the potential morale problems faced by all workers in the office when addressing a trouble employee and work to keep any disruptions to a minimum."
Kelly Harman, president of Manassas-based marketing firm the Harman Group, has a way of cutting problem employees off before they poison her cubeland. Harman wrote her own 12 rules of how to be a successful employee several years ago when she was a manager at a different firm. She now gives the list to all her people, expecting them to follow the rules, which include such things as: Disagree with me. Act like you own the company. Question my decisions. Take responsibility. Make bad decisions. ("Congrats! At least you made one," she writes.)
Each rule came from an experience Harman had as either an employee or a manager. The "question my decisions" rule is in response to a time years ago when Harman's boss fired a woman on a Monday morning, right after she came to work. "Everybody was talking about how horrible it was, and why didn't he do it on a Friday, why did he have to humiliate her," Harman said.
She was so disturbed by it, she finally went in and asked her boss why he did it the way he did. He told her that he felt that when someone is fired on a Friday, they have an entire weekend to get depressed. Fire someone on a Monday, however, and "they can immediately go out and start looking. The depression that follows is shorter and you're able to take action," Harman was told. "Because I questioned his decision, I was able to learn from it," she said. She wants her employees to do the same thing.
Finally, a manager at an educational consulting firm in Pennsylvania listed some attributes of a young employee of hers. She wishes every college or high school would teach their students not to do these things at work. A few months after this employee started, she complained to her manager that her deadlines were crashing in on her. "I tried to trouble-shoot with her by saying maybe she could push this project to tomorrow, she could break another into smaller pieces and postpone some of them, etc. She finally interrupted me and said, 'Are you going to be able to actually help me, or are you just going to tell me how to shuffle my assignments around?' "
This same employee acts as if she's still stuck in a sorority house, and every superior is the rush chairwoman. "She makes multiple 'cute' comments in staff meetings, like asking our CEO for additional jeans days. She once e-mailed my boss at 6:01 p.m. and said something about 'burning the midnight oil.' "
So, according to those I heard from recently, problem employees, just like bad managers, come in all shapes, ages and experience levels. Sometimes a manager's intervention helps a problem employee; other times, it would take an entire culture shift or complete personality change on the employee's part to improve things.
The educational consultant manager may have summed it up best: "This employee has come a long way, but sadly, I know that she will never, ever live down the bad reputation she made for herself when she first started here."
We all know managers don't spend their entire day griping about problem employees. So let's hear it from the managers again: Tell us about stellar employees and what you have learned from them. (I'm sure we can all learn from them.)
E-mail Amy Joyce at email@example.com. Join her from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at http://washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work.