When extra time doesn’t equal more productivity

The employee who rarely goes home is not really the workplace ideal
By Susan Singh and Alan Wolfish
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/28/2004

Managers complain about their “difficult” employees — the ones who regularly call in sick, are unproductive when they are around, and who invariably avoid overtime. But there may be a more insidious problem in the workforce. The chronically present, ever-helpful, nose-to-the-grindstone worker may actually be a bigger challenge in the long-run.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of the ever-present, always “helpful” staff member. He probably works long hours with little supervision on files that no one else really understands. The employee is a loner, somewhat bristly, who resists sharing information with colleagues or superiors. The job seems to get done, so everyone leaves the person alone. What’s wrong with this picture? Perhaps nothing, but potentially a great deal.

People routinely working long hours should raise workload concerns for HR. But if it’s not a case of “too much to do, too little time,” then the problem may rest with the employee.

While the manager monitors and fusses over his “problem” employees, his “best” employee may actually be working himself to the point of illness, be utterly incompetent (but very good at covering this up) or, in the worst-case scenario, committing corporate fraud.

Take the most benign aspect of the chronically present employee: inefficiency. Afraid of being found out, the inefficient employee keeps to himself, never letting his manager know that his projects have run up against obstacles or that he needs help. This person can stare at the same piece of paper for hours, complaining about how much work there is to do and putting in unnecessary overtime. Managers who don’t know any better are taken in and may even add resources to the task.

More critically, the employee could be on a downward spiral to a health breakdown. Increasingly detached from reality, the employee could be spinning his wheels and repeating meaningless tasks. What appears to be business could be an obsessive review of the same task or the compilation of long lists of gibberish. If no one knows what is required for the job, then the organization could be enabling an employee in a painful decline.

And then there’s the ever-present employee who defrauds the organization. It can begin with a sense of grievance, the belief that other employees are getting more than their fair share, the need to pay for an addiction or just plain greed. Whatever the case, these employees can get away with larceny because their employer does not question their actions.

The first reaction when any of these situations is revealed is shock and surprise on the part of the manager: “She was such a model employee.” But at a certain level people know when something is not right. Even if management is napping, within the organization there is usually knowledge available for the asking. Rumours about malfeasance often reflect the truth.

Employees who are too good to be true are frequently just that. The person who compulsively curries favour may be trying to divert suspicion or be overcompensating for his feelings of guilt. The employee who refuses to take more than a day or two of vacation may be doing so to ensure that no one finds out what he is doing on the job.

How can an organization guard against these scenarios? The trinity of “means, motive and opportunity” found in mystery novels applies to the workplace. Therefore, oversight and vigilance are the best defences against dysfunction and fraud. A good organizational design includes checks and balances. Organizations should be prepared to follow up with an audit or independent investigation.

Managers should be trained to recognize deviant employee behaviour — situations in which a person’s effort does not equal the quality of the work, personal problems predominate or the need for quick money is a frequent topic of conversation. Some of the most admired executives make time to work in the trenches so they know what the jobs under their command entail.

In a healthy workplace there is a balance between professional requirements and personal needs. When work overtakes the personal it is a sign of potential dysfunction. Managers need to understand the work dynamics within their sections. Excellent staff training and performance management will ensure that employees understand the requirements of their positions and are able to meet their benchmarks.

At a time when many managers are struggling to manage absenteeism, they do not want to hear that the chronically present employee could be a problem. And yet we all recognize at one level or another that the employee who rarely goes home is not really the workplace ideal.

Susan Singh is principal of Sumack Consulting, which provides business writing services. She can be reached at sumack@accglobal.net. Alan Wolfish is a lawyer at Shibley Righton LLP. His practice includes employer-employee relations. He can be reached at (416) 214-5219 or alan.wolfish@shibleyrighton.com.

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