Whiney, happy ‘slackeys’ everywhere (Guest commentary)

Managers don't know how to handle these disengaged workers

Most organizations have a good sense of who the engaged, high-performing workers are. There is a definite energy that comes from being around them. People like working with them. They are manageable, respond to feedback and make a positive contribution.

There is another kind of employee who drains energy out of the organization. They are not responsive and tend to be a drag on the organization’s progress. These are the “slackeys.”

Slackeys are people who are committed to staying at the company, but aren’t engaged. They aren’t making a meaningful contribution and they aren’t going anywhere either. It is easy to recognize slackeys. These are the employees that make you ask yourself, “Why are you here?” They are the co-workers you are afraid to include on your project team.

But wait — there’s more. There are two general varieties of slackeys: “Happy slackeys” and “whiney slackeys.”

Happy slackeys are content individuals who harbour no real dissatisfaction with the company. They just come to work and punch the proverbial clock. They maintain some level of barely acceptable job performance.

Happy slackeys are pleasant people in many ways, but they are blind to any performance issues with their behaviour. When given any negative feedback, they may actually be shocked. Unfortunately, they rarely ever hear this feedback.

You can tell if a manager has a happy slackey on her staff. She says things such as: “He is such a nice guy — I just can’t get him to improve.” Or: “He didn’t really meet his performance goals, but it’s been three years, so we gave him a promotion anyway.”

Whiney slackeys are the discontents. These are employees who complain about everything wrong with the company. Nothing is ever good enough or done right. Management never makes the right decisions. They have a high external locus of control, meaning to them it is always someone else’s fault. Ask a whiney slackey how his day is going and he’ll respond: “Sucks, as usual.”

Despite their apparent clarity in all that is wrong in the world, they do little to make things better. That is not their motivation. They are motivated by the joy they get in making the rest of the world look bad.

Be careful not to confuse someone who makes a lot of constructive critical comments about his organization with a whiney slackey. Engaged high performers are working to be part of the solution. As a result, they are likely to offer suggestions for improvement, take initiative and actually work to make the situation better. Whiney slackeys do none of these things.

Managers with whiney slackeys on their staff are likely to say things such as: “If she is so unhappy, why doesn’t she do us all a favour and leave?” Or: “He has an attitude problem, but I don’t know what to do.” Whiney slackeys are usually avoided because managers just don’t want to deal with the negativity and complaining. This is because they make managers feel responsible, to some extent, for all the problems.

Slackeys thrive in organizations that do not hold people accountable, fail to provide honest and direct feedback about performance and do not communicate clear standards of performance. They are not necessarily the worst performers, but they are low performers who do not want to leave the organization (in contrast to disengaged employees who don’t contribute because they are, by their own volition, on their way out the door). Slackeys are committed to staying. They just aren’t going to make a real contribution while they are there.

Companies reinforce slackeys mainly through avoidance. For a manager, these are difficult people to engage and motivate. The happy slackey is pleasant and his good cheer makes it difficult for some managers to have performance discussions with him. The whiney slackey is caustic in attitude, so people tend to avoid him. If there is no accountability, no feedback or no direct dialogue, slackeys can continue to stay and leech off the organization.

If you have slackeys who need to move on, you’ll have to document performance issues and, with appropriate warning and opportunities to do better, show them the door if performance doesn’t improve. Managers should certainly try to improve the performance of employees, but the effort should not be futile. The money being paid a slackey could be used to pay a productive worker instead, or to give a raise to other workers.

Be careful to note slackeys are not just personality types that have wandered into the organization. That may be true for some, but the organization is also responsible for creating processes that bring in energized people who are the right fit. They are responsible for having processes and management that engage employees and makes them want to contribute. Good workers can become slackeys if the organization allows a work environment to emerge that does not encourage productive, engaged behaviours.

Jeffrey Jolton is director of global consulting at Kenexa, a hiring and retention firm based in Wayne, Pa.

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