Say no to slackers

Colleagues who fail to pull their weight are toxic to an entire company.

Every office has at least a few. Slackers. Loafers. Free riders. Whatever your label of choice, these underperformers are fairly easy to identify and are usually the ones who consistently duck out of big projects, particularly when the going gets tough.

Annoying? Sure. But colleagues who fail to pull their weight around the office can also prove toxic to an entire company, says Mark Murphy, chief executive of Leadership IQ, a Washington-based leadership training and research firm. By bringing down the profitability of a company and driving out high performers who would rather work elsewhere than have to deal with lazy colleagues, slackers can also set the wheels in motion for “corporate ruin.”

According to Murphy, there are two types of workplace slackers. First, there are the “good suits,” or those underperformers whose problem is less attitudinal and more often has to do with the fact that they're in over their heads when it comes to getting the job done. Murphy refers to the second, and more harmful, group of slackers as the “talented terrors.” These are the people who are more difficult to interact with and manage, and who often end up being a constant source of histrionics at work.

“They've got the skills but can be narcissistic, dramatic, whining and complaining. They end up being a toxic influence on the team,” says Murphy. “Not only do slackers have influence on their own, but they've also got influence in terms of their ability to chase away high performers.”

This, Murphy adds, is where the “death spiral” begins. According to a recent survey conducted by Murphy's firm, 87% of employees said working with a slacker has made them want to change jobs. Rather than deal with the “constant drama” and loss of control created by these social loafers, most employees would rather quit and move on. “So what ends up happening is you start to have one slacker chase away a couple or more high performers,” says Murphy. “Now you've got an empty slot in the organization, the organization starts to get more desperate. Now you have to fill those holes. The more desperate you get, the more likely you are to fill those holes with slackers. This tends not to happen on a nice steady plane. It tends to be exponential. It tends to be a fall off the cliff.”

The consequences of laziness in the workplace can range from loss of employees and key customers to decreased productivity and competitive advantage. In fact, the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, a Toronto-based independent think-tank established in 2001, released a report this past September that helped to outline exactly what sort of financial impact our collective laziness is having on the Ontario economy. The findings? Ontarians work 3° fewer weeks annually than their U.S. peers, at a cost of $3,700 per capita in prosperity. The so-called “intensity gap” translates to lower economic output, which in turn reduces after-tax disposable income, by $5,500 annually, for the average Ontario family.

It's important to note, however, that slacking isn't always about laziness. And it's not always as hard to fix as some might imagine. Understanding the reasons why people withdraw in the workplace can become a big part of dealing with the problem, says Jana Raver, an assistant professor at the Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont. “I think slackers are slackers when there's opportunity,” says Raver, whose research interests lie in interpersonal relations within teams. “If there are no consequences for doing nothing, and there are only benefits to be gained from it, people will try to get away with it.”

Often, if employees don't believe their hard work is being recognized or appreciated by management, they'll choose to engage in acts of what Raver calls “organizational deviance,” which can include things like showing up late to work, failing to meet deadlines or even falsifying expense reports or stealing office supplies. Slacking can be contagious, too, and if other employees see their colleagues getting away with being lazy, they're often tempted to copy the same behaviour.

The solution. For those in the “good suits” category, Murphy says fixing the problem can be as easy as offering more training and feedback to help them feel more confident in their ability to do their job.

For the “talented terrors,” it's important for managers to strictly enforce the consequences of not pulling one's weight or failing to deliver on time. Set up a meeting with the employee in question to discuss and diagnose the problem. Let her know that her behaviour won't be tolerated ? and help her to understand the impact it's having on the team and the entire business. Develop specific performance targets and follow up with frequent performance appraisal meetings.

Then, of course, there's the most obvious solution: “Sometimes the answer is to simply remove them from the organization,” says Murphy.

Then everyone can get back to work.