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Dead men walking

Feet with a tagMany firms have them, but few managers know what to do with them - the uninterested employees who contribute little or nothing to your business. Business writer Nick Golding considers what you can do with the dead men walking in your firm

Whether it’s on the football pitch, at home or at work, no-one likes a slacker. The totally uninterested, who contribute little to the daily workload and then slide home apparently without a care, can suck the life out of any team - and greatly reduce productivity, argues independent HR consultant, Tara Daynes.

“These people won’t come up with any ideas, nor will they build on the ideas of others,” she explains. “Some even sabotage work projects, and have an overall negative impact on the business.”

Turning no-hopers into players

No business can possibly entertain the idea of operating in an environment where a majority of committed employees is expected to carry a minority of slackers - and the problem is magnified in small firms where everyone’s contribution is utterly essential.

What you cannot do is turn a blind eye to a difficult problem. As an owner-manager, you must deal with staff who turn up, go home and do little else in between. Writing them off as failures may be wrong, insists Daynes. There is every chance that workers showing signs of switching off can be nurtured to become more engaged at work.

“You can’t suggest that there is no way to bring these people around, because there are different ways that you can motivate people,” she stresses. “Some will need a bit more work than others, but on the whole many can be salvaged.”

The first step is simply to ask the employee whether they are unhappy, and why. You might uncover something unexpected, such as a serious personal difficulty outside work. Or you might have to face up to some home truths about what goes on in your business - if the employee is being bullied, for example, is expected to do a job for which they haven’t been trained or is poorly rewarded for their work, then the problem could be your leadership.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, explains: “Business leaders need to look at themselves and ask whether they are giving effective incentives and enriching their employees’ jobs.”

Cooper recommends finding out what motivates the different members of your team and adjusting your management style to reflect this. With bored employees in particular, your leadership should be backed up with regular appraisals, goal-setting, training and incentives that mean something to them. In some cases, simply showing an interest can be enough to turn an employee around.

If all else fails, show them the door

It is crucial that managers try to re-engage the employee in the first place and give redemption a chance. Although, as Cooper adds, if this doesn’t work you may need to start moving unresponsive individuals closer to the exit.

“They might find new incentives exciting,” he observes. “But if they don’t and they haven’t achieved any of the goals you’ve set them, they’re gone.”

Though the days of writing “DCM” (“Don’t come Monday”) on a payslip are long gone, and getting lacklustre people out of the door is not as easy as it once was, following procedures correctly can help you avoid a costly employment tribunal.

A capability process could be ideal in this situation. This involves monitoring the performance of an individual, setting them goals and stressing the need to achieve them.

As Daynes explains: “No employment tribunal would expect a company to keep someone who is a liability to the business, but you must follow a procedure of incremental warnings and give people the chance to improve - at a tribunal they could say all they needed was some training.”

Price out under-performing employees

Alternatively, you could link performance to cash in the hope that the no-hopers will utilise the ounce of motivation they have left and up and leave of their own accord, suggests Cooper.

This will, however, involve changing their contract terms, which can only be done after a legal process that includes consultation with employees. But if you have a strong business case and the backing of committed employees, performance-related pay may be a change you could introduce. “Pay for commitment, performance and innovation," Cooper advises. "This could be the way to get rid of the idle employees because they won’t do anything.”

If all the above fails and the employee simply won’t budge despite constant attention and a potential cut in wages, you might have to resort to a financial agreement to sever ties.

Such a compromise agreement must be handled by a solicitor and, in simple terms, requires you to come up with a sum of cash in order to remove an employee.

“This is a worst-case scenario for a no-hoper,” says Daynes. “The pay-off will be for loss of employment and to waive any tribunal claims.”

In an ideal world, all employees would be motivated and willing to put in 100% every time they step into the workplace. But the majority of owner-managers will at some point encounter an inherently lazy staff member. Fortunately, there is a range of effective ways to deal with the dead men walking in your business.

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You can also find out about the legal aspects of people management on the Law Donut.