How to Deal With a Lazy Employee

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Even if just one employee isn't pulling their weight, it can impact productivity, customer service, and, ultimately, sales. Today’s lean organizations can no longer tolerate anything less than 100 percent effort from each and every employee.

Lazy Employees Create a Domino Effect

The most significant impact of a “slacker” is not necessarily felt in the organization-at-large but on the employee’s co-workers who have to work harder to cover for the "slacker." When a manager is either not aware of the situation, or, chooses not to address it, morale suffers, and ultimately, good employees lower their standards or quit.

Defining a Lazy Employee

What exactly is a “lazy” employee? The term lazy is certainly a judgmental and subjective term, so managers need to be careful when applying labels like “lazy,” “slacker,” or “deadbeat,” to poor performers. They need to first determine the cause of the poor performance, and then take the appropriate action to address it.

When it comes to analyzing employee performance programs, you might want to turn to the classic Robert F. Mager book Analyzing Performance Problems: Or, You Really Oughta Wanna--How to Figure out Why People Aren't Doing What They Should Be, and What to do About It.

Help for Identifying "Can't do" From "Won't Do"

Mager presents a model that helps a manager determine if an employee can’t do something (skill), versus the employee not wanting to do something (will). He developed a flowchart with a series of “yes-no” questions that managers can use to determine the problem.

The easiest way to tell the difference is to ask the question, “If you put a gun to the employee’s head, could they do it?” If the answer is no, then it’s a skill issue. The solution could be additional training or practice. If the answer is yes, then it’s a will issue or a lack of proper motivation.

Mager’s book provides a series of questions (with detailed explanations in each chapter) a manager can ask to determine why an employee is not motivated to perform at the expected level. Depending on the answer, the manager can then take appropriate action–which doesn’t always mean disciplining or firing the employee.

Questions to Ask Employees

1. Is desired performance punishing or is it rewarding? The classic example of “rewarding bad behavior” is when a child misbehaves to get their parent’s attention. In a workplace, an employee might get rewarded with overtime pay for not getting their work done on. You can drill down to the details with these probing questions:

  • What is the consequence of performing as desired?
  • Is it punishing to perform as expected?
  • Do employees perceive desired performance as being geared to penalties?
  • Would the employees’ world become a little dimmer if the desired performance were attained?
  • What is the result of doing it the present way instead of my way?
  • What do employees get out of the present performance in the way of reward, prestige, status, jollies?
  • Do employees get more attention for misbehaving than for behaving?
  • What event in the world supports (rewards) the present way of doing things? Am I inadvertently rewarding irrelevant behavior while overlooking the crucial behaviors?
  • Are employees physically inadequate or doing less because it is less tiring?

2. Does performing really matter to them?

  • Does performing as ​desired ​by management matter to the performer?
  • Is there a favorable outcome for performing?
  • Is there an undesirable outcome for not performing?
  • Is there a source of satisfaction for performing?
  • Can employees take pride in this performance as individuals or as members of a group?
  • Is there personal needs satisfaction from the job?

3. Are there obstacles to performing?

  • What prevents employees from performing?
  • Do employees know what is expected?
  • Do employees know when to do what is expected?
  • Are there conflicting demands on employees’ time?
  • Do employees lack the authority? the time? the tools?
  • Are there restrictive policies, or a “right way of doing it,” or a “way we’ve always done it” that ought to be changed?
  • Can I reduce “competition from the job” – phone calls, “brush fires,” demands of less important but more immediate problems?

At the end of the day, a manager may just have to coach the employee out of the job or take progressive disciplinary action. In doing so, they can be confident that they have given the employee every benefit of the doubt and are taking the right action to correct the right problem.