Apr 7, 2014

Bad employees

As I discussed in my last post, the article, “Bad to great: The path to scaling up excellence” in the McKinsey Quarterly evoked my ire. In it, the authors discussed how to identify “bad employees” and get rid of them -- the old “bad apple” theory.

Let’s look more closely at the destructive behavior the authors illustrated...

Tardy, unhelpful, discourteous salespeople irritate all of us. But how does the company’s culture shape that behavior? Are managers late for meetings or prone to canceling them? Do they help frontline salespeople who should help customers? Do they show a lack of respect for salespeople? Are the employees overworked and underpaid, and under stress to perform well anyway? Or what is it about the hiring process that it can’t identify people who are not customer-oriented?

A nasty nurse is no asset to the hospital floor. But nurses in a typical hospital are not happy, for a number of reasons. They want to devote their time to caring for patients. Hospitals, however, have inefficient processes that waste their time. Nurses don’t want to search for supplies and equipment, wait excessive amounts of time for the doctor or supplies to show up, or rush because shifts are understaffed. And they’re understaffed because unhappy frontline nurses find other jobs as soon as they can.

What made the nurse in the story snap at the doctor? A lack of respect for authority?
But doctors often act superior or arrogant. They fail to recognize that nurses are professionals too, usually with college degrees and years of direct patient care experience. The doctors have no monopoly on knowledge. They have no justification for commanding a routine blood draw. Who among us in an understaffed and disorganized workplace would not be out of patience? “Do it yourself” might be mild in comparison to what we would really want to say.

In the case of the thieving employees, supposedly, they were stealing for the thrill of it and status in the shop floor “gang.” When the company spoiled the game by letting employees check out equipment for personal use, theft dropped. But maybe the reason theft slowed was not taking out the fun. It would depend on the perception of how management made the change. Was it that they outwitted bad employees? Or did management actually respect employees and trust them to return what they borrowed? If sincere, such a change, especially when accompanied by similar ones, could have simply reduced hostility.

The authors include fear as a reason for expulsion of potentially disruptive employees. But Dr. Deming said, “drive out fear,” and he didn’t mean to drive out employees who are afraid. Fear is not the fault of employees, and getting rid of them won’t get rid of fear.

Later in the article, as I said, the authors come up with some more useful advice. A culture that welcomes admitting mistakes so root causes can be found gets better performance. They also advise, “Employees work harder and more loyally if you explain your actions, talk about how changes will unfold, and treat people with dignity.” Management can foster feelings like fear and powerlessness or they can show respect.

What management behaviors create beliefs that are part of the employee subculture? What emotions are connected to those beliefs, and what employee behavior does that drive? If behavior and feelings are the result of a belief that so-called leaders are selfish, dishonest, nasty, and dictatorial, who needs to change their ways first, employees or management?

Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm