Lazy label could hide actual problem

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist


“Good morning, Good-for-Nothing!
What job will you avoid today?”


From: Frustrated Supervisor

What do I do with a just plain lazy employee?

I’ve tried threats, sweet talk, and ‘making a game of it’ as one of those Motivate Your Employees books suggested. It’s hopeless. I don’t expect much from him, but it would be nice to get a bare minimum. I’d like to fire him, but my boss doesn’t want to even talk about it. What can I do?


To: Frustrated

You aren’t a very good boss, are you?

A good boss sees what employees need and provides appropriate resources. For a truly lazy employee, that would be a cot and pillow.

Before investing in pillow futures, however, consider that there are few ‘just plain lazy’ employees. Most of the folks we label that way are just plain uninspired, just plain uninformed, or just plain burned out. They hide their pain by acting like they don’t care, which comes across as just plain lazy.

You’ve correctly tested some basic strategies – good for you! – and it sounds like you’ve also made a couple of basic mistakes.

Clearly outlining deliverable consequences of poor performance in a non-threatening tone is good management. But if your ‘threats’ are warnings about consequences you can’t deliver because of lack of management support, that’s a mistake.

It’s good leadership to describe what it looks like when he’s doing his job well and let him know that you see him as someone who can do a fine job. But if your ‘sweet talk’ is insincere, pleading, or ignores reality, then – oops – that’s a mistake.

Never lower your standards

Since he didn’t play the Productivity Game with you, you lowered your expectation of him. That’s a mistake. The standard of expected performance remains at the highest level for every employee. Those who aren’t currently meeting the highest standard get coached and counseled, but no matter how poorly they perform, they never get a lower standard. A diminished standard of performance for anybody lowers the organizational standard.

So, here you are with a poorly performing team member, a lowered standard, and a boss who won’t talk about it.

Let’s start with the standard. Make it clear to everybody that the standard is intact at the highest level and that the entire department is responsible for consistently meeting that standard and helping others achieve it.

Identify valuable activities with specific, attainable, short-term goals that have been or can be assigned to your problem employee. Then establish check-in times and working partners who are equally responsible for results. The partners are to make sure your target employee has invested coaches and to ensure that peer pressure remains active.

While they understand this isn’t a supervisory assignment, these work partners will be expected to give you their input in setting and monitoring the short-term goals of the recovering employee. You’ve delegated a task to them – they must have authority to complete it. While you’re helping one employee regain productivity, a secondary benefit is developing leadership in the work partners.

Together, you’ll keep encouraging him to improve a step at a time, always moving in the direction of the performance standard. As long as he’s making progress, he’s on the right track. Even while he’s not yet performing up to the standard, it’s still important to recognize and praise his efforts and progress.

Keep your boss informed

Send regular updates to your supervisor on your plan for rejuvenating this employee. Let your boss know how much company investment (his time, your time, and his work partners’ time) is being spent on this project and what progress (or lack thereof) is being made.

The sad scenario is that there will be no improvement and your boss will see a regular accounting of the cost to the organization of maintaining this unproductive employee. The happy alternative is that you’ll report regular progress and be seen as an outstanding leader for your rescue project that saved your organization the cost of either enduring or firing a bad employee.

You won’t see measurable results as fast as you’d like, but if your leadership toward improvement is true and consistent, you’ve got a fighting chance to see real progress over time.

Being truly lazy takes a lot of creative energy – if you have the genuine article there, you’re just one good motivational strategy away from uncovering a valuable team contributor.

Memo from Jules Renard: “Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired.”

JobWise: Share a sandwich

At least once a week, eat lunch with somebody outside your regular circle. The variety is good for your digestion and significantly improves your awareness of other people’s points of view.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to