Paying the price of slacker colleagues

Jan. 1, 2020
Your best, brightest and hardest-working employees may be bearing the brunt of undue burdens brought on by the lowest-performing members of a company's workforce, according to a series of surveys on staff management relationship issues.
Your best, brightest and hardest-working employees may be bearing the brunt of undue burdens brought on by the lowest-performing members of a company's workforce, according to a series of surveys on staff management relationship issues.

"Frankly, we treat our high performers worse than any other employee," says consultant Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, Inc., a motivational, training and research firm based in Washington, D.C.

"When a manager has a tough project upon which the whole company depends, to whom do they turn? Who gets the late hours and the stress? It's not the low performers, because managers want the project done right. Instead, managers turn to their handful of high performers," Murphy explains. "The worst part of this is that we typically cause our high performers to quit."

A nationwide Leadership IQ study of employees and managers in a variety of industries found that 47 percent of high performers are actively pursuing other jobs while just 18 percent of the low performers are looking to move on. Twenty-five percent of mid-level performers are seeking employment elsewhere, according to the study, which utilized sophisticated scoring techniques to identify the performance levels of the participants.

"High performers keep companies in business," Murphy points out, "so every company is at risk if these people leave. If you lose some low performers, you might actually be better off. But when your best people quit, revenue drops, quality suffers and snafus increase. Even large companies can take a big hit with the departure of just a few key employees."

Hiring the right employees

According to Murphy, hiring managers should put as much emphasis on attitude as they do on skills during the hiring process.

"The skills are important, and that's where most hiring managers focus their effort, but that's not generally where people fail in the workplace," he explains. "Technical skills are easy to assess...we need to spend more time seeing if people are coachable, have a good attitude and have the right temperament."

Murphy suggests assessing how candidates fit in with your work environment. For example, do they prefer to work in teams or on their own, and how does this fit with your business dynamic?

Here are more tips for hiring top performers:

  • Ask yourself what the characteristics of your company's high performers and low performers are, and make a list from your responses.
  • Create a template for hiring based on the above list. Typical characteristics of low performers include negativity, placing blame and an unwillingness to accept feedback, Murphy states.
  • Build hiring interviews around attitudinal questions. "You can improve technical skills through training, but you cannot improve attitude through training," says Murphy.
  • Reward hard workers. Murphy suggests one way to accomplish this is to analyze a high performer's job duties to find their less critical responsibilities. "Take some of their less critical work and give it to the low performers. That way, you won't burn (high performers) out on the stuff that's less important," he notes.
  • Reconsider keeping low performers on staff. "If you ask high performers if they would rather work short-staffed or with a low performer, 100 percent of the time they report they'd want to work short-staffed," Murphy explains.

About the study

Leadership IQ compiled surveys conducted with 70,305 employees, managers and executives at 116 commercial businesses and health care organizations of all sizes. The results revealed that 87 percent of employees report working with a low performer has made them want to change jobs; 93 percent contend that a slacker colleague in the ranks has decreased their own productivity. Yet only 14 percent of senior executives say their company effectively manages low performers, and just 17 percent of middle managers answer that they feel comfortable improving or removing low performers.

"While it may strike some leaders as paradoxical, leaders may have to remove their worst employees in order to keep their best employees," Murphy notes. "When the overwhelming majority of employees say that working with low performers makes them want to quit their jobs, leaders should accept this as a wake-up call and tackle this issue immediately, because if low performers start dictating the company's culture, productivity, quality and service will all decline precipitously — and high performers will avoid your company like the plague."

Murphy adds that only 14 percent of senior executives think their company addresses this issue effectively, which means there is a tremendous competitive advantage for companies that can turn this around.

"But companies need to begin by investing much more time and energy training their managers on how to solve this problem if they hope to be successful," he advises.

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