The Deadwood Dilemma
“Were they dead when you hired them? Or did you kill them?*
W. Edwards Deming
This is an interesting question that deserves some serious thought. The Japanese place low producers, or deadwood, in isolation. In other words, they place the low performers far from the office mainstream and they have little or nothing to do. All of this is with the hope that they will just quit. We, in America, employ this technique as well. However, in many cases, instead of firing them, we promote them just to get them out of our department! You may be laughing, but there is at least one entity where this is SOP. Can you say U.S. Government? In fact, once when coaching a government executive, we both agreed it would be a good idea for me to meet his three-person team. One of his team members, about whom he had the most complaints, was in attendance. When the team left, I looked at the executive, I’m sure my jaw was hanging open, when I remarked, he is almost childlike isn’t he? The executive was nodding in agreement, saying “You know, I had never thought of that, but you’re right!” What alternatives are there to just tolerating, ostracizing or blindly promoting deadwood?
Benchmark the job. Without performing this valuable exercise, an employee has no idea what tasks to perform, how often to do them, or possibly even how to perform them.
Examine gaps. Ask, “What are the gaps between the talents, attributes, skills, and knowledge of the deadwood employee and what the job requires to operate at its optimal level?” In addition, if deadwood is occupying the position currently, it’s a good idea to understand what is being lost in terms of productivity and revenue due to the deadwood employee’s non-productive performance. For example, one manager estimated a $150,000.00 annual loss due to a deadwood employee in his department. This can be an eye opener as to the importance of having a high performer in a position.
Decision time. Now it’s time to make a decision. Is the employee capable of meeting the demands of the position? Are they otherwise a good fit for your team and the organization’s culture? If the employee is worth keeping, next engage the employee in the training he/she needs to do the job. Coaching may also be in order to help get the employee back on track. This second chance might be well deserved if the organization is going through change. Maybe the deadwood’s performance was being rewarded at a low level by a previous supervisor. Now, things are changing and this is no longer acceptable. If this is not the case, then it’s time to examine the other side of the decision coin.
The other decision. If all other considerations like those above have failed, it may be time to cut the deadwood from the team – regardless of whether the organization killed them or not. Be sure you have all of the proper documentation in place. It may be that since the deadwood has not been held accountable, there is no documentation. This is where many employers face the second question that Deeming asks. In that event, help the employee where you can until you have the documentation in place you need to make the termination.
Extend an olive branch. If the deadwood employee does qualify for termination, then make the transition out of the organization as smooth as possible. If you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) in place, refer the deadwood to that program. The EAP can help the terminated deadwood find another position faster. If you don’t have an EAP program, at least keep the contact information for a few career and life coaches on hand.
These efforts help create a win-win situation when all is said and done. The employee receives assistance in professional development through training or coaching. The deadwood now returns to life and becomes more productive and the organization benefits. Providing assistance in finding a position in the case of termination, helps the employee to move ahead more quickly, have a shorter disruption of income, and perhaps reflect on how to improve performance and become a better employee elsewhere. Moreover, it will decrease the likely hood that the employee will sue.
Deadwood can create a dilemma. Breathing life back into deadwood can be rewarding and beneficial. On the other hand, it is always good to know when to sever the drain on productivity and profitability.
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