Skip to main content
the future of work

Does fear of the undead keep you up at night? If so, you're not alone. Popular culture's obsession with zombies has never been stronger. Witness television shows such as The Walking Dead, whose Season 6 premiere last October drew almost 20 million viewers. While fans wait with bated breath for the mid-season premiere to air on Feb. 14,, there are other less obvious, but just as dangerous, creatures lurking around to watch out for: workplace zombies.

These living-dead workers don't feast on human flesh; rather, they gorge on a company's bottom line, according to Jamie Gerdsen, author of the recently published Zombies Ate My Business: How to Keep Your Traditional Business from Becoming One of the Undead.

So what is a worker zombie? We've all likely encountered one. These employees seemingly go about their work but in an indifferent state, as if they were sleepwalking. Mr. Gerdsen demonizes these employees in his book, arguing they have no interest in moving your business forward. They live for a paycheque, according to the author, and spend their days doing the minimum amount of work they can get away with. He warns that, contrary to popular belief, zombie workers thrive in all levels of management.

While the book is full of anecdotes showing how the apathetic attitude and poor work ethic of such zombie workers can infect otherwise happy and healthy work environments, can we really place the blame exclusively on these employees when they decide to put their feet up and start punching the clock? Certainly not.

"Management often blames employees for their low productivity. In my experience working with organizations all over the world, big and small, the issue is more often a leadership issue than an employee one," said Gerry Purcell, co-founder of the Toronto hub of Internal Consulting Group.

In most cases, employees underperform when managers aren't clear on their expectations and permit low performers to continue slacking off without intervening, according to Mr. Purcell. It's a manager's responsibility to provide clear direction, give employees regular feedback and continuously guide their staff to success. If that fails, it's their obligation to swiftly remove the "zombies" before they infect others.

"We have a bad habit as managers. We often hold employees responsible for poor performance (either individual or team) rather than attributing it to our own shortfalls as managers. … It is usually not their fault, although it is really easy to see it that way," Mr. Purcell said in an e-mail interview.

So what can employers do to reduce the zombification of their employees? Eric Riz, chief executive officer of Empty Cubicle, a human resources software company that verifies résumés, said that allowing employees to "vent" their frustrations in a supportive environment could dramatically change their perspectives.

He recounted how an underperforming colleague became very emotional during a workplace meeting. Mr. Riz took him aside and discovered that this colleague's loved one was ill. It turned out that Mr. Riz also had a loved one with the same illness, creating a bond between the two. After his colleague was able to share his news and build a personal connection at the office, his performance improved. It's a strong reminder not to conclude that zombie co-workers are inherently lazy or inefficient.

"Afterward, we saw each other from a different perspective, a human perspective that stripped us of our roles and humanized the relationship," Mr. Riz explained. "Everyone on the team is fighting a personal battle that can't always be seen," he added.

Another way to bring zombies back to life, according to Joe Henry, the dean of students at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, is to try to find ways in which their interests can be aligned with the workplace's operations. Over the past 10 years, Mr. Henry said he makes it a policy to meet quarterly with the people he manages to ensure they remain engaged and enthusiastic about their work. If not, a candid conversation may open the door to new, more meaningful ways in which that employee can contribute.

"More times than not, if employees actually see that you care and are willing to work with them, in my experience they usually come around," Mr. Henry said.

While the zombie apocalypse may remain a manager's worst fear, it's worth remembering that few, if any, employees arrive on the job already infected. Managers and company owners need to examine their own roles in creating a infectious work environment. But if it does happen, don't run screaming: Early and consistent intervention can prevent this scenario from becoming a workplace nightmare.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler