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Lazy worker or flawed work culture? Add to ...

Ask employers for their pet peeves and one is sure to pop up: Lazy employees.

They waste time surfing the Internet or pretend to be busy. They avoid work like the plague and drag co-workers into their unproductive mire. Perhaps most importantly for business owners and managers, they cost companies money in lost time and productivity.

Managing lackadaisical workers can be a major challenge. Simply put, helping them improve skills to meet standards demanded of a position can be easier than fundamentally transforming their work ethic and attitude.

One senior vice-president of human resources at a major Canadian not-for-profit - who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of her position - has seen lazy employees not only cause headaches for management, but affect entire departments with their unproductive behaviour.

She recalls an example of one employee who had come up the ladder watching superiors ahead of him sit in corner offices with teams of assistants, finally crack the executive ranks. Trouble was, times had changed and the days of having secretaries and large staffs to which to delegate work had disappeared.

Too bad the employee hadn't been keeping up with the times.

"When he got to management, he had to do a lot of the work himself," she recalls. "After 15 years of a lack of discipline, he could literally do the work in a skill-based way, but couldn't get over his resentment and continually missed deadlines, over-delegated to his juniors and, in some cases, tried to delegate upwards."

The worker was terminated.

But what, exactly, is a lazy employee?

As Lynn Brown, managing director of Toronto-based human resources consultancy Brown Consulting points out, lazy is a broad term that can refer to workers who don't meet performance expectations or fail to go above and beyond the call of duty.

However, she stresses, perceived laziness can sometimes be the result of personal issues, from health issues to coping with a sick child at home. It can also be a symptom of disengagement, which is typically a result of a broken workplace culture.

A great deal of the time, Ms. Brown says, lazy employees aren't hired but, rather, created by a company that's run off the rails.

"Companies need to take a holistic step back and ask, 'Is this an isolated incident with this person, or do we see the disengagement across the organization?'" she advises. "Is this showing up in higher turnover rates or is it in pockets? Then you can focus on the individual employee to determine what the causes are, or work to fix the cultural issues."

Cultural challenges can be difficult to overcome and could include an imbalance on the increasingly important work-life balance front, a lack of communication on the part of management or a lack of recognition of employee achievements.

Workplace shortcomings also typically result when employers fail to set proper expectations, says Tiffany Goodlet, a partner at human resources consulting firm Verity International Ltd.

"Employers need to define what the deal is between them and their employees," she says. "What's in it for them if they uphold their end of the bargain, or don't? What does success look like for them, and how are they going to rate the employee on success?"

From there, she explains, employers need to manage expectations, measure performance and reward or correct behaviour.

Providing feedback, Ms. Goodlet stresses, is an area where many managers or business owners fall short as they struggle to identify areas for improvement and then present it in a constructive way without alienating the employee.

Many dread this necessary duty so much they either hand it off to a more junior - and even less experienced - manager, or skip it altogether.

Her advice: Structure the feedback around what the employee should start doing, what they should stop doing, what they should do more of and, if necessary, what they should do less of.

Tim Rutledge, a Toronto-based workplace retention and engagement consultant and author of Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, adds that companies need to act fast to change an underperforming employee's behaviour, lest it infect the rest of the company.

One way to tackle the problem: Focus on the big picture.

"It can be very helpful to help the employee connect what they do to something bigger," Mr. Rutledge says. "Help them understand what gets better as a result of what they do every day. Employees who can make that link are much more likely to be engaged with their work than people who can't, and it's a supervisor's job to make that connection on a daily basis if necessary."

What if all constructive methods of employee development and progressive discipline - such as warning letters or suspensions - have failed? Mr. Rutledge says the final option is dismissal, but only as a last resort.

To avoid hiring lazy employees or creating a culture that invites or harbours them, he recommends working harder at the hiring stage to ensure a prospective staffer's attitude gels with the company's existing culture, and involve existing employees in the hiring process so that everyone has a stake in a new employee's success.

As the senior vice-president at a not-for-profit recalls, working with these seemingly lazy employees to improve performance and attitude can work.

In one case, she saw an employee restore his reputation after management began asking deeper questions about his interests.

It turns out the highly qualified worker was doing a job that thoroughly bored him.

"Once he got into the right role," she says, "there was no sign of laziness."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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