Monday, November 2, 2009

That's Okay Cuz I Got No Self-Esteem - The D-list Employees

I wrote her off for the tenth time today
And practiced all the things I would say
But she came over
I lost my nerve
I took her back and made her dessert
Now I know I'm being used
That's okay man 'cause I like the abuse
I know she's playing with me
That's okay 'cause I got no self esteem    Offspring, Smash

The Short of It
  • What's with that one employee?
  • You know the one.
  • The one that desperately needs to be fired.
  • And escapes the hammer week after week.
  • Get some self-esteem.
  • And get it over with.
The Long of It

It is not a secret that I approach teamwork from a kind of radical point of view.

Building a truly high performing team is not for the faint of heart.  To build the kind of teams we always talk about is not the warm and fuzzy, let's-get-to-know-each-other-better kumbaya process some consultants tout. (I suspect some staff consultants pursue that approach because it is a never ending source of income as they keep getting called back over and over to "help the team function better" or maybe it's just the residual manifestation of the "EST" training they got in the 1970's - but I digress.)

Team building involves a level of self-esteem on the part of the team leader and a personal commitment to reject workplace games.  I was talking with a colleague of mine the other day, John Dane, CAE, and he made a particularly insightful comment, "The F-list incompetents get fired and that's good, the A-list stars sometimes get fired because they take risks and that's bad but the D-listers will outlive us all."

Ah, the D-lister employees.  The Kathy Griffin's of the water cooler set.  The ones who will outlive us all.  Today I'm taking a look at the two main types of these insidious creatures.

The first type is the relatively pleasant, seemingly innocuous kind.  They put in steady, albeit minimal, effort and make no major contributions or mistakes. They take few risks, either positive or negative. They keep their alliances superficial and fluid. They occasionally grandstand by calling in sick two days before an event and then show up on event day a la Mighty Mouse and milk the "sacrifice" for months.   This D-lister routinely disguises their reticence to take any position with claims that they "need more information" or "time for analysis" and hold endorsement of any idea back until a) it succeeds and they can claim partial credit (which is enough for a D-lister) or b) it fails and they can claim they never were never really sure about it to begin with but nobody asked them......

Then there's that second type of D-list employee.  The really crafty, disruptive one.  The one that behaves like that one toxic ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend of yours (you know the one), and is a continual pain the *&^.  They skate by acting like they don't have a care in the world and are a perpetual source of drama and turmoil in the team.  For some inexplicable reason every time they get up to the edge of getting fired, they weasel their way back into the good graces of the executive.  They are frequently absent and operate on instinct and manipulation.  They are often seen launching a dramatic outburst at the slightest provocation including spluttering something along the lines of being "misunderstood" and bursting into tears or an outward display of anger for extra emphasis.

Ah, that dysfunctional office dance many of us know so well.

Executives can easily get caught up in these types of workplace games and D-listers excel in them. The first type tries to fly under the radar and keeps the attention focused away from themselves.  They take credit when they can, (remember partial credit and coat-tailing will do just fine thanks), act appropriately penitent when necessary and bring cookies in on Fridays.  The second type is very different and attempts to exert control by keeping the attention focused on them.  They aren't working hard or contributing (how can they with the other activities involved in offense and defense) and as long as someone is "working with them" they aren't getting fired or having to look for another job.  (Ah, the perfect crime!)

Let's not forget to overlook the emotional angles. Management books aside, let's face the hard truth.  Workplace relationships are not entirely based in logic and include many of the same rationalizations used in other areas of life.  Common D-lister traps association executives fall into are, but are not limited to:
  • Believing they can "change" the employee - (They can change!  I can help!)
  • Conducting continual employee "counseling" - (I think we are really beginning to understand each other!).  
  • Desiring to be seen as the "mentor who made the difference" (They may not appreciate me now, but they will!)
  • Acting out some unconscious parental dynamic - (Just wait until you have employees of your own!).  
  • Offering the benefit of the doubt - (Well, maybe they didn't really mean it....)
  • Wanting to believe the best - (I think they are really sorry this time....again....)
The D-lister key to perpetual paycheck Nirvana is their Pepe-le-Pew like longevity.  The longer a D-lister is allowed to persist in their low performing state, the harder it is to get rid of them.  They are like barnacles on a ship.  California, in particular, is rife with employment related challenges.  The firing process must be carefully orchestrated and documented, sometimes with the assistance of legal counsel and even in this at-will state the fire-ee can become a never-ending drain on the fire-er.  Unemployment claims.  Labor law disputes.  Wrongful termination suits.  Protected classes.  Blech.  Isn't it easier to just leave them alone?  They aren't causing any massive damage.  And you hate interviewing right?  Firing them now will hamstring you going into the conference/board meeting/chapter trainings/trade show, etc.  Maybe they will get tired of you and move onto another employer.  Don't bet on it.  They have you right where they want you.  Or do they?

Here are my top ten D-lister avoidance tips to try and prevent your office from becoming The Office.

1. Recognize your job is not to be the good guy.  You are not Stuart Smalley and darn it, some people are NOT going to like you.  Your job is to execute the board's directives and to do everything you can to achieve their mission and vision.  The number one way to achieve those objectives  is building and sustaining a high-performing staff team.

2. Gain a reputation for not tolerating substandard performance.  It seems counter-intuitive but it will not make your hiring process harder later.  High-perfomers don't like D-list environments and will seek out those groups who take performance seriously.  Having low performers complain about being fired by you is the best advertisement you could have for attracting top flight applicants and, better yet, warning away potential D-listers at the same time.  (BTW - Maintain your legitimacy by pushing yourself harder than you push others.)

3.  Don't depend on the interview.  Good interviews prove nothing except that the person interviews well. Statistically, the interview predicts future success on par with flipping a coin. Don't assume you have some inborn, sixth-sense prescient ability to "sense a good fit." You don't and if you did, you'd be working on Dionne Warwick's psychic hotline, not as an executive.  You wouldn't assume you could marry someone after just one date so don't assume your new hire will be with you for the next ten years after just one interview.

4.  New employees are not office "ally" recruitment prospects. Some executives play internal politics. They assume that being "nice and understanding" from the beginning will shore up their political position and they focus on "winning" the new employee over to "their" team - performance be damned.  This is D-lister catnip at it's best and they will quickly become your new best friend.  (And quite frankly, if you are playing games at that level, you need serious help.)

5.  Don't overestimate initial success.  Beware of the honeymoon period just after the new employee comes on board.  Because you have been short handed it is easy to throw them into the fire with little supervision, experience an overwhelming sense of relief that SOME-one is doing SOME-thing and to give in to your own vested interest to make them want to stay and prove you made the right choice.  This leads to effusive statements and reinforcement that the new employee can "do no wrong."  Stop the "My gosh, you are wonderful, what did we ever do without you" emails. (Isn't he wonderful mom!  He calls me every day just to say he loves me!)  A D-lister will capitalize on this initial overwhelmingly positive assessment and then coast on that initial momentum for years.  (What happened?  You used to LOVE it when I called you every day, don't you remember?  And hey, get me a beer while you are up will 'ya?).

6.  Fire QUICKLY. You have a short window of time in the beginning to assess the new employee.  Don't relax and assume the hiring process was the tough part and now you can coast.  Evaluate and document, document, document. Put a probationary period in your employee manual and use it.  Try to make the decision to fire within 30 days but continue to evaluate for the full probation period regardless.  Make no promises.  It's much easier to make the case for underperformance at the beginning than it will be a year in and sometimes you need a full 90 days, or sometimes longer, to flush out the experienced D-list player.  Remember, the D-lister intends to outlast you and employment law is on their side.

7. Negotiate a strong executive employment contract going in.  When you take over a new gig as an exec put a strong clause in your contract that stipulates you have 100% control over the hiring and firing of staff.  Telegraph you intend to use it from the get-go.  Interview the outgoing executive if you can regarding staff strengths and weaknesses, suss out their personal biases and in the absence of an outgoing executive, go it alone (leave the Executive Committee out of it). Examine personnel records in detail.  Review all strategic objectives of the organization, the budget and all job descriptions.  Hold intensive discussions with current staff members.  Then clean house. When in doubt, fire. Ignore the temptation to "allow them to stay since they know more than I do" or the voice in the back of your head that says, "The board might worry about my coming right in and "de-stabilizing" things."  This is your first, best chance to build the staff you really need instead of focusing on fixing what you may have inherited.

8. Develop a "fleet."  Beware of executive contract clauses that stipulate if you leave, you can't take anyone with you.  If you are good enough, you will be able to pull your stars with you from organization to organization.  Show loyalty, be consistent, be up-front with your expectations and the stars will stick with you.

9. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  If you have been in a D-lister situation for some time now start taking steps.  Restate expectations.  Redraft job descriptions. Reclassify positions, layoff and re-hire.  Institute new performance standards and enforce them universally.  Immunize yourself againt the tolerance virus, develop a no-bullshit zone and a thick skin.  Bring in someone from the outside to objectively review the situation if necessary.

10. Last but not least, if you can't fire, bring in someone who can.  Get an assistant executive director who deals in personnel matters or a human resources manager who will handle the tough work for you.

I wrote her off for the tenth time today - and then I called our attorney, prepared the final paycheck, asked  for the key and changed the security codes.  No dessert for you!


  1. Awesome post as usual. Someone should sell a plaque with #6 inscribed on it and it should be handed out to every single supervisor upon their acceptance of the job. If you aren't willing or able to execute #6, you shouldn't be allowed to be a supervisor--like the exit row thing in planes. There is nothing worse than being a D-lister's coworker, having to endure their crap, pick up their slack--and know that they'll continue to get away with it because the powers that be are too afraid to do anything about it.

  2. That's why having a spine is one of my demands for leadership. Otherwise you're just a weenie and faking it.

    Shelly, I'm so glad you're sharing your brain!

  3. You make a lot of good points but be wary of probationary periods. Some courts have interpreted successful completion of a probationary period as a guarantee of employment for life. Stay away from them and just do what you say constantly evaluate and document any problems.

  4. Interesting points all -

    @maggie - I'm loving the plaque idea!

    @Deirdre - you got spine to spare girl and we love ya :D

    @jmcnichol - I will be careful about probationary periods going forward....I did not know that and I appreciate your offering that up for the good of the order - thanks!


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