How to Manage a Deadbeat Employee

I think we've been over this already
••• PeopleImages / Getty Images

A deadbeat employee is an employer's nightmare. You know the occasional employee you have who is constantly in need of correction and improvement. He doesn't show up for work, calls in sick, and milks the time off policy, always walking on the edge, but never falling off. He walks the edge of the work policies and processes, too.

He does just enough to stay employed but doesn't grow professionally nor contribute like your other employees. He sometimes reaches his goals but exhibits a general lack of enthusiasm. The hallmark of the deadbeat employee is that he is always walking on the edge between succeeding and failing.

Some deadbeat employees actively criticize the company and its policies, not through suggested routes, but in an email, at the water cooler, and in the employee lunchroom. Others are constantly unhappy with whatever policy or direction the company sets.

Their unhappiness runs all over their coworkers as they complain, gossip, and criticize. Whatever form of behavior your deadbeat employee exhibits, it won't go away without your intervention. Bad habits, like good habits, become ingrained in workplace behavior.

The Impact of the Deadbeat Employee

The deadbeat employee impacts your workplace and employees negatively, constantly, and insidiously. Smart employees shun the deadbeat employee, realizing the impact he has on their positive workplace morale and productivity. Others wallow in your deadbeat employee's viewpoint.

But employees who feel a bit like he does about a change, the workplace in general, or their jobs, are quick to echo the deadbeat's point of view. This further poisons your workplace morale and productivity.

If you let the deadbeat employee get away with this behavior, you train him or her that the behavior is acceptable. The person's coworkers, who are probably picking up the slack, become demoralized because they work hard and contribute and see that the deadbeat employee does not.

Additionally, they lose respect for your management, and possibly their faith in the company, because you fail to deal with a problem that everyone in your workplace sees.

Your Responsibility to Deal With the Deadbeat Employee

The deadbeat employee's coworkers depend on you to deal with the problem. They may make cutting remarks, shun the non-performer, or talk quietly among themselves, but they don't feel enabled or equipped to deal with the borderline performer. They just feel his impact on their work and workplace. And, they're right.

Coworkers can do their little bits to encourage the deadbeat employee to contribute. They can make norms for their team, give coworker feedback, and express unhappiness, but the deadbeat employee has no obligation to change or improve. The behavior of the deadbeat employee is ultimately the manager's responsibility to address.

How to Approach the Deadbeat Employee

Your first step with a deadbeat employee is to figure out what went wrong. Something did go wrong. It will give you insight into what caused the behavior that is troubling your workplace. Most employees start out enthusiastic and excited about their new job. They find their enthusiasm punctured somewhere along the way.

Or, they puncture their enthusiasm; it works both ways in the workplace. Figuring out what happened is key if you are committed to helping the deadbeat employee become, not a deadbeat employee, but a contributing member of your work community.

It's a rare employee who wakes up in the morning and decides to have a miserable day at work. It's a rare employee who wants to feel like a failure as he leaves the workplace daily.

Yes, a rare employee, but they do exist, and it is guaranteed, the employee believes it's not his fault—it's yours. You are the problem, or his workplace is the problem.

Once you've worked with the employee to discover the source of his unhappiness and low morale, you can assist the employee to do something about it. With a deadbeat employee, this is the tough step. First, he has to own the responsibility for his subsequent actions and reactions to workplace happenings that may have occurred years ago.

It is a tough step for you, too. You may decide his concerns and unhappiness are legitimate. If so, a sincere apology is in order, even if you had nothing to do with the occurrences that generated the problem.

At the very least, an acknowledgment that you believe that some of his low morale is legitimate may be in order. It also makes sense to ask what about the work system is causing the employee to fail.

You may also decide he brought his lousy attitude to your workplace and your company did an inadequate job of screening out a potentially poorly performing employee.

Regardless of the details, on some level, the employee must own that his reaction to the circumstances belongs to him. He must own his chosen reaction. Indeed, our reactions to the changing circumstances around us may be the only factor that is always under our control in most situations.

Next Steps in Dealing With the Deadbeat Employee

Whatever you decide about why your deadbeat employee is a deadbeat employee, these are actions you can try.

  • Help the deadbeat employee see what's in it for him to succeed and improve. Both personal and professional gains result from improved performance and a commitment to success.
  • Assure the employee that you have faith in her ability to succeed. Sometimes supportive words from a supervisor or manager are the first she's received in years.
  • Help the employee set several short-term, achievable goals. These should be time-based and have clear outcomes about which you agree. Some of these goals can address employee attitude in behavioral terms. It is because it is generally not possible for you and the employee to share a clear picture of what a bad attitude looks like. But, you can share a picture about the behaviors the employee exhibits that make you think he has a bad attitude. Then, monitor progress.
  • Make sure the employee has something to do that he likes every day.

These ideas should help you deal with your deadbeat employee. But, if you've done your best, and the employee isn't changing, you can responsibly, ethically, and legally help the employee move on to his next employment opportunity.