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How To Deal With "Deadwood" Employees

by Barbara Bartlein

The phone has been ringing and the e-mail box full after recent columns on ‘desk rage’ and ‘unfair bosses.’ Several people have expressed frustration, as they have had to deal with downsizing, increased work demands and poor performing employees.

“What about the employee who pulls everyone else down?” complains one reader. “How can you motivate the rest of the team when there is ‘deadwood’ in the middle of the office?”

The deadwood employee is the one who routinely does the minimum amount to get by, often blaming others or the “system” when there are problems. They may have ‘retired on the job,’ while waiting for the official end to their work career or simply lost motivation long ago. In a union environment, the employee may feel that they are always ‘protected’ and can manage their workday however they please. When confronted, they may manipulate the system by taking additional sick time or extended leaves.

No matter what the individual circumstances are, deadwood affects the momentum of the team. They become an ‘energy-sucker’ bringing everyone else down. Energy suckers can sabotage a whole area sprinkling negativity in their path. Other team members may feel discouraged as they see their own efforts receiving little positive attention while the deadwood gets away with poor performance.

The deadwood employee may spend much of his time spreading rumors, complaints and gossip to anyone who will listen. It is easy to know if you are exposed to one, because you feel drained after each encounter. Nothing is ever good enough, and life has singled them out for bad news.

In spite of best efforts, sometimes good employees get sucked into the negative swirl and participate in ‘institutional pathology’ that robs the organization of crucial energy. They don’t want to listen but negative news is somehow more interesting than the report of everyday activities that are going well.

Some things you can do to deal with Deadwood:

· Raise the bar. Conduct a series of team meetings to refocus on goals and objectives for your area. Discuss institutional pathology and the expectation that everyone’s attention needs to be focused on customers, internal and external. Be clear that concerns need to be aired appropriately and with a problem-solving attitude.

· Involve the EAP. There may be other issues that are making it difficult for the employee to focus on the job and day-to-day responsibilities. Remind the employee that this free resource is available and may be helpful. If there are serious performance issues, a mandatory EAP referral should be considered.

· Collaborate with the union. In many systems, especially public service, employees have additional job security because of union contracts. While the union clearly advocates for the employees, they also recognize that people who attempt to manipulate the system hurt everyone. Talk with the union representative to explore options. Often they are available for meetings with employees and can present positive options.

· Encourage unhappy workers to look for other alternatives. The best termination is one where both parties, the employer and employee, think it is the good idea. Conduct regular coaching with the disenfranchised worker to assist her in every way be more successful. If that is not effective, they truly may be happier in another work environment.


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Barbara Bartlein, The People Pro may be contacted at

Barbara Bartlein, R.N., M.S.W., is President of Great Lakes Consulting Group, LLC, which provides training and consultation to business. She can be reached at 888-747-9953, by e-mail at: or visit her website at


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