Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously fired the bottom 10 percent of his work force each year. Welch used sports metaphors to justify this extreme practice, saying he wanted to work with A-team performers. He was roundly criticized as callous by some, and indiscriminate by others, who pointed out that for some jobs, there's just not that much differentiation between the lowest and highest performance. Yet GE did flourish under his management. "I think the cruelest thing you can do to somebody is give them a head fake..nice appraisals..that's called false kindness," writes Welch in the book The Jack Welch Lexicon of Leadership.
Most managers avoid addressing the problem of slackers. When I teach management classes, for example, I routinely ask how many of them have someone on a performance improvement plan. Usually one or two of them do, despite surveys that show at least 20 percent of the employees in any workplace perform poorly.
There's plenty of false kindness and management wimpiness going around. In the Leadership IQ survey, only 14 percent of senior executives said their company effectively managed low performers. And only 17 percent of middle managers said they feel comfortable removing low performers.
Slackers can intimidate most leaders. A lot of managers simply don't want to deal with them. They will duck down a side hallway just to avoid engagement. Managers avoid slackers for many reasons. Some may lack the skills to manage performance effectively. Good performance management can be difficult and requires a manager to make certain that he or she knows what behavior constitutes acceptable performance and what results they seek. Many managers really do not know what the criteria should be, beyond counting "face time" in the office.
Other managers may be paranoid about confronting an employee who is different from them in some way: a different gender, race or generation. Finally, many managers don't want t make anyone feel bad, or they lack confrontation and conflict skills.
Can slackers be fired for goofing off at work? Ask the hapless New York City clerk fired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for being discovered playing a game of solitaire when Bloomberg and a group of reporters trooped into the clerk's office on a touch. Bloomberg canned him on the spot, which is legal if employees have been warned that such behavior isn't allowed. (After all, you are supposed to work at work)
What to do about slackers? This is the standard coach, counsel, warn, plan, and then fire. Document, document, document all along the way.
Coaching is what you ideally do every day. If you have an employee who spends more time making paper airplanes than working, remember the wild animal approximations. Small rewards received immediately and frequently seem to have more effect in performance than larger rewards delivered long after performances and infrequently. A $5 gift card may do more to motivate an employee than a potential promotion in the vague future. This is especially true for younger workers. Studies have shown that frequent specific feedback from managers, delivered shortly after a good performance, is all an employee needs to make good work a habit.
Conversely, when you need to correct behavior, you have to ask people to improve, check for improvement and then verbally compliment any improvement. Otherwise, they may wonder why they should bother if no one notices the change. It's important that the feedback be specific. Saying "Great job today," leaves your employee wondering what was so great and doesn't encourage her to do it again. Try "That report had no errors and I appreciate that you caught my mistake on page nine. Way to go!" instead.
This doesn't mean that you no longer need to give raises, performance reviews, and promotions. Giving regular verbal rewards to your employees simply means that you'll be writing better and better reviews for employees who are happier and more motivated.
You can rarely motivate lazy people by criticizing them. Criticism leads to discouragement and bad morale. It can lead to mutiny. Compliments followed by constructive criticism are more effective. When people receive recognition for the good things they do, they feel more motivated to be productive. When you approach a slacker, make a positive observation of something they do well, and then offer them a tip where they could improve. "Well, you've done a really great job here. Let's try to pick up the pace and get x number more like this done before lunch." Or, "You work very quickly and efficiently, but this could be a little better."