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Managing Marginal Workers

Sam, a police officer in a large metropolitan force, was assigned with several other officers to a high-crime area. Whenever there was an “all-units” call to some location, one of Sam’s fellow officers would never arrive until the altercation was over. This officer would always immediately respond by radio that he was having difficulties with his vehicle, was completing a report, or was at the opposite end of the area and thus would be delayed by distance. Sam considered his colleague’s actions questionable, and he told the watch supervisor his concerns. The result was that the officer was taken off the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift and placed on a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift in the office compiling crime statistics. Sam felt that this essentially rewarded the officer for his lack of participation.

This real-life example was just one of many given in a recent survey in which survey participants described employees and coworkers with marginal performance, discussing how they interacted with others and affected the organization. While specifically geared toward police officers, the study is relevant to security officers, either in a contract or proprietary organization, because security operations tend to be organized along a hierarchy similar to that of law enforcement.

The study involved 347 participants in ten law enforcement agencies across the country. It was conducted via written surveys and one-on-one interviews.

Survey respondents believed that marginally performing employees fully understood their work obligations, yet had no interest in meeting them. In some cases, after being counseled, the marginal employee temporarily changed or modified his or her ways while under observation, and then reverted back when not being watched. The survey respondents indicated that management has the tools to make changes but fails to act.

The results of the study include a definition of a marginal employee, the problems that marginal employees cause in an organization, and the solutions that managers might use to try to help reengage marginal workers.

Definition. The term “marginal” is reserved for an employee who has a consistently poor attitude or performance record. The term does not apply to a solid employee who becomes temporarily impaired, such as when a death in the family impedes his or her effectiveness. The study findings suggest that this marginalism is a learned behavior, which the marginally performing employee uses to create a zone of comfort. These employees are reticent to give up their comfort zone unless confronted by a supervisor.

A marginally performing employee is an individual who situates him or herself on the edge of the organization’s culture. These workers manage to avoid getting unsatisfactory job performance ratings; they do just enough to get by, while neglecting assignments that they do not wish to do, regardless of the impact to the organization or other employees.

Respondents said that marginally performing employees were successful at being marginal in part because they were allowed to define their task completion in their own terms. The company did not define the task for them.

Problems. Respondents were asked to identify the problems directly related to the effect that marginally performing employees have on the organization and employees. The participants stated that the marginally performing employee would not complete task assignments correctly, on time, or without additional help, and in some cases, they placed others in a position whereby they could be harmed either physically or psychologically.

One respondent commented that in his experience, managers avoided retraining efforts that might have solved the problem. The reason, he believed, was to avoid the appearance of failure. For example, if a manager devoted time to train an individual in an attempt to reestablish that marginally performing employee, the manager might fail, and failing was worse than just leaving the situation alone. By taking no action, the manager would not lose, and the marginally performing employee would not attract any attention.

Another officer related that when he complained about the lack of effort by a marginally performing employee, the manager responded that a marginal employee was better than no employee. The officer related that the manager’s view was that “at least it’s a body.”

One reason for management’s hesitancy to terminate an employee may be the high cost of hiring. One survey respondent surmised that from the point of recruitment to the end of a recruit’s probationary period, his department spends an excess of $50,000 on each officer. Managers do not want to erode their budgets with the cost resulting from separation and reinitiating the hiring process.

Solutions. Marginally performing employees should not be tolerated. They harm organizational morale and productivity. But these employees need not be summarily terminated. Organizations can, through leadership and managerial changes, reengage marginally performing employees. However, this commitment must go beyond the surface issues of pay for performance, positive and negative motivators, employee perceptions, and money as a motivator.

Survey respondents cited some approaches that worked for them in the past. These included communicating with marginal actors and setting clear performance standards and expectations.

For example, a successful program at a U.S. corrections facility illustrates that management can correct the actions of marginal employees and prevent others from becoming marginal in the first place. In this facility, top-level staff managers remain highly visible to all staff members. Managers visit different areas of the facility frequently and talk to employees about their duties, management concerns, and the personal well-being of staff members.

When a change is made in the organization, managers personally visit each workstation to ensure that the new policies or procedures make sense and that each employee knows why the change was made. The manager will also ask employees questions about how the policy is working. This helps ensure that employees are active and aware and that they are not alienated or angry about workplace changes.

Because marginal actors often need increased supervision, respondents suggested that managers provide such employees with specific, meaningful, and timely feedback, including positive reinforcement for good performance. Another tip is to use checklists and protocols to ensure that marginal employees perform all of the tasks related to a function, and to make it clear that no step can be skipped.

Sometimes additional training may be effective but only if the employee acknowledges his or her skill deficit and wishes to be trained. However, after taking all possible steps, managers should not be reluctant to contemplate the termination of marginal employees who sustain poor attitudes or performances.

Poor performers should not be allowed to disadvantage an otherwise successful team. Management ought not retain someone it cannot fully support. And managers must consider the full cost in terms of lost productivity, damaged morale, and potential customer problems when weighing the cost of a marginal employee against the cost of termination and new hiring.

It is interesting that 17 survey respondents identified themselves as marginal employees. And most respondents indicated that although marginal employees could easily be identified, they were not disciplined or admonished. They were transferred or moved to locations that were out of sight, and out of mind.

Until such employees are put under the spotlight and their work examined, marginal workers will continue to make their colleagues’ jobs tougher. By recognizing marginal employees, identifying why such behavior is tolerated, and then taking action to correct it, managers can find creative ways to deal with poor performers.

Vincent C. Wincelowicz, Ph.D., is the chair for the Public Security Management Program at the Community College of Denver and an independent consultant. He is the chairperson for the Denver Mile-Hi Chapter of ASIS International. This article is excerpted from his book The Police Culture and the Marginally Performing Employee, published by the Edwin Mellen Press.