Dead Wood

Staff Who Won’t Work and Don’t Get Fired

The Extra Edge

Staff is a library’s most important asset and the most expensive. So what happens when staff becomes a liability? These can be dead wood, staff members who once were good employees but are no longer.

In research conducted over the past two years, I learned that dead wood in libraries is common and shares common characteristics. These employees hold jobs that do not demand strong ties to the performance or influence the productivity of other employees in any way. Dead wood employees have tenure in a single position, are rarely promoted but are often moved laterally, and are nearly invisible in the work of the library.

Other staff refers to dead wood in metaphors both graphic and scathing: They “don’t pull their own weight.” They “sleep on the job.” They “don’t rock the boat.” They are “putting in their time.”

From their own perspective, dead wood identify very little with their jobs.

They seldom say, “I am Head of Circulation at X Library.” More likely they will say, “I’ve been working at the library for 13 years.” Pride of place seems to come from longevity, not from accomplishment. They feel they have worked all those years and now deserve to slacken off. Many dead wood stay in their jobs in principle. “No one’s forcing me out of my job until I’m ready to go” seems to be their logic.

And they may be right. The continued presence of dead wood on the staff is an indication that earlier efforts to change or dislodge them were unsuccessful. Dead wood stymies the best administrators. One director said, “All I asked him to do was to put the spine labels on the books one inch from the bottom. He swelled up like a puffer fish. His face turned bright red and I thought he was having a stroke.”

It appears to be extremely difficult to dislodge dead wood. Directors often say they leave poor performers in place because they want to be seen as humane. While it might not prosper with dead wood on board, the library seems to be surviving, if not thriving, with dead wood in their present, non-performing positions. So directors let dead wood stay until they choose to leave.

But tolerating dead wood on the staff has its corrosive effects. In 2001, the McKinsey Research Group conducted a study of poor performers and their effects on the organizations that employed them. They learned that keeping poor performers meant that promising employees got blocked, so those subordinates did not get developed, productivity and morale fell, good performers left the company, and the company attracted fewer A players. And of course, employees on the lower rungs of the organizational ladder blamed their managers for not doing something about the problem.

Directors who tried to deal with their dead wood usually began with a meeting with the dead wood where it was gently pointed out that the work performance was unacceptable. The confrontation either resulted in promises by the employee to correct the performance or disgruntlement. But, reported the directors, performance seldom improved.

When initial attempts to get the dead wood to change or resign proved to be unsuccessful, directors resorted to less direct methods. They would change the organizational culture and the system in which the employee worked. One strategy was to change the work that the dead wood was supposed to do, giving him or her less and less important work so that when it didn’t get done, there were few ill effects. Another director said he changed the persons the dead wood worked with, which at least reduced complaints from coworkers. Some directors changed work schedules. They would reorganize staffing on the desk, for example, or insist on deadlines being met where none had been before. Others changed the dead wood’s work place, relocating them to places where they were out of the way of better performing employees. This insulated the dead wood to such the point of near invisibility but also rewarded them for continuing their performance. In nearly every attempt to change the culture, inadequate performance continued.

Other directors took advantage of budgets being cut to restructure jobs and reorganize entire departments under the pretext of increasing efficiency. They used downsizing as a justification to get rid of poor performers and to create new positions and job titles. When a library was unionized, the library director had to take particular care to identify what jobs were on the chopping block and to justify why layoffs in general, and this particular layoff, were necessary. This was difficult when the employees destined for layoffs had longevity as did dead wood.

For some administrators, the solution to dead wood was to broker a peace agreement through a meeting where, at the end, both parties could walk out of the working relationship with their dignity and respect intact. Meetings such as this required a third-party facilitator but the chance of the dead wood filing lawsuits was reduced. Third-party mediation is not often used in libraries but has been used in hospitals and schools.

However, the only effective, legal, and ethical means for eliminating dead wood in libraries was to prove lack of performance and eventual termination through a fair system of performance review.

Without stated expectations it is virtually impossible to get rid of dead wood. In a face-to-face meeting, the manager had to point out the difference between the expectations and the observed performance and together both had to analyze the reasons for the substandard performance. Next, they had to define and agree to the expected performance standard and explore ideas for a solution. Lastly, they had to write an improvement plan, with actions and target dates. Feedback from the supervisor had to be given regularly and, if employees failed to change their work habits, then persistent attempts at coaching, counseling, and disciplinary action, in a series of graduated and increasing severe steps, had to be completed before final termination. Rewards were taken away. The employees did not get merit pay or raises. Written critiques were added to personnel files documenting the failure to improve until there was, eventually, legal grounds for termination.

Administrators who went this route with dead wood found it to be loaded with landmines. It was hard to give an employee’s performance a poor rating if there had been no performance appraisals in the past, or if earlier performance reviews were rated acceptable or adequate. But the biggest shortcoming to the setting of performance objectives was that it required the administrator to spend considerable time in supervising, training, retraining, and correcting mistakes. Every infraction, every slip, every lapse had to be brought, gently and without consistently, to the employee’s attention. “This had to be monitored, usually with me standing right there,” one said. “I was giving daily—sometimes hourly—supervision to this employee, almost 80% of my time with this one person, when there were about 40 other priorities demanding my attention.”

But performance review with proper documentation does work. One director said he confronted the situation squarely. When the dead wood employee on his staff started slackening off after 22 years on the job, he started keeping records. He had a meeting with the employee to discuss the poor work performance and when that had no effect, he signaled that the employee would be fired. When confronted by the union steward, the director said he estimated that it would take three years to come to court and during that time he would keep the employee’s salary in escrow, using it to pay for the eventual lawsuit because he was so confident that they would win. The employee submitted his resignation the following day.

This strategy was rare. Many directors felt it was less time-consuming to keep dead wood on the payroll rather than to spend so much administrative time working to change one employee.

There is no question that the problem of dead wood exists in libraries and will not be easily resolved. For most libraries, under-performers have to be moved aside or moved out. If coaching and counseling do not work, if changes in the organization—the ways they work, what they do, whom they work with, and when they work—do not work, then terminating for just cause is the only alternative. It is, as one director said, a better solution than holding their heads under water until the bubbles stop coming up.

Dr. Charlaine Ezell is President of The Extra Edge, a training and consulting firm working exclusively with public libraries. This article is a summary of a presentation given at the Public Library Association Conference in Seattle, February 2004.

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