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Kenneth W. Keller: The virus that can destroy a company

Brain Food for Business People

Posted: December 15, 2009 10:16 p.m.
Updated: December 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.
If you own a computer, you have likely encountered a virus. When this happens, the computer slows down, mysterious messages appear and things don’t work right. The computer doesn’t act the way it should and does not act the way you want it to.

Most bugs attempting to enter a computer are stopped, diverted and isolated with software developed specifically for that purpose.

But sometimes a new virus gains entry because software is reactive, created after the germ has gone public and done significant damage.

Many times a virus gets into a computer after it was allowed to do so because it was part of an e-mail sent by someone known to the receiver. In this unfortunate manner, a friend has unwittingly and unknowingly done damage to your computer.

A similar disease can destroy a company given enough time. But unlike a computer bug that surfaces and immediately does damage, the illness that can harm your company does so with stealth, almost so slow that it might be years before the damage comes to light.

Germs in a company might be there from the beginning of the enterprise, arriving with a founder or one of the first employees.

Others enter later when the human resources screening tools fail to detect the symptoms. Poor management interviewing skills can also be a fault.  

The virus that can destroy your company is that of disengagement. If you don’t think your company has this problem, think again.

Chances are the disease exists and is much more widespread than you currently believe.

Are there people in your business who are not producing to the level they should? Are you frustrated because some people in your company don’t seem to care about anything but collecting a paycheck and maximizing the use of their sick days to take long weekends?

The diseased employee doesn’t give their employer a second more of his or her time or a spoonful more energy than is required to stay on the payroll. These employees show up to work, but not always on time and never early. At work, they are physically present, but not consistently mentally available.

The Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. could set the time for the country based precisely on when these people depart. When two or more disengaged employees leave at the same time, the company parking lot can be mistaken for the start of a NASCAR event.

These people are underperforming, selfish and lazy. Sadly, they are destroying the very company that provides them with a paycheck. They do not care. They are a disease destroying your company, one day at a time.    

Every day that people with the bug are on the payroll is another day the performance bar has been lowered. Every day the germ survives, the potential for additional cost, lost clients and damaged supplier relationships increases. The disengaged employee does not care.

Hard-working employees witness the tolerated behaviors of these diseased fellow employees with contempt.

An attempt to discipline a hard working employee will result in an uncomfortable discussion because the hard working employee will simply recite the anti-company behavior, poor attitude and poor performance tolerated. Then you will be confronted with, “When are you going to do something about these people?”   

Hard-working employees wonder why you would pay people (as in, provide a paycheck) to destroy your company. Every hard-working employee also wonders why they should continue to remain as hard working as they are. After all, the performance bar keeps getting lowered.   

The worst situation is for a hard-working employee to report to a diseased manager. The hard-working employee will eventually catch the bug if something isn’t done to prevent it.

What can be done about the people with the infection?

There are three options:

The first is to ignore the problem and hope it is not as bad as it seems. The truth is, it is usually worse than it appears; this option is only for those who have a death wish for their own company.

The second option is to attempt to isolate the problem employees. Unfortunately, most organizations cannot do this because they are already running lean.

If every employee on the payroll is in a key function, isolation as a strategy will fail because an infected employee is probably already in a critical role.

The third option is to remove the bug and all those who carry it. Identify those carrying the dreaded germ and remove them.

Terminate them, fire them, lay them off, downsize them, move them out — get rid of them.   

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Brain Food for Business People” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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