National Association of
Counties * Washington, D.C.
Vol. 31, No.
15 * August 9, 1999
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Cast Members From 'Night of the Living
The HR Doctor recently saw, once again, a classic horror movie from the
1950s. The living dead zombie cast members can be seen wandering around in
a daze, bumping into each other and walls. They have no sense of direction
or vision of the future. While they have vital signs and are, therefore,
alive, one would never know it from their behavior.
Seeing this movie should be required viewing for all elected and
appointed officials, including managers and supervisors. There are many
lessons to be learned from Night of the Living Dead due in large part to
the sad fact that some employees display symptoms very similar to those of
They can be seen roaming the halls of agency buildings, often with
their heads down, occasionally saying hello, but more frequently looking
up at the clock. For whatever reason, they appear to have lost the spirit
or joy of living that makes them fun to be around as colleagues and
productive as public servants. In effect, they are "grazing" until they
can vest in the retirement system or until they are noticed by some
manager who demands accountability and takes appropriate corrective
action. They have quit work, but are still on the job.
Fortunately, these cast members are a distinct minority of county
employees. However, their behavior and performance weakness represent an
infectious virus that can easily spread to others. The infection can
cripple an agency and certainly make the work life of a supervisor more
complicated and frustrating than it need be. There are effective
treatments for the symptoms of this illness, but some managers choose to
avoid prevention and wait until the problems are acute and "emergency
room" intervention is necessary.
One of the HR Doctors most frequent requests for help comes in the
form of persons visiting the "HR ER," bringing a problem and seeking a
"prescription" to provide help and guidance. Here are some of the elements
of a common, but effective treatment:
- Make clear to every employee, upon initial hire and very regularly
thereafter, that there are measurable results and performance outcomes
expected of them. These may range from the simple requirement that a
supervisor receive a direct phone call from the employee prior to
approval of any paid leave for unscheduled absences to establishment of
reasonable "caseload standards" for those involved in processing a
number of transactions, such as document recording, inspections
- For supervisors, this same concept of "clear expectations" is
equally important, if not more so. Supervisors are clearly role models.
They must be held accountable for effective and timely performance
evaluations and rapid problem-solving interventions.
- One of the HR Doctors basic maxims "dont walk by something thats
wrong" is very much part of the treatment for Night of the Living Dead
A supervisor is obligated to "stop, interrupt and
correct" inappropriate workplace behavior. Failure to do so only
compounds the risks that lead to sexual harassment, workplace violence
and other acutely serious problems. Most of these terrible future
dilemmas are predictable and, therefore, treatable because behavior
indicators of the past can be used to plan ahead!
- Supervisors need training and support so that they gain the
confidence and the knowledge to intervene properly. The HR Doctor
provides such training regularly, especially with regard to the common
behavioral themes that lead to violence, discrimination and harassment,
as well as techniques managers can use to improve things. This is part
of what can be a very effective strategy for managers in practicing a
"take excuses away" model of interaction with employees performing or
- "Recognition, praise and reward" represent the other side of the
equation for managers to follow in creating and maintaining an equitable
workplace. There are many more employees who perform in an consistently
excellent manner than there are workplace zombies.
managers spend too much of their time focusing on the cast members.
There should be much more attention paid to employees whose
contributions make the agency successful.
Part of the prescription,
therefore, must include the strong, personal and ongoing involvement of
the manager in not only being a good role model, but in taking the time
to recognize and praise employees. A simple "thank you," a public
acknowledgement in a staff meeting or cash bonus, extra day off, etc.
there are many incentives available make a big difference.
"Thank You" delivers a positive message that the agency cares, is aware
of positive performance, and that work life is not simply about
discipline and corrective action.
Recognition and rewards, however,
need to be job-related and managers need to make sure that there is no
reality or perception that rewards go to the "favorites" regardless of
- The final ingredient in this brief prescription is for the agency to
make sure that it has in place a strong, proactive Employee Assistance
Unfortunately, cast members from Night of the
Living Dead often enter their persistent, vegetative states because
of underlying physical health or emotional problems. All of us will find
periods in our lives of depression, excessive stress or unusually heavy
personal burdens. None of us are immune from financial, family, health
or work troubles.
It is a very big mistake for agencies to pretend
that these problems do not exist or that the employer does not have
responsibility to provide tools as simple and effective as an EAP
Follow this prescription, do it diligently and consistently,
and the results will be a better workplace and a more positive work
force. "Night of the Living Dead" should be watched only as
entertainment and not acted out every time we go to work!
from the HR Doctor and dont hesitate to contact me if I can
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,
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