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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 Dead'

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 the zombies.

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 Doctor’s 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:

  1. 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 performed, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. One of the HR Doctor’s basic maxims "don’t walk by something that’s wrong" is very much part of the treatment for Night of the Living Dead cast members.
    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!
  4. 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 behaving poorly.
  5. "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.
    Unfortunately, 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.
    Saying "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 performance.
  6. The final ingredient in this brief prescription is for the agency to make sure that it has in place a strong, proactive Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
    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 Program.
    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!
    Best wishes from the HR Doctor and don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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