County News logoNational Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 12 * June 26, 2000

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‘Rust in Peace’

The behavior and performance weaknesses of a relatively small percentage of employees drains an organization of supervisory time. These employees seem to take more from the organization than they return in productive work. The good news is this percentage is considerably smaller than the “80/20” rule (described in the HR Doctor’s article of Feb. 1, 1999). It is perhaps five percent of the workforce – the “frustrating five.”

The bad news is that this five percent, often clothed in the protective Teflon coated armor of civil service “property rights” or labor contract restrictions, is very hard to manage. Supervisors are hard pressed to deal with the behavior, attitude and marginal or poor performance displayed by this group of employees.

In this situation a form of inertia sets in. By default the organization puts up with, tolerates or accepts the presence of this marginally productive group. By its inaction, the agency is not only “walking by” behavior and performance problems, it is setting a negative example that will encourage the next generation of problematic behavior and performance.

The default response is to reassign or transfer these employees. Perhaps a fresh start or a different supervisor will cause a behavioral brain transplant. Interestingly, sometimes this is exactly what happens.

The employee sees that work life in this new environment is more to his or her liking and that the manager has a lower tolerance for inappropriate behavior. The employee’s peers help reinforce the no more nonsense atmosphere of the new workplace and performance improves while poor behavior reduces – at least for a while.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the change in assignment only changes the location of the problem. A new group of employees and supervisors now confronts the dilemma passed to them by someone else in the organization.

This pass the five percent behavior has led the HR Doctor to consider what it would be like if every county created a “Department of Grazing” in which assigned employees would be permitted to loiter in a relatively controlled environment.

In the Department of Grazing the organizational damage they can do would be restricted. By clustering together the five percent, the organization might be better served and the frustrating five percent would merely “rust in peace.”

However, it does not take long for the HR Doctor to realize that this approach is only the logical extension of the “pass the buck” mentality. In fact the organization might be better served if the Department of Grazing were staffed, not by the five percent of employees whose behavior or performance is problematic, but the greater percentage (approaching the Pareto Principle’s 20 percent) of supervisors who are not actively addressing ways to improve employee behavior, performance, recognition and sense of contribution.

If every supervisor practices the philosophy of not walking by a problem, and of seeking help from human resources, employee assistance, risk management or other support units, the organization would be far better off than by establishing a Department of Grazing. If the organization itself supported employee development efforts such as a training academy for new supervisors, performance evaluation processes that link supervisory skills and performance with financial and peer group recognition rewards, the idea of a Department of Grazing would never have come up.

In reality, the organization’s greatest employee problems are not in the five percent group, but are among supervisors who don’t practice corrective action planning, and who are not consistent, job-related and proactive in how they make expectations clear to the employees. Follow the sound practices in the prior sentence, get a little help from your friends such as HR for coaching and training, and the Department of Grazing can be the first agency eliminated in a county business excellence plan.

Don’t forget to “visit” the HR Doctor Office at

Best wishes!

(Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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