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Dear Miss Manager:
I enclose the following article from the Wednesday, July 19, 2000, New York Times, p. G1, "To Shirkers, the Days of Whine and Roses" by Eve Tahmincioglu [available by searching the NYT archives at http://archives.nytimes.com/archives/. The main point of the article can be summed up in the pull quote: "In this job market, managers put up with a lot more misconduct." The reporter cites many examples of behavior that in the past might have landed a worker in the unemployment line but which are now tolerated. She says, "employees are testing the boundaries of the American work ethic as employers, hammered by recruiting and training expenses and fearful that they will be unable to fill job openings, make allowances for just about every form of misconduct. Offenses like frequent tardiness and absenteeism, apathy and even insubordination that would have merited a pink slip a few years ago are now being shrugged off as inconveniences." I have had a great deal of difficulty in the past two years even coming up with a suitable pool of applicants for our staff openings. And the last person we hired is really an awful worker - whiney, uncooperative, lazy, demanding, and incompetent. But the local fast food places are offering $2.00 an hour more than we do for our entry-level staff. What can I do?
Flummoxed in Florida
While you are in a difficult situation, one faced by many in the relatively low-paying field of library staff work, Miss Manager must pause just a moment to say that she is at least partially delighted to read articles like the one you enclosed. Perhaps it is the memory of days past (which may return again) when even the lowest level jobs attracted unlimited applicants, many with sad stories of maltreatment at other jobs, and usually in dire need of employment. The current employment situation creates a headache for managers at all levels, but since most of us are employees too, there is much to be happy about.
As to the real problem at hand, the question is whether one can merely shrug off bad work habits as the price to pay for a tight labor market, try to change the shirking employee’s behavior without inducing him to quit, or risk the consequences of dismissing a bad worker and hoping the next one will prove different. Most of us would like to think that the behavior-changing model holds out the most promise. It is certainly the most appealing, but it is also probably the most naive. Consider this anecdote about a manager in a credit union from the Times article you enclosed: "A woman who worked for her was frequently late, gave customers incorrect information and just did not feel like learning new computer skills. ... If not for the tight labor market ... she would have dismissed the slacker within four months. Instead, she spent a year and a half counseling her, lecturing her and desperately trying to train her. Nothing worked, and finally she had to let her go." In this case, the choice to work on behavior resulted in an extra 14 months of inadequate performance plus the manager’s devotion to the workplace equivalent of trying to teach a pig to sing, in which case you famously end up with no singing, much time wasted, and an annoyed pig. So in your case, I cannot advise too much effort directed toward improving the opprobrious wretch described by you (if all of those faults can indeed reside in a single human being). If she is that bad, I think it is safe to disagree with what seems to be the consensus opinion among managers according to the article that "a warm body is better than no body." Miss Manager can recall an employee whose dismissal resulted in an immediate 25% increase in production simply because of the improvement in morale among the remainders. If an employee is as bad as that, then even the pain of hiring and training all over again must be the preferred alternative. If the employee is not that bad, then you might look to some of the suggestions made in a previous column on handling that majority of average workers (TSLL, v. 25, no. 3 (March 2000)).
So, if behavior modification might work for decent workers who need a little help, and getting rid of truly bad workers is the best option even in a very tight labor market, when, if ever, is the "shrugging off as inconveniences" option for bad employee work habits the thing to do? This is the hardest choice for conscientious managers because it goes against our sense of justice. If that majority of workers who put in an honest day’s work all decided to behave like the shirkers, it would be chaos. But they don’t. Is it fair to expect your solid employees to come in every day and work well while, without any consequences, the shirker shows up whenever he feels like it and behaves however he pleases? No, it is not fair. But, in your circumstances you will have to allow for a wider range of acceptable behavior. If the employee in question is not so bad that you must get rid of him, then you can still make it clear that he is not performing as well as he should. If he is willing to bear with the disapproval of his boss and his colleagues, and if you are not willing to get rid of him, then at some level you may just have to accept some new level of tolerable behavior.
This may be a time, in fact, to review the restrictions you place on all your employees. A tight labor market means that employees have the edge. If you can’t offer higher salaries, can you offer anything else? Can you offer more flexible schedules, rewards (such as extra days off) for exemplary work, or a higher level of personal praise than you are used to giving? A plan like this will allow you to do something positive to keep your good workers happy and give your shirkers some incentive to do better. It will also offer benefits to those who deserve them at the same time you tolerate behavior you do not like in the less deserving employees, and that should help to alleviate some of the sense that justice is not being served.
Dear Miss Manager:
My department orders library materials, including books, of course. Professor A needed a book right away for his daughter’s birthday (this was several years ago, before amazon.com and other such companies were widely available and well known.) Since we had the connections and the expertise, we placed the order for him, had the book sent overnight, and delivered it with a smile. He was very grateful, wrote us a check, and that was that (or so we thought.) Since then, Professor A has come to us at least once a month with one, three, several, or many books to order for his private collection. He told Professors B, C, D, and E about it, and now they are using this avenue for their own purchases. How do I get out of this mess?
Dear Miss Manager:
We have a policy that allows professors to purchase (up to a certain amount) materials for office use. This would include duplicate copies of library materials that a professor would like to have by permanently or materials that would normally fall outside our collection parameters. According to our policy, these materials belong to the library, but are under the individual professor’s control until such time as he or she leaves. This policy is constantly misinterpreted. Professors have us order books ostensibly under the policy, but treat those books as their own personal copies and sometimes demand that we not process them with labels and property stamps. We often do not see them again after professors leave. Reminders of the policy’s terms produce few results. What can I do?
Woeful out west
Dear Caveat and Woeful:
Miss Manager would first of all like to know the status of your law professors. There are places where the professors are fellow mortals and there are places where they are infallible Olympians. The possibilities for effective action in your cases are at least partially determined by the cultures of your institutions. In the first situation, you have allowed what was at first an extraordinary favor to become a regular service. To end it, I would explain that the purchasing of such materials for non-library use requires transactions outside the normal operations, that staff time is being expended for personal transactions, and that there is a perfectly easy alternative. It might be then necessary to demonstrate to Professors A through E the ease with which books for personal use can be ordered and shipped online. Woeful’s situation is harder to deal with, partly because Woeful’s policy was designed to go wrong. I don’t say that there is anything wrong with such a policy per se, but that it was bound to be misinterpreted. And if the professors in a place with such a policy are even slightly on the Olympian end of the scale, they will not make any great effort to become familiar with the subtleties of such a policy, but will remember something like: the library will buy books for me. I would be inclined to 1) reissue the policy every year as a way to remind everyone of its stipulations; 2) send requests to departing professors to return materials purchased under the policy to the library; and 3) write off the losses.
These situations are complicated by a couple of factors. First of all, librarianship is a profession that offers service. We are there to help our patrons fill their information needs. And second, those of us in Technical Services departments sometimes have little direct interaction with patrons, and this is one of the ways we can fulfill needs more directly than we are usually do. So even if you are well within your rights to curb this behavior, and even if your professors are congenial folks who take you seriously, you may want to finesse these interactions into opportunities to make your Technical Services personnel into direct interlocutors with library patrons. We all know that our work is likely to change dramatically in the next few years. Taking a chance to broker information in some creative way should not be overlooked.
I am a real partier!! I love - LOVE - to have FUN!! Whooooo!!!! But the people I work with are, like, SO asleep!! I mean, they wouldn’t know a good time if it came up and hit them with a pie!! So, I come into work on Monday, and I’m like, hey, what’d ya do weekend-wise, and they’re all like well gee I mowed the lawn. Talk about totally comatose! These people have no lives! I try to tell them about my friends and, you know, the clubs and stuff, and they’re like, uh, I have to work now. And I’m like well aren’t we the busy little bees. How can I get these people to cut loose??!!
Complete Party Animal!!
Trying very hard not to jump to conclusions, Miss Manager still cannot help suspecting that you might be several years younger than some of the hopelessly dull colleagues you refer to in your intriguing letter. You may be interested to learn that in some cultures of the ancient past, youth was on occasion expected to defer to age in matters of behavior and taste. Miss Manager wouldn’t dream of suggesting that you question whether or not your own interests would be at all appealing to other people. Nor would she presume to introduce the idea that many people who are quiet and introspective have extremely rich interior lives and might prefer a serene evening at home with a book to a raucous night on the town gyrating with the sub-literati. But, the suggestion that those who choose to engage in the work they were hired to do rather than discuss their personal lives with you are somehow at fault is not an idea Miss Manager can allow to pass without notice. You should learn early on in your career that you must first of all be able to work with the people at work. This may include a reasonable amount of chat and fun, of course, but that is icing on the cake. If you do not enjoy your work unless you are avoiding it, then you should look elsewhere for employment. Also, try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes when you are feeling dissatisfied: there may be as much interest in getting you to calm down as you have in getting others to loosen up.