Back to the Mar-Apr 2019 issue

How to Keep Zombies and Vampires Out of Your Workplace

By Joyce Hottinger and Laura Kushner

Our workforces are facing a very real threat: “working zombies” and “vampires.”

Working zombies are those employees who are physically present but mentally absent. And vampires are employees who suck the life out of your operation by constantly complaining about their work, criticizing co-workers, gossiping, blaming others, or engaging in misconduct.

These types of behaviors can infect other employees, rapidly creating an epidemic of dissatisfaction, which can culminate in a dysfunctional work environment. While this may seem like a true-life horror story, there is no need for panic. Tackling this epidemic doesn’t require a full-blown purge, but it does require devoted energy and time for a healthy department to survive and combat the threat.

Use of social media for hiring

The best way to tackle the epidemic is to avoid hiring zombies and vampires in the first place. The internet—in particular, social media—can be a valuable tool for identifying zombies and vampires.

Social media can give you insight into applicants that you can’t get from resumes and interviews. Examples of red flags to look for include posts in which the applicant made disparaging comments about an employer or co-worker, or made discriminatory remarks regarding race, gender, religion, etc.

Although there are ample business reasons for the use of social media in pre-employment screening, potential pitfalls also exist.

Pitfalls of using social media

How can social media searches get the city in trouble? One way is by obtaining information that is unlawful to consider in any employment decision, such as the applicant’s race, religion, national origin, age, pregnancy status, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or genetic information.

Because this information is often prominently displayed on social networking profiles, it can create the environment for a big pitfall. Other legal issues might include laws prohibiting discrimination or retaliation in the areas of credit reporting, data privacy, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, and possibly even the First Amendment.

Additionally, an internet or social media search is only as worthwhile as the information that it produces. One of the difficulties is in the sheer volume of information that can be retrieved.

It may be difficult to conduct a search effectively on someone with a relatively common name. You may not be able to determine whether the information retrieved in a search is actually information about the applicant and not another individual.

Even in cases where you can narrow the information retrieved to a specific applicant, you must then determine whether the information found is accurate and reliable. The website or social networking profile found could be genuine or it could be fake, set up as a joke or by someone trying to cause difficulties for the applicant.

Additionally, not all applicants will have an internet presence. Accordingly, you will need to decide how to weigh the lack of information found.

Best practices for using social media

How can you use social media effectively to avoid hiring vampires and zombies, while also avoiding the pitfalls? Some of the best practices include assigning a person not involved in the hiring decision to review social media sites and filter out any information about membership in a protected class. This person would forward only the information that may be lawfully considered in the hiring process.

As always, good records and consistent practices keep the city safe. This means keeping good records of any social media information reviewed and being consistent about how and when social media checks are conducted.

Other best practices include finding another source to verify the information obtained via social media, double-checking the context to make sure it was valid and accurate, and consulting with legal counsel whenever in doubt about whether the information can legally be used.

A simple technique for current employees

Another important weapon in the fight against zombies and vampires is to ensure your work environment is not inadvertently turning good employees into scary creatures. This can happen when you ignore negative attitudes and look the other way on employee misconduct. Good employees get an infusion of bad blood when they see their co-workers not being held accountable.

How do you hold people accountable? Management consultant Torben Rick recommends this SIMPLE approach to hold employees accountable and create a high-performance organization:
S = Set expectations
I = Invite commitment
M = Measure progress
P = Provide feedback
L = Link to consequences
E = Evaluate effectiveness

Let’s explore each of these concepts further.

Set expectations

Employees need to know what is expected of them, and the more clarity you can offer, the better. The more clearly you lay out expectations and set the goals up front, the less time will be wasted later clarifying what was really expected, Rick says. Clarity in your message means being clear about the outcome you’re looking for and how you will measure success.

An excellent approach to clarifying expectations is to ask employees to summarize the important pieces—the outcome they’re working toward, how they are going to achieve it, and how they’ll know whether they’re successful. This will help ensure that everyone is on the same page.

As a supervisor, you will want to answer the following questions: What skills does the person need to meet the expectations? What resources will they need? If the person does not have what’s necessary, can he or she acquire what’s missing? If so, what’s the plan?

The good news is that all the great ideas about how to achieve employee outcomes do not have to come solely from you as the supervisor. Undoubtedly, you have some great talent on your team, so tap into their great ideas by having a conversation about how to achieve the goals.

Invite commitment

After goals and expectations are set, employees need to commit to achieving them. That can be a far easier process if a supervisor is aware of how the employee’s own career goals tie into the objectives you just laid out.

According to Rick, employees are more likely to be successful when they understand two things: how the goals will benefit them personally, and how the goals will help move the organization forward.

During your conversations about expectations and commitment, it’s best to agree on weekly milestones with clear, measurable, objective targets.

Measure progress

You need information to be able to hold your employees accountable, Rick says. Measure employees’ ongoing performance and gauge whether they met the goals and expectations to which they have committed.

If any of these targets slip, address it immediately. Brainstorm a solution, identify a fix, redesign the schedule, or respond in some other way that helps the employee get back on track.

Provide feedback

Honest, open, ongoing feedback is critical. If you have clear expectations, capability, and measurement, the feedback can be fact-based and easy to deliver. Give feedback often and, remember, it’s more important to be helpful than to be “Minnesota nice.”

“Feedback won’t solve problems by itself,” Rick says, “but it will open the door for problem-solving discussions and follow-up actions.”

Consider these questions when preparing your feedback: Is the person delivering on his or her commitments? Is he or she working well with the other staff and the public? If the person needs to increase his or her capability, what tools or assistance are needed?

And keep in mind that the feedback can go both ways. Is there something you can be doing, as a supervisor, to be more helpful?

Link to consequences

If you’ve taken all the previously discussed steps, you can be reasonably sure you did what’s necessary to support an employee’s performance. If there is a lack of goal achievement, you likely have the following choices: repeat, reward, or some version of release.

Repeat the previously discussed steps if you think there is still a lack of clarity in the system. If the person succeeded, reward them appropriately (acknowledgement, promotion if possible, etc.).

If they have not proven accountable, then that employee may not be a good fit for the role, and you should consider releasing them from it. That might include changing roles, taking disciplinary action, etc. Remember, it’s always important to work with your city attorney on any employee disciplinary process.

Evaluate effectiveness

The final step is to review how the process has been handled, Rick says. What in the process needs to be looked at and modified?

By using these effective hiring and management techniques, you can minimize the impact of working zombies and vampires on your workplace.

Joyce Hottinger is assistant human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jhottinger@lmc.org or (651) 281-1216. Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: lkushner@lmc.org or (651) 281-1203.