Hiding Out in Big Corporate

When I was in my first real job, I admired an older, female co-worker who seemed to be the model employee I hoped to grow into. Her phone never stopped ringing, and her desk was a precarious jumble of papers, files and coffee mugs. She always arrived early and was the last to leave.

After a couple of months of sitting near her, I noticed a pattern. Whenever anyone asked her to do anything, her response was always the same. “Oh, I can’t. I’m just soooo swamped,” she would say, drawing out the vowels. Her breathy exasperation would send managers in quick retreat, looking for someone else to fulfill their requests. It was usually me. I outworked her 10 to 1, but no one ever seemed to notice because she somehow managed to attach herself to some BIG, IMPORTANT PROJECT that never got done.

As I gained more experience, I came to recognize many more employees like her. They are the people who hide out at work.

Unlike my former co-worker, most of us haven’t made a career out of ducking responsibility. But we’ve all done it from time to time. Even me. I once changed the graphics and colors on a PowerPoint presentation three times and re-presented the same content to the same audience with new jokes — and no one noticed. They weren’t listening or were too distracted to pay attention. Honestly, I think it was a bold proposal that management was afraid to approve because it might fail. And they were afraid to say “no” because they would appear non-innovative or archaic.

Another time I figured out how to game the instant message system to show I was available all the time. I wasn’t being lazy; I just didn’t want to waste my time pretending to work while my project was at a standstill because the leadership was afraid to make a decision. Not proud of these actions, but I confess, as should you, I have done it before.

If you Google “looking busy at work” or something similar, you won’t find articles about this behavior so much as how-to guides that teach the art of faking it. One story in PCWorld lists  programs that create decoy spreadsheets and offers up advice such as wearing a headset all the time and establishing your own hotspot so you’re not on the company network. This is NOT what they meant by fake-it-till-you-make-it.

If you are honest with yourself, you can insert your own story here. Many times work dodging comes out of some sort of rebellion from disrespect, lack of appreciation or frustration with the people or system. But all too often there are some real-live-no-jive work dodgers and that is a whole different bag of suck all together.

Most of us have worked somewhere where the sheer number of dead-wood employees left us scratching our heads. Why haven’t those people been shown the door? The answers are complicated and numerous. A paternalistic corporate culture, too much red tape, the worker’s perceived value, a reluctance to invest in the search and training of someone new. But dead-wood employees are more than just time-suckers who breed resentment among their hard-working peers. They are also the enemy of innovation. Like a virus, their do-nothing nonsense can invade and infect those around them.

I’ve put together a list of behaviors I have identified in employees who hide out in big corporate. Keep reading to find out what you can do about it.

  1. The Endless Feedback Loop – Employees use the feedback cycle as a means to delay progress or deliverable. This is one of the easiest hideouts for workers because it’s simple to blame a lack of progress on waiting for a response from a deliberately obtuse email chain.
  2. Go Ask Your Father – Like kids of divorced parents who play one off the other, employees will do the same with managers from different departments so they can cruise, blaming their own inaction on the indecision of others.
  3. Third Time’s the Charm – Many employees do nothing when emailed or asked the first two times because they want to see if the request is real or just some manager’s stream of consciousness.
  4. The PowerPoint Effect – Employees will often tweak the graphics or words of presentations to show work, but not actually do anything.
  5. Moving Targets – Project scopes change, and the hideout employee knows how to work that advantage. It’s their excuse for missed deadlines or deliverable.
  6. Dazzle Them With Data – Employees will hide beyond big words or use a data dump to engage managers in the debate game to prevent decisions from being made.
  7. Dog Ate My Homework – Tech glitches are real, the internet blinks out from time to time, and sometimes we really do forget to hit the “save” button. But the crafty hideout worker will blame technology for their delays, throwing their hands up and declaring there is nothing they can do but recreate the spreadsheet from scratch or take a lunch break while the system reboots.
  8. Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor! – There are some employees who simply have no idea what they are doing. They lack the specific skill set needed for the job, so they fake it out of fear of being found out. This is a management problem. See No. 5 below.

Managers and co-workers, here’s what to do:

  1. Call Them Out – If you are in a meeting and have heard the same old excuse from someone, ask them politely what is one thing you can do to move the project forward and when you can expect to see results or progress.
  2. Make Demands – Set a deadline and then follow up.
  3. Use the Force, Luke – When the employee starts in with 50-cent words and big data, don’t fall for the jedi mind trick. Pause and ask yourself, is this just corporate bingo? If so, plainly rephrase the situation and ask what do you need to move forward.
  4. Avoid the Vortex – Don’t get caught up in their time-wasting games. If you are part of team and your lead keeps spinning, just don’t participate. Do you part, be ready to communicate what is missing and be willing to bring it up in a conversation with the manager (with proof).
  5. Reassess and Reassign – If you suspect an employee is hiding out not because they are lazy but because they are unqualified to do the job, find a way to reassign them. This requires some frank conversations to avoid the next step.
  6. Get Tough – Sometimes the only way to get rid of dead wood is to chop it down. If you are a manager, you need to document the trend, then pull the person aside and tell them they must produce or they will be let go. It’s hard to be the bad guy, but that is what managers are paid the big bucks for, right?

While it may be impossible to root out every employee who doesn’t do their fair share, I do believe the recent recession has made it harder for them to hide. We watched as corporations mercilessly slashed jobs, pushed older workers out the door and looked for any excuse to give someone the boot. As one friend put it when her company went through a third round of layoffs: “There are no more meaningless vendettas left.”

In today’s cutthroat economy, a corporation’s profit margin is more important than ever. That’s why more companies are more willing to lose the weight of unproductive employees. A recent article in The New York Times highlighted how Kimberly Clark, long seen as a paternalistic company where it was impossible to get fired, has adapted a performance-management based strategy to continuously evaluate employees rather than the yearly review that most of us are used to. They have fired scores of workers and boosted their profits. The performance-based system is one that more companies are catching on to as they look to make their operations leaner, meaner and more efficient.

The bottom line: If you’re hiding out at work, it is time to get yourself together. You have something to offer your company that no one else does. Dig deep into that big brain of yours and share your innovative ideas. You never know, you just might start a workplace revolution.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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