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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

7/12/2005

Holding the Company Hostage

In my work with Caribbean companies, one of the phenomena that I've noticed is that of "The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired."

The Employee Who Can Not Be Fired?

Yes.

He/she deserves to be fired. Everyone knows it. Other employees may even be talking openly about it. They have developed elaborate routines to prevent themselves from being stuck working with the person. Only new, ignorant employees are assigned to work with them.

Their ineffective ways are legion, and the stuff of hallway conversation. Their failures are well-known, and well-talked about. They may never have stolen money, or attempted to defraud the company, so there is no way to call the police to let them do the dirty work (and they also can't be idly threatened with that course of action).

In the Caribbean, there is considerable legislation that has been enacted to protect renters, and the laws make it very difficult to evict tenants, even when leases have long expired. Instead, landlords resort to all sorts of other means, some nefarious, but most involving social pressure of one kind or another to remove the unwelcome tenant-turned-squatter.

The employee I'm talking about here is basically a "cubicle/office-squatter", and getting rid of them is extremely difficult.

One reason is that, once again, firing someone without documented cause in the Caribbean can lead to legal action, as the separation laws are written in favor of the employee. You can't just get up one day and fire people for something like... Incompetence. In the eyes of the law, it's just not enough.

(Whether this is a good or bad thing is beside the point of this particular blog.)

What keeps the squatter firmly in place, however, is an inability of executives and mangers to hold him/her to account on a consistent basis. Compound this inability with a deep reluctance to confront and the squatter is doubly protected. Add in a lack of adequate record-keeping by managers and human resource professionals, and you have an employee who will retire from the company with a pension. Only then will fellow employees breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, among those who are breathing a sigh of relief are several others who are in the same boat but don't know it.

The consequences of this situation in most Caribbean companies are many: an increase in costs for companies, and a decrease in morale by employees.

Our companies are terribly inefficient when compared with the best-in-class, mostly to be found in first world countries. With the exception of our tourist product in some countries, customer care and customer service are abysmal (unless you know someone on the inside). More bodies are needed to do anything and everything -- I once witnessed my friend move her small townhouse in Kingston using 9 men, when I know that a similar move in the US would take 2 or 3 at most.

Yet, the Caribbean worker living in North America is among the hardest working and most productive. How does this miraculous transformation occur? Is there some white magic that comes with a green card to "farin"? Or is that magic really based in fear?

Another downside of not firing the corporate squatter is that the excellent employees who are striving to maintain increasingly better standards start to ask themselves "A whey mi a kill miself fah?" (Why am I killing myself?) It appears to them that mediocre efforts are judged in the same way that strong efforts are judged, and the financial rewards, increased authority and better teams that are expected by the high performers do not come because the squatters are taking up valuable resources, space and time.

What does it take to create a new culture? Briefly, managers must be willing to make strong, clear interventions that shake up the status quo, and alter their programs and systems to reward those who take risks.

Also, oftentimes there is a dire need for training managers in the art and science of having effective feedback and coaching conversations. The paternal and autocratic style of management learned during slavery and indentureship is of no use here, but managers have seen precious few alternatives to either alternative that work.

The opportunity for executives and managers to improve how they deal with "The Employee Who Can Not be Fired" are tremendous. At the very least, managers need to take responsibility for the fact that the phrase "Can Not" really means "Will Not," and that their inaction keeps the situation stuck in place.

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