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Employees Behaving Badly: Vampires, Terrorists and Gossips

Public relations executive Mario Almonte once had an employee who was constantly taking time off.

WB Digital | OJO Images | Getty Images

“Frequently, he would take two and three hour lunches; sometimes he would be ‘working from home;’ sometimes, he needed a few days off to help make funeral arrangements for a family member,” Almonte recalls. “I think he killed off every member of his family within a year's time!”

We’ve all worked with someone like this — someone who is constantly late or leaves early, takes an hour or two off in the middle of the day, passes off work to co-workers, takes sick days even when they’re not — they’ve got every excuse in the book. In extreme cases, there’s stealing from the company.

Most of this bad behavior is accompanied by negativity — the person who constantly gossips at the watercooler, fights with co-workers and just can’t seem to be happy about anything, even when the boss is trying to do something nice.

Those are what the pros call “actively disengaged” employees — though there are many other names for them.

“Gallup calls them ‘vampires’ because they’re the people sucking the lifeblood out of the manager!” said Kevin Sheridan, senior vice president of HR Optimization at Avatar HR Solutions and author of the book “ Building a Magnetic Culture .” “We call them the ‘watercooler malcontents.’”

Sheridan recalls one time, where the company called a meeting to announce a second bonus plan — on top of the existing one! That’s right, while some of us don’t get any bonuses — they were announcing a second bonus. If the company met its goals, then boom! everyone would get an extra $500 in their paycheck.

But guess what? That wasn’t enough for one of their employees known for behaving badly.

As they announced it, Sheridan said, “I saw out of the corner of my eye one of the ‘known terrorists’ — one of those employees who creates terrorist outcomes — I saw this guy turn to two other malcontents and he leaned over and said, ‘We’ll never make it.’”

“I thought, are you kidding me? It was just so disheartening. Especially as a leader,” Sheridan said. ”It was something I really wanted to announce with excitement – and instead, it was received with negativity.”

Whatever you call them — vampires, terrorists, malcontents, gossips — they are a drain on productivity.

“For those who are working hard, they build up resentment,” said Michael Crom, the chief learning officer at the Dale Carnegie Institute , a corporate training organization. “Bad behavior creates a negative work environment with low levels of productivity that hurts people, performance and profits.”

“Too many managers are tolerating this behavior,” Sheridan said. “How do you build that special workplace that draws top talent and makes it difficult for people to leave? One is to not tolerate inappropriate behavior,” he said.

Sometimes, bad behavior thrives because of laziness on the part of management.

“Sometimes it’s the manager who’s not engaged to come to work — they come with the ‘Time to make the donuts’ mentality!’” Sheridan said, referring to a famous Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from the 80s, where a moustached baker shuffled sleepily out of bed at the crack of dawn, mumbling, “ Time to make the donuts .”

It can swing the other way, too — where companies act too swiftly to eliminate bad behavior.

One twenty-something employee at a New York media firm said many new employees are hired on a short-term contract, like a probation period. If an employee doesn’t perform, they’re never heard from again. You walk in one day and go, “Where’s Jimmy?” And no one knows because the boss pulled a Dr. Evil type thing (from the movie "Austin Powers). Like hitting a button and the trap door under that person’s chair opens up and POOF! They’re gone.

"Let this be a reminder to you all that this organization will not tolerate failure," Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) says.

Sheridan said he’s not a fan of that type of “scare the hell out of people” approach to get employees to perform.

“I think we need to put the human back in human capital — where there’s genuine sincerity in leadership,” he said, adding, "though a little bit of fear is not bad."

In some cases, you can reform an employee with bad behavior — though not always.

“I think it is a very low success rate,” Sheridan said. “One of my greatest failures was when I got a bad employee. We put her on probation. Coached her. It took me years to realize I was just wasting my time.”

The key, he said, is that remedial action needs to be swift — and with finite time limits. Maybe a 60 or 90 day plan, where you put the employee on probation and revisit the issue in 60 days or so to see if progress has been made.

“And, it needs to be loud. Not literally loud but loud in the sense that the individual and those in the organization hear it publicly. Other people want to see that some type of action is taken by management,” he said.

Crom said their system involves four “ethics officers” — high-level people from different departments that any employee knows they can go to to discuss in the strictest of confidence an issue about another employee.

And they use what they call a 5R approach in the meetings with the bad employees — 1) Rapport. Let the person know that you honestly appreciate and value them as an employee, 2) Relate. Share something about your own mistakes, 3) Restore. If nothing illegal has been done, find a way to let them make changes to repair the situation, 4) Reassure. Help them see that the fault is easy to correct and make them happy about the situation and – the last resort — 5) Reprimand, replace or remove.

Almonte said in the case of that employee who took long lunches and had so many funerals he “killed off every family member within a year’s time” —he realized that employee was taking advantage of the system. He started interviewing and as soon as he found someone — fired that guy.

As for the “known terrorists” in Sheridan’s staff meeting who even found fault in a second bonus, Sheridan said that individual, and the two associates, were gone within a couple of months.

“I went to their managers and said ‘Enough is enough,’” he said. “And we were a healthier organization.”

Perhaps the most damaging part of bad behavior and negativity is that it’s contagious. So, Crom says, you have to treat “patient zero,” the one with the bad behavior AND do some preventative care with the other employees to make sure they don’t catch it. Maybe you give them more of a leadership role – have them conduct part of a meeting or something.

“People are always more interested in what they are responsible for,” he said, adding that a few compliments go a long way, too.

For sure, meetings aren’t easy – and they can take a turn fast. Crom, who admitted he wasn’t always the most enthusiastic participant, said one of his favorite reads to help keep good meetings from going bad is “ Death by Meeting ,” by Patrick Lencioni.

Sheridan said weeding out bad behavior starts in the interview process. They have a few key things that if a job candidate does, they’re not getting hired. A “non-negotiable” list. That includes not being able to look the interviewer in the eye and can’t answer a question succinctly and accurately. If there’s hemming and hawing — forget it.

His best interview question, he says, is “Tell me what the single biggest mistake was that you’ve made in your job.”

He cited a poll of human resources managers, where 43 percent said the No. 1 reason a new employee didn't work out was because he or she couldn't accept feedback.

In answer to the question, Sheridan said nine out of 10 people hem and haw and can’t think of one single mistake they've made on the job.

“Really? I make a mistake once a week in my job!” Sheridan exclaimed.

Or, what some did that was even more comedic — they promptly blamed someone else.

Wow. Really?

Time to raise your pinky finger a la Dr. Evil, hit the button and let the trap door fly!

More Workplace Antics From CNBC.com:

Cindy Perman
Cindy PermanCNBC.com Commentary Editor

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