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What you can do about Zombies in the Workplace

Leaders need to identify the Telltale Signs of Zombie-ism

We’ve all seen them and dealt with them from time to time. They are “workplace zombies” that suck the energy and spirit out of their co-workers and make life miserable for those around them. The result can be a malaise that infects the entire organization. Leaders need to know the telltale signs that a zombie is in the midst to avoid a workplace catastrophe where one person drains others in the workplace of the organization’s life blood – the pursuit of excellence.

Hacker points out that “Zombie-ism, if left unchecked, will destroy your organization from the inside out. Leaders at every level must be persistent in rooting out zombies and demanding their redemption or elimination from the work force.”

So what are the telltale signs that a zombie is in the midst? Disengagement is the key. Zombies sleep walk through the work day and make it difficult for others to do their job. Zombies do not work well in groups, they can create a culture of indifference, and zombies even can inhibit productivity thereby threatening the very existence of the organization.  

In writing about “5 Ways to Avoid a Workplace Zombie Apocalypse,” Jacobsen states that employees may not be dropping their body parts or gnawing on office furniture. But chances are your most disengaged employees do spend a lot of time moaning at one another and making life pretty difficult for the engaged employees. And disengagement, like zombie bites, can be highly infectious.

The answer to would-be-zombie-ism is actively pursuing strategies that are proven to keep employees productive, satisfied, and connected with your company goals. Jacobsen identifies three strategies to prevent this disease: (1) encourage them to connect with your values; (2) facilitate relationships among them; and (3) reduce their frustrations.

I believe the best way to deal with zombies in the workplace is to counteract their complacency before they turn against co-workers. First, I would remove the zombie from any group activity. It’s easier to treat the disease when it is isolated from an otherwise healthy workplace environment. Second, give them a chance to voice their values in a non-judgmental setting. Obviously, you want to change those values to conform to the norms of the organization. But, like any other disease, the first step to redemption is to admit having the disease.

Once the zombie has had an opportunity to vent his or her feelings, discuss with them how they can be contributing members of the organization and what it will take to achieve that goal. You should take “baby steps” in converting the zombie. Identify a goal that is achievable and one that can be pursued in an individual manner without having to engage in group behavior. The ultimate goal is to re-integrate the zombie to a workplace group.

Once the zombie has proven he or she can be reformed, then it is time to experiment with a limited group involvement. Before so doing, speak with the members of the group and guide them on how best to interact with the zombie. You have gained valuable experience working with the zombie and no doubt are better prepared to advise others who may encounter zombie-like behavior at some point in time.

As zombies become comfortable with their new identity, the final step is to set a specific objective for the workplace group and establish a reward for achieving that goal. At this point, zombies can be positively influenced by those in the group and have learned to trust them. This is when you will have the most success in converting a zombie to being a productive member of that group.

Leaders may not be able to cure zombies of their disease but may be able to neutralize their antagonistic behavior. What if everything goes south during the conversion process? Of course, the simple solution is to fire the zombie. However, that may lead to a request from a future employer for information about the worker’s work ethic. Be careful. You don’t want your actions to come back and bite you at a later date.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 2, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: