A Dilbert Lesson: Absenteeism, Engaging Leadership, and Employee Motivation

Dilbert on Management by Absence

Dilbert on Managenent by Absence

A recent Dilbert strip (thanks for catching this one for me, Jules – I have not been keeping up with my daily comic fix lately) sparked the usual random thought in my noggin’.  This strip comes at a perfect time as the hot topic for the media seems to be the declining work ethic in Corporate America.  Whether it’s absenteeism, playing games at the job, or just not putting in 100%, more and more Americans are simply not caring enough to put in a real effort at the work place..  But the issue, from what I’m told, goes beyond the United States.

Sadly, I feel that most are quick to blame employees, stating that people do not work as hard as they used to..  but is that really the case?

Quite honestly, I do not see absenteeism as a huge problem, at least not on it’s own.  I think the greater issues lie in identifying which employees are simply not efficient, responsive, or excited.  Why is that?  Surely, you can only be so excited to go to certain jobs, even if you love what you do [at times] but you’d think some people want to commit suicide the way they treat their work.  Before I get carried into another direction, I’ll just cut straight to the point: the problem is not with absenteeism but, more accurately, the lack of ownership and motivation at jobs across the nation.

As an employer or manager, are you a true leader?  Do you engage, inspire, and motivate..  Or do you just tell people to do things because “you know better”.

Nowadays, most people just want to come in, do the minimal job, and get paid.  This used to be all right but with the job market being so saturated with people looking for work, this is a risky game, ESPECIALLY if you live in New York City. People still think they are in a bargaining position.  They want more pay and they wish to do less work for it.  It’s no wonder corporations are sending work overseas, even as incompetent as some of these international support people can be – you get a more people for less money and far less headaches along with the operational savings.

To me, this problem is two-fold.  First, employees need to come to the realization that someone out there can do what they do and probably for much less than they get paid.  The leverage that we were once afforded no longer exists.  Now, you may think to yourself “well, they’d need to train the new person lots to get them to the point I am with things” but that is not good logic.  Operational procedures are easy to duplicate, even in a business setting where standards are lacking, but strategy advantages and efficiency are a whole different matter.  This means that, if you are not particularly good at what you do, you will most likely be replaced.

The second part of this puzzle is the effort that companies put forth to provide employees with a viable work environment. Managing expectations, providing incentives, and finding ways to challenge and stimulate employees in a positive way are some of the key initiatives that employers should always tackle.  Unfortunately, this is easier said than done but, really, replacing people with others is just a simple escape.  Flawed management will always reflect in a flawed staff.

As a team leader and business owner, I try to keep my consultants and staff members excited.  I keep communication lines open, encourage feedback, keep things casual yet professional, and take regular dipsticks to see where everything is at.  It is these simple little things that go a long way but sometimes it is not enough.  Some people need to be micromanaged and some people are just plain umotivatable. The “trick” to it all is not to assume the worst-case scenario and work with people as much as possible.  Making preemptive negative assumptions is rarely a good idea.

Currently, I have a business partner and friend that does great work but he is very unresponsive and unfocused.  It can be quite daunting, to say the least.  I’ve learned to work with his quirks but, believe me, if I went with initial impressions, I would have cut him off long ago.  There are people like this in all our lives.  Getting to the heart of matters is key because you can’t fix a problem if you do not know the root cause.  For my friend, family issues and money matters had him down so I worked with him by advancing him some money and it seems to have helped quite a bit.

Returning to the topic of absenteeism, employee motivation may not always be the reason people take time off.  Life happens and, believe it or not, people have lives.  It’s hard to draw a line between being understanding and being abused but this is something that can be developed with time.  This is why working with even more difficult people should be done with great patience; you want to build a relationship so that all parties can really mesh and play into each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  All around NYC, you have companies that say that they are “at will” companies.  They hire and fire at will.  This mentality is sad because they forget that the “revolving door” approach does not allow for the creation of effective relationships; companies that fire people and hire replacements constantly are only thinking about operations at a bare minimum level, rather than at he most efficient level possible.

The scary part is that now companies have become as jaded as the employees that are bored with their mundane work.  HR decision makers nation-wide are implementing stringent policies on PTO (Paid Time Off), extended leaves, and the like.  Even with these policies in place, there is always the risk that you may pushing your luck.  While some may really need time off to take care of life emergencies, be there for their newborns, or tend to legal matters, there are those asking for away days just to break the routine.

Companies are now cracking down on lazy employees.  Those that really do need the time off will suffer simply because of those that abused lenient PTO policies.  If you look at the trends, the number of companies offering more than a month of time off a year is shrinking.  Even people with tenure are lucky if they get about two week’s worth of PTO.  Unlimited sick days?  HA – don’t make the HR people laugh!  You get sick on your own time, buddy!

It is a brave new world out there.   You can be recovering from a near- death experience, pregnant, or dealing with the death of your mother and that may not seem like justification for PTO to the almighty HR folks on their high horses.  I recall coming into work puking and bleeding all over the place just so that I wouldn’t have to hear the gossip from people saying that I really wasn’t sick or was taking “too much” time off.  Apparently, the doctor was wrong and they knew wwat was best for my health.  This may
seem extreme but it is very much real.  People this dumb and inconsiderate are all around us – YAY!

Dilbert made it into a laughing matter but the whole issue of absenteeism at the work place is a very touchy subject.  There are simply so many considerations and other issues involved that it can be very demoralizing just thinking about how little freedom we  really have on the job.  I’ve actually had the experience recently with a cousin who got pregnant and got let go during her maternity leave, by her own cousin, no less (she’s the HR Director).  It’s crunch time and, with American standards for productivity going down, businesses are looking to drive their bottomline in all sorts of extreme ways while salaries, incentives, and fringe benefits continue to plummet into the bottomless pit called nothingness.

Dilbert, you are the only shining light for Corporate America (well, you and the wonderful B2B consultants out there that “get it”)!

10 thoughts on “A Dilbert Lesson: Absenteeism, Engaging Leadership, and Employee Motivation

  1. Haha!

    I think we can learn so much from Dilbert. I love how Dilbert reveals the fallacies of Corporate America in a way that everyone enjoys. In particular, I love how the comics poke fun at poor management techniques and wasteful meetings.

    Good times, good times… 8)

  2. it is not just corporate america
    the similar situation happens in many places around the world, but i guess american owned businesses are the worst offenders

    • The cynist in me would have to agree. The reality is that many management types (not all) view certain jobs as “easy” or “expendable”, which puts further strain on those of us trying to make a good living and [re]build our reputation. IT remains a field that is misleadingly regarded as “thriving”, yet is treated by bean counters as a “money pit” (hence, the outsource and overseas trends). This can make anyone jaded and bitter. Imagine if you worked in an industry where you put in 12-14 hour days, received no overtime pay, get micromanaged across departments, have little resources to work with, and rarely ever got a raise or bonus, let alone a pat on the back. That is daunting indeed!

      That being said, I believe there are still great companies to work for out there. Even in the face of a terrifying competitive landscape, there are brave companies that are still at the “ground level” and are looking for team members that will not only do their job but also have a fully-vested interest in the company’s success. I’ve been fortunate to work for companies of varying sizes (including some Fortune and Inc 500 companies). I’ve been most happy at the smaller companies because you get more opportunity to get your hands on different projects and take more initiative. Smaller businesses tend to be more personal with their employees as well, so you get the recognition you deserve. Of course, the trade-off is that the pay and job security are always sketchy at best but the experience and connections you make far out-weight that. Large corporations tend to just look at the bottom line and their first response to any crisis seems to be “fire a few people to increase profits”.

      My advice to anyone still looking for that dream job (or just a job PERIOD) in this tough economy is this: take a job where you can grow most. It’s not just about earning potential, it’s about learning potential. When I was young, the lure of start-up companies offering top dollar made it easy to jump from job to job but, in the long-run, I didn’t maximize my opportunities to make life-long warm connections (what others call networking) or learn the most that I could in my specific roles. Some of these companies do not even exist as a thought now and I had to start from square one. I’m sure many of you can relate. The nineties were a very different time from what we see now, where businesses are just as jaded and apprehensive as the job seekers.

      Since the rules have changed, we must change. I believe that everyone has great potential for greatness. The key to true success and happiness resides in having a plan and seeing it through – persistence is paramount! Here are a few quick tips to put things into perspective and be more fruitful/productive:

      • First and foremost, cut the excess out of your life and focus on what really matters. In the US, most of us are drawn to heavy consumerism so it’s easy to see material things as a measure of success and progress alike. I find that an effective budgeting strategy will free up money for rainy days and smart investments. You’d be surprised how one-off “splurges” can turn into big money pits if they are not curbed and accounted for.
      • Determine what it is that really drives you and makes you happy. This helps shift spending into the things that keep you positive in the face of adversity as well. You’ll see a significant change in your priorities and everything will come into focus better. Most importantly, you’ll keep motivators in clear sight so that stumbling blocks do not seem quite as overwhelming anymore.
      • Maintain ongoing priority lists detailing all your goals, tasks, and action steps. Checklists are a great way to gauge your productivity and they also help you visualize just how close you are to fulfilling milestones and accomplishments you can be proud of. This is a behavior that keeps momentum going and, again, keeps you motivated!
      • Establish a mastermind group. This is an item I personally need to get back in full force with. It’s important to keep in close contact with those that are as successful and as positive as you want to be. You also want to have workout buddies that are around the same point in life that you are in. Having this peer support is mutually-beneficial and helps you tap into networks that may have not been available otherwise.
      • Mingle with power players. You always here how “it’s not WHAT you know but WHO you know” yet so many of us take for granted the power of knowing people in high places. Get to know the movers and shakers in your local community or in places you’d like to relocate to. It’s easier to stay local because people get to know you on a more intimate level. Avoid seeming sales-pitchy and focus on building relationships. Opportunities appear more naturally this way and, believe me, it’s far more effective than blasting resumes and relying on recruiters.
      • Consider volunteering your services. It’s not always realistic to offer freebies but, if it gets you exposed, it’s certainly worth the investment. This approach works very well for smaller companies, especially non-profits, because you can get your foot in the door and make a stronger case for why they need you on-board. The same can go for consulting, contract, and temp-to-hire work but a certain special magic seems to work when you take the initiative and offer your services. You may find that the people you help out know others that can use similar services and VIOLA – you are building a powerful network for yourself!

      Believe me, these things are all easier said than done but putting in that extra effort will give you a competitive edge. We all work hard but very few of us work smart. There will always be predatory companies out there that will milk their employees and treat them like slaves but there is still hope and we have the opportunity here to shape the business landscape and job market alike! 8)

  3. I agree that there’s a need for employees to step up and take responsibility for themselves and their work… the main problem is we are conditioned from birth to fit into the workplace. Kids aren’t allowed to be kids so much now, they have to work hard and study for a career that they couldn’t care less about yet!

    When they grow up, they have no idea how to think for themselves and they go into a workplace where they wait for orders. To be fair, it’s not really their fault! Until people wake up and realise they are in charge of their life, they just play the game of turning up and doing very little.

    Then on the other side, you’ve got bosses and employers who really don’t have time to care – there’s too much pressure on the bottom line and not enough focus on treating others like a human being.

    There are always a few people who instinctively realise this and will do the extra that gives them a competitive edge… but it’s much more than putting in unpaid overtime – or face-time as it’s become known. Truth is, most people could do what they currently do in a day in just a few short hours…

    • VERY well-said, Dan!

      You put into words so eloquently what I was feeling when I originally wrote this piece. There’s fault on both side of the equation and one thing that I think really sticks out in what you said is your closing line. If we focus on being more efficient, we can step away from operational and administrative stuff, and look to build relationships and be more strategic.

      In both my personal experiences and those of folks I have worked with or coached, I notice that most employees are stuck in expendable roles because they are not afforded the time to do more. It’s hard to take pride in your work when you are restricted to the mundane.. Especially when you know you can be replaced or your job can be consolidated in the ‘ol “right size” effort.

      I strongly believe we’re going to see more and more old-money businesses dying off. It’ll be a scary time as many of these companies are large corporations that are “too big to fail”. Since such businesses are very intertwined with other things, the domino effect will be great.

      I believe it was CNN that listed 20 large corporations not likely to make it past 18 months. I’ve glimpsed enough of these companies to know the pressure on team members is great. They’re working hard but not smart, grinding away on things that don’t really add value, mere busy work, if you will.

      What this all really means is that it is time to accept that there are new rules in place. The businesses that adapt to changing times will reap the benefits. I particularly see this being a factor in the retail and financial sectors, where customer confidence is greatly diminished and the few survivors are resorting to desperate, perhaps strong-arm tactics. The employees of such companies see the writing on the wall and it’s only natural that a sense of helplessness can lead to sloppy work or general disinterest.

      With that in mind, I’m excited to see businesses that do get it. The folks that are leveraging new media and engaging customers, team members, and key influencers alike will prosper. Of course, I may be a bit biased seeing how a great deal of my work these days deals with Social Media and SEO.. But I see such a vast divide between companies that put in the extra effort and those that don’t.

      What do you think?

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