How do workplaces manage to... um... work?

So I was reading this depressing thread about problematic co-workers, and many of the posts essentially boil down to the idea that employers will accept incompetent, unproductive, or even violent employees but will fire the people who complain.

So I have to ask, how do workplaces this dysfunctional even survive? Do they just have an unlimited budget to tolerate fuck-ups rather than hire more effective workers? Do they just not care that their money is being squandered?

I’ve been in military and government jobs my whole life, and I’ve always had the idea that civilian employers were eager to fire people for any reason or no reason at all. How do these businesses get anything accomplished if they aren’t willing / able to enforce standards for performance and discipline?

In a management class I took a few months ago the instructor said 85% of your success (at work) is based on your relationships with other coworkers - i.e., how much they like you - and 15% is based on the actual work you do. I believe this is accurate.

In some places, the politics is so intense that they would rather get rid of a technical expert who works his ass off than a person who literally does nothing. (Well, other than kiss ass all day.) I know this first hand. :frowning: There’s more to the story, but I am fearful of getting into too much detail due to potential RL implications.

I have never worked in a workplace where complainers get fired (although I did once have a boss who expressed this sentiment in not so many words). But I work in a place that suffers from a few low-performing or disruptive employees. We manage to not to fall to pieces because those employees aren’t responsible for anything critical. Or they have jobs that no one else wants to do anyway. Or they are assigned to teams that have a couple of high-performers who will pick up their slack.

So while an individual can get by making friends, how does that work for the organization as a whole? If they fire the experts and retain the incompetent, how does the organization remain competitive?

My impression was that it came down to seniority when people get fired. The more senior members are kept and the less senior ones fired if anything goes wrong.

And seniority usually has nothing to do with competence.

Low performing employees are assigned to non-essential tasks or are given makework. I literally had one employee that could not be trusted to complete even the most trivial tasks on time or without multiple corrections, which he would then complain about; my boss’ solution was to have me manufacture tasks for him to do that did not require any product. When I pointed out that this not only failed to deal with the fundamental problem of a non-productive employee but that it made more work for me and created morale problems for with employees who are actually putting for effort, I was told that we wouldn’t be able to hire anyone to replace him (because we were in a hiring freeze), so it would be better to must “make do” with him. In other words, nobody wanted to go to the effort of documenting the problems with him (even though I had already done so to an extensive degree) and then risking the potential that he might sue for wrongful termination even if the suit was provably frivolous.

Small employers have a lot of incentive, and in most states significant freedom, to fire a non-performing or disruptive employee. However, once the workplace gets to a certain size many states have protections that heavily favor the employee. On top of that, employees in a union often have the right to demand an extensive arbitration process before they can be fired for cause even if their behavior is disruptive, reckless, or illegal. And there is an entire legal industry of people who will sue employers for wrongful termination, often coming to a handsome settlement even if it is unjustified just because a larger company will look at the cost of fighting the suit and realize that a payout will be cheaper. As a result, larger companies that can tolerate a certain amount of non-productivity will just keep an employee on despite not doing work, and either sideline them in the hope that the employee will leave or wait for an opportunity to cut them under a reduction in force (RIF).

Now, I think laws protecting employee rights are important, and employees should have the right to organize for collective bargaining and protection against exploitation. And sometimes there are outside circumstances such as health problems or emotional issues that can make an otherwise good employee temporarily non-productive. A good employer will make concessions as necessary to accommodate someone with a previous history of good performance. But an employee who just isn’t doing even the minimum level of effort and is not responding to suggestion should be up for displinary action and removal if they won’t improve. Unfortunately, in many companies upper management would rather tolerate bad performance and morale rather than to risk of a lawsuit that will cost money and take management time to deal with, and human resources exists solely to protect the company from that kind of liability so the last thing they are interested in is taking issue over productivity (about which they have no stake in) or pursing any disciplinary action that could result in a complaint. If they have to discipline or fire someone, it will be the person who is making the most noise at them rather than whomever is actually responsible for the problem.

The best solution is, of course, not to hire people who are going to cause problems and be disruptive in the first place, which is why it is worth it to spend time and money up front to do a good candidate search, have multiple people interview and assess the candidate, and do a thorough background check to assure that they are hiring someone who is capable of doing what the resume claims. Unfortunately, the company I worked for decided that hiring would be done by picking from a stack of resumes with maybe a telephone or Skype interview and literally did nothing in terms of a background check, which was problematic when they hired someone with a criminal record for a position requiring a security clearance, or multiple people who did not have the degree or even attend the institution they claimed to have been educated at (not in my department, thankfully).

I am so glad to no longer be at that company or working in a management role under insipid, gutless leadership.


Early in my career I worked on a product development team working on a redesign of their successful flagship product. It was a good team of people with a mix of experience but unfortunately the team lead was the classic Peter Principle example of rising to incompetence through schmoozing. He was hired as the friend of the Vice President of Engineering and put in charge because of his abilities at management speak, but was incapable of listening to others or making good technical or management decisions, often hilariously choosing to do things that the entire team unanimously opposed or that had been shown as unworkable in analysis. He eventually drove everyone off of the team or out of the company with his nonsense (I left to go work at a startup) and the launch of the new flagship was delayed and finally cancelled as it could not pass performance testing and had a multitude of problems before ever getting to production.


That really not true.

I’ve had a lot of jobs over the past 50+ years, have been self-employed for the past 33 years (no employees) and have a lot of friends who are also self-employed.

The old saying, “Good help is hard to find” is absolutely true. When companies – especially small companies – get good employees (show up on time, work hard, do more than expected, get along with others) they hang on to them because they are a valuable asset.

Of course there are always rogue people who get power hungry and fire people for no good reason, but that is pretty rare in a small business.

Pure force of will and the need for a paycheck. If it wasn’t for those two things most workplaces would fold.

It doesn’t matter where you work or what you do - every employer that’s big enough is going to have That Person who is immune from disciplinary action, nobody can figure out how they got hired, etc. Or worse yet, Those People, and it gets worse and worse the higher up you go on the corporate food chain.

Direct answer to the OP: The vast majority of workplaces are significantly dysfunctional. Starting from that standard, a few points plus or minus is not enough to blow anybody out of the water.

The businesses are a lot like the two guys who suddenly see an angry grizzly bear. First guy starts running; second guy shouts “You can’t outrun a grizzly bear!”.

“I only have to outrun YOU!”

As a management consultant, I get to see the inner workings of companies from the perspective of an outsider. The first thing you need to understand is how a company works. As long as a company generates enough revenue to cover it’s costs, it can stay in business. So in many ways, “sales” is the only job that really matters and a salesman’s performance is easy to calculate. Much of the work a lot of people describe is actually “middle management”, “back office”, “bean counting” or “paper pushing” jobs. Much of the actual work those jobs entail is actually performed by enterprise systems and the humans are just there to sit in a seat and make sure the lights don’t go off.

Second, a lot of people at a big company don’t “do” anything. Much actual work at a company is performed by consultants, contractors and outside vendors. Like my current client, they have some vendor in there basically replacing all their IT systems. The vendor is the one installing and configuring the systems and writing the code. The company that hired them is mostly all business analysts and project managers asking middle managers how they want the systems to work.

And remember the fundamental rule that good management, like good government, is mostly invisible. And even if people notice it, they don’t yell and scream about it.

Nobody goes on the internet and makes a big post about “Yeah, we had this guy at work who turned out to be incompetent; soon everyone was complaining to the boss and nobody wanted to work on any projects with him. That fall, we re-organized and they eliminated his position and laid him off.”

Research shows that for women successful traits is actually a detriment in the workplacein this era of feelings & hugs. Mrs Cad is suffering for this at work. She is bullied by her boss and other (male) co-workers [who are supported in their bullying by her boss] because she is a woman who manages like men do.

For every team I have managed I have found that a small amount positive reinforcement goes much farther than the fear of unemployment. I’m very fortunate (they tell me this) that my current crew has low standards for bribes and will generally play nice together for Krispy Kremes on Fridays. Yeah, I suppose you could say this is treating them like children. Well, for a lot of us our inner child is still a very dominant personality.

At least 85%. Reading and understanding your workplace environment is probably more important than understanding the work you’re supposed to be doing. Successful people can push the actual work onto others without making enemies of them. Being likeable, knowledgeable, and influential is better than being productive.

Well, they do, but only when they were the incompetent one and they think they weren’t…

I think this is a key to your mis-understanding. For small companies, the financial aspects are more concrete and can be more easily attributed to workers productivity. If the boss/owner can see you are costing money, rather than making money, it is easier to conclude “Out you go!”

Whereas, once an organization gets above a certain small size, the money aspect is more abstract. Sure, financial reports are generated, budgets are managed, etc., but the idea that a worker is costing money vs. making money is not (as) immediate. People very rarely think of it in terms of, “Hm, Harry is costing me $74,000 a year and all he does is walk around and talk to people.” In spite of how much sense that would make, it’s just not how most organizations think.

Now all that said, if the word comes down from above that we have to cut costs and people, Harry will likely show up on the list. But cost savings / cost cutting it is not a day-to-day management perspective, (quite the opposite is usually the normal mode).

I’ve always worked for big companies, and firing someone is a big pain in the ass and something to be avoided. (Unions were not involved at all - we were all management.) There are certain things - like violence - which would get someone fired immediately, but I never saw that happen.
If you wanted to get rid of people, you waited for layoffs. Even then, layoffs could be targeted to projects, not headcount, so you might not have the chance to dump your low performer.
BTW all the disasters I’ve seen or been a part of (including billion dollar ones) have been caused by management incompetence, not worker incompetence.

Big companies manage staff on headcount, not dollars. I’ve worked at places who hired lots of expensive contractors because the rules at the time said they weren’t included in headcount.
Workers see that Harry is spending all his time in the coffee room, but managers are in too many meetings to notice. And of course Harry talking to people might be very productive, serving as a way that various people learn what is going on. His work might be better for it too. Some jobs are a function of time spent, some are a function of ideas.
At my last job someone examining me might have thought I did nothing but read the Dope all day. I was actually coding in my head while doing so, and when I finished reading I chunked out reams of near perfect code at typing speed. So it is hard to tell.
Harry might also be getting zero raises, which no one but managers know.