THE BLOG

The Worm in the Apple: Five Ways Workers Sabotage Productivity

02/18/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

2015-02-16-appleworm.jpgIn 1997, a disgruntled employee at Forbes, Inc. deliberately crashed one of the company's eight network servers, causing hundreds of workers to lose a day's worth of work and preventing hundreds of others from getting online for hours. That brief event cost Forbes about $100,000¹. On a grander scale, in 1996 a network manager "exploded" a software time bomb in the company-wide network of Omega Engineering Corp, a large government contractor. According to Omega, it cost $2,000,000 to fix, resulted in $10,000,000 in losses, and led to the layoffs of 80 people.²

Spectacular cases of employee sabotage grab our attention because of their notoriety and expense, but the truth is, most workplace saboteurs go unnoticed, or at the very least, unstopped. Ultimately, they can cost your team as much as the Forbes hacker did if it's allowed to continue. The worst news? Sometimes they don't even do it on purpose.

The Perfect Word

It's hard to imagine a better word for willful destruction than sabotage. In one of the Star Trek movies, a Vulcan coolly explains that the term originated from a period in French history when workers tossed their wooden shoes, or sabots (pronounced "sab-oh"), into factory machinery to cripple it. But that's not quite it. Actually, during a late 19th century labor dispute, French labor leaders deliberately created the term from saboter, a verb describing only the clatter of wooden shoes, to describe a deliberate work slowdown. You see, the slowest workers were often those who wore cheap, clunky wooden shoes.

Work slowdowns tend to be a blue-collar tactic, though they do occur in white-collar environments when deadlines continue to get pushed back. They may not be obvious, though; and as I've suggested, they're not always deliberate. If your group barely scrapes by with adequate productivity when you know they can do better, you may be suffering from sabotage, even if everyone seems to like their jobs. So how do you recognize the subtle clues of the saboteur?

Consider these factors:

1. The daily habits of your team members. Your people may simply have a lax attitude about their jobs. Maybe they come in late more often than not, regularly leave early, take long lunches, stretch their breaks to the breaking point, and have a leisurely approach to their work when they actually do it. Often, this stems from a bad example. Maybe they're too used to your predecessor's laid-back style--or maybe you're to blame. If it's the latter, tighten up your own belt immediately. Either way, discuss expectations, provide a flawless example, and levy sanctions when people break the rules.

2. Deal proactively with tenured or "unfireable" workers. Many academics long for tenure, because it guarantees them a job for life. But employees in other fields can also take advantage of the rules to make sure they're entrenched in their jobs. Once they have a position sewn up, they may disengage and kick back. Sometimes they can get away with ridiculous actions and still keep their jobs; you've probably heard the same outrageous stories as I have, so I won't repeat them here. Admittedly, such employees aren't common, but when you do have one on your team, do your best to keep them engaged, productive, and helpful.

3. Promises, promises. Too many employees make promises they can't or won't keep, often just to get rid of distractions or to make co-workers happy. Don't allow it. If someone regularly fails to hit their deadlines, document corrective actions to get them to straighten up and fly right. It's better for them to admit they can't do something than to waste your time pretending they can.

4. Watch for upward bullying. Sometimes, long-time employees--especially those passed over for promotion--take out their frustrations on new managers. If they band together with other disgruntled employees, they can slow down workflow, making you look bad, and even make false complaints about you to HR. If you're facing this sort of deliberate sabotage, document it thoroughly for the investigation that's sure to follow. Even if upward bullying doesn't happen to you, make sure it's not happening to your lower level managers and other employees.

5. Come down hard on the irresponsible. If the last decade of business headlines has taught us anything, it's that accountability isn't popular--and the worst transgressors usually avoid punishment. Stand firm and don't let your team members lie, pout, or deflect their way out of taking responsibility for their actions. Make it clear that accountability is a touchstone for your team, and always serve as a good example. If you must, discipline people to the full extent of your powers and seek counsel from HR. Tightening accountability where it's become too loose is absolutely essential to boosting productivity.

Starting Points

As usual, the suggestions I've outlined here are just starting points for rooting out subversive behavior. We haven't even considered expense report fudgers, tyrannical team members, credit stealers, or lip-service artists. But you have to start somewhere, and I've provided these suggestions as ways to make a dent.

Remember, sabotage isn't always deliberate, but that makes it no less real. Whether accidental or intentional, it's up to you to stop the behavior dead in its tracks, by whatever means necessary.

¹Ernesto U. Savona (editor). Crime and Technology: New Frontiers for Regulation, Law Enforcement and Research, p. 18. Springer: the Netherlands, 2004.
²Steve Strunsky. "Prison Sentence in Computer Case." New York Times, February 27, 2002. Accessed from NYT archives.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America's Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.