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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, October 29, 2017 1:00 am

Bring zombie workers back to life

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

There are zombies among us.

They are working, but symbolically dead, according to some lingo to describe disengaged workers.

With Halloween approaching, references to zombie workers popped up this month in various articles and newsletters.

Some studies have suggested more than half – and sometimes up to two-thirds – of employees are not really into their work.

The reasons vary, ranging from feeling the reins are so tight they have little room for creativity to a lack of connection with or satisfactory direction from supervisors. Some workers lose their zeal when they aren't challenged with assignments that stretch their skills or offered training to provide them new ones.

One newsletter reference about zombie workers referred to a Gallup poll that said these disengaged workers cost U.S. businesses billions each year. That could be in lost productivity or customers who turn away due to employees' lack of energy or interest.

Silos may play a role. Author Lisa McLeod, whose books include “Leading With Noble Purpose,” said lack of communication can cause the disconnect.

“What if your spouse only talked to you when you they wanted you to do something for them? Your relationship would begin to feel like nothing more than a transaction. Over time, you'd likely be hurt and lonely, and your relationship would wane,” McLeod said in an email last month. 

“It's a sad, and sadly frequent, occurrence. It happens in our personal relationships. It also happens at work,” she wrote. “In relationships, we take it personally and are likely to accuse our partner of being self-absorbed, or not caring. At work we dress it up with a fancy term, more benign term, we call it silos.”

Managers are most likely the ones who will have to take the initiative to re-engage workers whose passions have waned. Success will require humility and transparency from all involved.

Respectful garb

It's that time of year when human resource executives and other managers might allow a little lightheartedness in the workplace by allowing employees to dress up for Halloween.

But this annual celebration that revolves around sweets and spookiness can cause as much friction as frivolity if sensitivity is lacking.

I still recall more than 20 years ago a former colleague when I worked in northern Illinois dressing up as “body parts,” for lack of any other way to describe the getup he wore to work. The costume he deemed creative was reflective of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped, murdered and dismembered nearly 20 males over more than a decade before Milwaukee police discovered his heinous crimes. I don't think I was the only worker dispirited by the body parts costume.

Halloween is Tuesday, but it's not too late to “play it safe” for workplaces that have already given the green light on costumes – just in case some workers don't have their thinking caps engaged.

“Encourage workers to use good judgment when deciding what to wear by asking themselves: 'How likely am I to offend someone with this costume?' If there's any doubt, select another costume,” suggests Sharon Schweitzer, an international business expert, author and founder of Access to Culture, which has offices in Austin, Texas.

Other tips she offered through email this month include:

• In the spirit of “what not to wear,” identify and prohibit costumes with imitation accessories such as weapons, guns, swords or knives. Identify and ban inappropriate costumes depicting cultural, transgender, pink-slip, black-face, dark-face, ethnic, national origin, racial, religion, mock the human body or are overly revealing.

• Ask workers to avoid political costumes that could be offensive.

• Safety: Manufacturing and warehousing industries may prohibit costumes due to safety. Be sure desk and office decorations don't violate any fire or safety codes.

• Consider whether costumes might seem unprofessional on employees who interact with customers.

• For workers offended by Halloween, offer the opportunity to work from home or use a vacation day.

To share a thought, a favorite quote or other wisdom about leadership, email Lisa Green at lisagreen@jg.net. Lead On also appears online as a blog at www.journalgazette.net/blog/lead-on/.