Robert Frost said that the world was full of willing people. ‘Some willing to work, the rest willing to let them’. Of all the characters we encounter in our working lives, one that has always irritated me is the very belligerent employee. I am referring to people who are paid to work and yet wage a constant campaign to withhold their effort. They can engage in stone walling, clock watching and react to every single request to work with a look that will send less robust souls scurrying in the opposite direction. But they are more than willing to let everyone else work.My favorite belligerent employee wore the expression of a cat in a warm window. Alan (his real name) kept a clock directly in front of him. He would not consider answering a phone, picking up a pen or hitting a key until the clock struck exactly 9 a.m.
Alan would stop a conversation mid-sentence if the minute hand reached 5 p.m. Anyone unfortunate enough to be on a call at that time, would be cut off.
In some ways Alan was useful. If you had forgotten to wear a watch, you always knew when it was 12 noon because he nearly knocked you over on his way to the lifts. His loud foot dragging along the carpet back to his desk told you that it had to be exactly 1 p.m, the end of his lunch hour.
A manager was recently telling me how his stand out belligerent employee presented him with an overtime claim for the hours spent attending the Christmas Party. Why? Because no-one asked her if she really wanted to go. The same employee also handed in an expense claim for bringing her own sandwiches to a catered meeting. Belligerents expect their employer to pay for absolutely everything.
A true belligerent never tells you if they have run out of work. They never suggest an improvement or express a desire to be more involved. They will stretch out an assigned task for as long as possible – and then some. Their work, you must understand, will be completed as a special favor and you will owe them.
I once had to preface every single request to a belligerent secretary, with a conversation about her favourite soap operas. I found myself studying the supermarket magazines for the latest news on Coronation Street, just to butter up the woman who was, in theory, our team assistant.
Should you lose your temper with a belligerent, as you are likely to do, you may be punished by some creative forms of sabotage. It’s easy to get sucked into a game of grovelling and forget that the belligerent is paid to work.
The culture is partly to blame. If employees do not have targets or results to achieve, if bonuses and pay rises are given automatically, and if long service is constantly rewarded without its quality being measured, then clock watchers will breed.
This behavior only exists because it has been rewarded. And it has been rewarded by being tolerated. Staying in a job for a long time and being loyal – are two very different things. The longer-term solution is to manage performance.