Avoid the Trap of Presenteeism


We're all familiar with the negative implications of absenteeism. We learn early on -- while we're still students -- that truancy has consequences. At school, it can lead to suspension; at work, however, the response is more severe and likely to be permanent. Fail to show up for work, and your employer will probably show you the door.

But, what about when a person shows up for work, but doesn't do anything? This situation is now called "presenteeism." An employee is present in body, but absent in mind and spirit. Some of us actually think that such behavior doesn't have any consequences. As they see it, their job is to be there, to put in their eight hours. As long as they're present and accounted for, they're safe. There's nothing an employer can do, nor for that matter, is there anything an employer would want to do. Why? Because the workers who show up have held up their end of the bargain -- they've come to work.


And that's the key. That term "to work" is not a propositional phrase. It doesn't mean that we are being paid to get ourselves to a certain location called work. It means we come to the location prepared and committed to perform an activity called work. That's what an employer expects: the application of a person's skills, knowledge and experience in an activity that will serve to advance the organization's success.

Even activity is not enough, however. Effort without results is like running in place. It gets a person and, by extension, their employer nowhere. So when someone comes to work and does just enough to get by, when they interrupt the application of their skills, knowledge and experience to do something personal or non-work related, they are diminishing the outcome the employer expects. In a very real sense, they are undermining the contribution their employer needs from them in order to be successful, and it is that contribution for which it is paying.

Now, I know it's easy to get lulled into the notion that taking a little time here or there doesn't hurt anything, and perhaps, a little time doesn't. But, when you begin to let a little time get to be a little more time, bad habits emerge. What do these bade habits look like? Unfortunately, a stroll through almost any workplace today will give you plenty of examples. You'll find employees who:

  • go online from their desks so they can shop, chat, check fantasy sports scores, plan vacations, check movie schedules -- you fill in the blank;
  • take an extended lunch break so they can hit the mall, meet a friend, run errands, take the dog to the vet -- you fill in the blank;
  • conduct extended telephone calls with friends, neighbors, lovers, ex-lovers, parents, home business partners -- you fill in the blank; or
  • wander the halls to find a water cooler where they can find others who enjoy gossiping, griping, exchanging recipes, talking about television shows -- you fill in the blank.

The people who engage in such behavior are present but not delivering the full measure of the contribution for which they are being paid. In my book, that's presenteeism. And in today's workplace, it's increasingly a ticket to the unemployment line. Employers are beginning to realize that those who withhold or undercut what they are supposed to be delivering on-the-job hurt the organization in multiple ways:

  • they obviously shortchange the employer by providing less of a contribution than the employer purchased with their pay;
  • they also undermine the morale of their co-workers who, more often than not, have to pick up the slack for their sub-par performance; and
  • they sabotage the return that the organization's shareholders or owners deserve for their investment in the organization.

No organization can sustain that level of harm and succeed. It must and will expel those who are present without performance.

So, how can you make sure that you're delivering the contribution your employer expects and needs? Here are a couple of suggestions that may help:

Conduct a private, personal audit of your own work. Keep a diary of what you do hour-by-hour on-the-job for a couple of workdays. Try to keep your schedule as normal as possible and try to be as honest as you can about what you would typically be doing as the days unfold. Then, re-read the diary and see where you might be unconsciously (or consciously) undermining your results. Where, for example, are 15 minute breaks turning into hour-long rants over the cubicle wall or in your personal blog? Find these performance drains and eliminate them. It may take some practice -- in many cases, you'll be breaking a habit -- but it can be done. And you should do it.

Ask your supervisor for an informal performance appraisal. Because supervisors seldom get such requests, it's important that you explain upfront why you're asking for the meeting and what you hope to accomplish. You're not trying to set yourself up for a pay raise or promotion, but rather to make sure your work is aligned with the boss's expectations. The session is a genuine effort on your part to get some feedback on how your contribution on-the-job is viewed and what you might do to improve it. Then, once you have that feedback, do something with it. Set one or more near term performance goals that will enable you to implement the suggestions from your supervisor. At the end of the period, conduct a private, personal audit of your work to see how you did. Keep at it until you can be sure you've met or exceeded the results your boss expects.

Listen to a co-worker who has it right. Identify a fellow employee who is recognized as a high performer in your organization. This person need not hold a senior position or even be someone you know well. What's important is that they are seen, by both their colleagues and the organization, as a key contributor. Ask this person to join you for lunch and explain that you're trying to upgrade your own performance. Then, probe how they prepare for and execute their time on-the-job. You're not asking them for any secrets, but simply for their advice on how best to organize your workday. In most cases, they'll be flattered you asked and, in some cases, may even end up being an ongoing source of counsel and assistance. Said another way, you may just find yourself a mentor.

Presenteeism is a self-inflicted wound. It can be caused by a misunderstanding of what employment actually means or by inadvertently falling into bad habits on-the-job. The wound is only fatal, however -- a situation Donald Trump describes as "You're fired" -- if it's ignored and untreated.



Peter Weddle is a veteran as well as the author or editor of over two dozen employment-related books, including the recently released The Career Activist Republicand Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System, one of the most innovative career success books in print. Both are available at Amazon.com.

Peter Weddle's Website

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