The Attitude Virus = Presenteeism

How many unemployed workers are on your payroll? Take a minute to think about that – it’s not a trick question.

screening employees That’s because The Attitude Virus seems to be everywhere. According to the 2013 State of the American Workplace, only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, and the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is roughly 2-to-1. That means the vast majority of U.S. workers (70%) are not reaching their full potential-a problem that has significant implications for companies.

We see the symptoms every day as rudeness, poor service, lack of motivation, and increased job stress. Managers feel the pain of the long-term effects of the Attitude Virus with employee turnover, lost productivity, customer complaints, increased worker and consumer liability, and a drain on profits. But the greatest damage the virus has is that it leaves the workplace vulnerable to other attacks and opens the back door for healthy workers to escape.

Employees, managers, and owners with bad attitudes seem to spend the better part of each day figuring out ways to avoid work, complaining about the work they have, or redoing work. Gallup research shows the cost of active disengagement in the U.S is an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually and results in over 2.5 billion lost workdays per year.

These maladaptive behaviors have been reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine as a workplace condition called presenteeism-showing up for work but not being very productive. It’s like absenteeism … but worse. With presenteeism, employees are still showing up and still receiving a full paycheck. But they likely are disrupting and demoralizing the other workers and not doing the jobs they are being paid to do.

Who are these workers infected by this Attitude Virus? Depending upon the strain of the virus, these workers show up as any of these culprits.

  • Perfectionist, the worker or supervisor who can never be pleased
  • Resister, the employee who puts all his or her efforts into resisting any improvement or change
  • Not-My-Jobber, who refuses to do any task, no matter how simple
  • Rumor-Monger, who delights in spreading baseless, negative rumors
  • Uncommitted, whose indifferences place additional workloads on the other employees
  • Pessimist, who sees doom everywhere and works very hard at making everyone around feel down and gloomy

Turning this pandemic disengagement around rests upon the shoulders of supervisors and managers. The solution is further complicated because much of the perfectionism, resistance, rumors, lack of commitment, and pessimism comes from the supervisors and managers themselves.

Today’s supervisor and manager are faced with two additional challenges. Baby boomer and older managers are managing a multigenerational and diverse workforce, which spans four generations, a first for our country. From the mature generation to generation Y, these employees want and expect very different rewards from life inside and outside of work.

The new young supervisors and managers, however, who are less challenged by the diversity of the workforce, have never managed people in a prolonged economic slowdown. No one has ever managed during a time comparable to the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world we currently live in.

If all that doesn’t keep management awake at night, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decline in the 30 to 45 year-old age group, the breeding ground for future managers and leaders. The result is that one in four middle and senior management positions may remain unfilled as the economy rebounds.

The Prevention and the Cure

Teaching supervisors to manage and motivate effectively is the prevention and the cure for improving employee engagement. Most supervisors have the skills to handle day-to-day activities, but only the top performers have the talent needed to avoid the things that derail most people. The missing skills that derail supervisors are the weak links in an organization that leaves the organization vulnerable to more attacks and employee turnover.

What can an organization do to immunize the workplace and end bad attitudes?

1. Diagnosis. Recognize that there is an attitude problem. This requires an honest assessment of the organization from the top down and collaterally including vendors, suppliers, and customers. Acknowledge any underlying causes of the Attitude Virus and take responsibility for removing them.

2. Test. Select only supervisors who have the skills or potential to manage and arm them with the tools and training they need to detect the infected worker and new hire before they leech out the morale and motivation from the healthy workers. Effective supervisors hold the keys to employee retention and profitability.

3. Therapy. Take responsibility for upgrading the skills of your first line of defense, the front-line supervisors and managers who fight the “infection” and “exposures” on a daily basis. Develop and train supervisors to have the skills to “treat” or quarantine the infected workers and coach them back to health. The virus is mutating almost daily, and continuous learning is crucial.

4. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Taking a weight loss class and not changing your eating habits but still expecting the pounds to drop off is ludicrous. Taking skills training without reinforcement and feedback and re-assessing is equally bad. Identify the skills that differentiate your highly effective managers from the average performers, develop training that is specific and responsive to those specific skills, and provide ongoing feedback and post-assessment to monitor progress and ensure protection.



Ira S Wolfe


  1. cheute79 July 15, 2014 at 10:17 pm -

    One big problem with this short article. It assumes that the manager and supervisor are among the 30% who are engaged and motivated. My experience is that many of them are not in the 30% – maybe not a majority, but way too many. Especially those who feel “passed over”, and are just ridiing out to retirement, just like way too many of the “workers”, and poisoning the well. Too many managers aren’t capable, but are put there (or fight to get there) because “it’s the thing to do”, and often as coat-tail riders.

    • admin July 15, 2014 at 10:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more that supervisors and managers are as disengaged as much if not more than other employers. The attitude does trickle down too.