‘Zombies’ Are Costing Your Business

A staffing firm adds up the cost of "zombie hires" and comes up with a number that's nearly as terrifying as the walking dead. Luckily, it also offers three ways to protect your business from the threat

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bambu Productions / Getty Images

On TV, in the headlines and even, surprisingly, in the corridors of the CDC, there seems to be more than the usual worry about zombies these days. But despite all this recent publicity for the walking dead, should you be more exercised about the possibility of a zombie invasion at your business?

That’s what creative-staffing firm Vitamin T is saying following the release of its new research on the true costs of unproductive and morale-destroying hires, which the firm has creatively dubbed “zombie hires.” After totting up the expense of salary, benefits, time wasted on the hiring process and the negative effects on fellow team members, Vitamin T concluded that 41% of companies estimate the cost of bringing such a zombie on board at more than $25,000, while 1 in 4 firms believe a bad hire costs it more than $50,000.

Who qualifies as one of these expensive zombie hires (or as pun-happy Vitamin T likes to call them, the working dead)? Susie Hall, president at Vitamin T, offered Inc. an example from her own experience.

“My zombie actually showed up to our morning meetings basically in her pajamas. She wasn’t quite in her pajamas, but she looked very casual. She slumped down in her seat. She sat at her desk and put on her headphones. Our zombie was a quiet zombie,” Hall says. “She didn’t go and rage on people and eat their brains visibly, but she very much caused damage because every other person in the room was going, ‘Why can she do that and I can’t?’ So her damage was subtle but it was great. When we parted ways, there was a sigh of relief among the staff that they didn’t have to carry the weight anymore.”

(MORE: How the Rich Got Rich)

Plus, Hall adds, the threat posed by such zombie hires is even greater at smaller businesses. “Within a smaller environment, it’s a lot more visible more quickly, and often that person is going to have access to your clients more than in a larger environment where there may be layers between the individual producer and a client. The closer your zombie is to your client, the higher risk you have of losing a client,” she says.

If this description of the zombie threat sounds familiar and Vitamin T’s five-digit estimates of the costs of this sort of hire sound all too plausible, then Hall has a handful of tips to keep you from throwing away money on infectious office zombies.

Stop Selling, Start Interviewing

You’re probably spending too much time in interviews selling your company to candidates. “Hiring managers have a tendency to spend time selling someone on how great your company is, how great the opportunity is, how wonderful it is to work there, and not enough time asking real-world, situational questions,” says Hall. “If you can ask, ‘Tell me about a time when you were faced with this problem and how you solved it?’ then you actually get to see someone’s behavior and how they make choices.”

She also suggests that “the more people [a candidate] can meet, the more likely you’re going to get enough perspective that you can make a rounded decision.”

Embrace the Gig Economy

“Temp-to-hire is an incredible way to try someone out before you take on the full risk and cost of having them be an employee. Your commitment at the beginning is equal. They’re coming in to try out the job, and you are trying them out in a real-world setting where they are literally going to be able to integrate with your team or not,” suggests Hall, who adds: “it’s a beautiful time for that too.”

What does she mean? Hall reports that in her field, interest in and acceptance of freelancing is spiking. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in hiring managers who are using temp-to-hire. It’s truly been insane. In the first half of this year, we have received as many job opportunities that are temp-to-hire as we did in the entire year of 2011.”

What’s behind this upsurge in freelance-style opportunities? “It’s definitely because of budgets. People are less certain of how much money they have to spend and how long they’re going to get to spend it. Those things are definitely coming into play,” says Hall, “but I also believe there is a freelancer culture going on right now at all levels, and that’s causing people to be more open-minded about freelancing both from a hiring manager and from a candidate perspective.”

And don’t think temp-to-hire gigs are only for junior-level positions. A recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Rise of the Supertemps” chronicled the growing popularity of short-term gigs for the top tiers of the business world.

(MORE: The End of E-Mail? A New Social Network Built for Office Communication Says Yes)

“Supertemps are top managers and professionals — from lawyers to CFOs to consultants — who’ve been trained at top schools and companies and choose to pursue project-based careers independent of any major firm. They’re increasingly trusted by corporations to do mission-critical work that in the past would have been done by permanent employees or established outside firms,” write authors Jody Greenstone Miller and Matt Miller.

Don’t Dawdle

When it becomes apparent that there’s a zombie in your midst, “most hiring managers are reluctant to make a quick decision,” says Hall. “It’s so common for them to give a new person the benefit of the doubt: ‘O.K., well, they just haven’t learned our systems yet. O.K., well, they’re having trouble getting to know the team, and maybe I haven’t done enough to help them.’ People are likely to take a lot of blame when a person’s not working out early on.”

Avoid letting this guilt keeping your from making a move and sparing the rest of your team the frustration of working with a zombie and the threat of being infected with their bad attitude.

Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.

Read more from Inc.com:

America’s Schools: Innovation Killers?
Mark Zuckerberg Is a Bad Role Model

12 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Justin Hurst
Justin Hurst

There are no 'zombie hires.' Most likely these people are actually burnt out or depressed because they've been under too much stress for too long. They don't 'infect' other employees so much as the other employees simply get burnt out later. This article just offers the employee up as a scapegoat for their loss of  productivity. The freelancing and temping trend rising is good only for employers, workers get cheaper and cheaper this way, at the expense of their own job security. If you're seeing zombies pop up, you're probably short handed and asking too much of these individuals, or they are stressed out because they haven't been properly trained to do their job, so no matter how hard they work they constantly fear they will get reprimanded, or fired, which will only be exacerbated when you start firing long-term employees and hiring temps.

PantherModern
PantherModern

The comments on this article are absurd. The people commenting here are acting like they're owed a position. The bottom line is a company is going to hire you if you are going to help facilitate revenue making.

If you are clearly going to help the company be profitable and you are not hired that company will not last long and wasn't going to provide you secure employment in the first place. More likely, you are over valuing your labor- thats a hard idea to swallow I know but its a sad fact. I graduated with an undergrad in 2007 and am currently working in an unrelated field not making a lot of money, but I will tell you right now I know exactly why that is - my skillset does not provide anything unique or particularly valuable and I am competing with many many others with similar skills. I am currently working on rectifying this but until then its keep my head down and work my butt off to try to make myself as valuable to my employer as possible to avoid being on the list of lay offs when the budgets aren't satisfying the shareholders.

And if you take issue with the idea of "zombie hires" than you probably haven't spent much time in large corporate settings. It happens. The managerial inertia regarding fixing the situation either through poor management or fear of lawsuits is real too.

The bottom line is, you aren't owed anything. If the private sector isn't willing to employ you and they are so blind to the value of your talents, well then its time to go into business for yourself. Until then its either make yourself more valuable and learn new skills or join me in the competition to see who can limbo the lowest under the ax when it swings.

Kaddrius
Kaddrius

Five years in't a lot of time in the real working world, but it's nice to see the idealism.  Come back when you have 25-35 years.  Most corporations exhibit psyhopathic behavior and don't really care that you as an individual are working your butt off.

When someone in a corner office somewhere moves a pin on a map, you will join the unemployment line along with everyone else.

But beyond that, I don't think anyone here feels they are 'owed' a position, but merely take issue with the portrayal of the temp-to-hire industry or practiceas anything but what it is:

The attempt by companies to get the most work for the least commitment to those actually doing the work.  I am a recent beneficiary of a real, honest temp-to-hire situation where the compensation and other benefits are excellent.  But then, that is a top-100 ranked employer.

Most companies use temporary staffing as a long term solution and have no intention of rewarding their temporary employees with official full time employment.  Of course, temp staffing appears on a different part of the balance sheet, and has tax advantages.

PantherModern
PantherModern

There's nothing idealistic about my opinion... I know for a fact that when someone deems my contribution to the company as not enough or perhaps when someone makes a bad decision that I could be gone in an instant. My company has no loyalty to me when it comes to my employment versus their bottom line. In turn I harbor no loyalty to them. This isn't idealism, just cold hard reality. This company doesn't owe me anything except for the compensation that I agreed to when I accepted the position. Its not a charity and there is no guarantee that I will finish today employed. Workers without technical skills like myself do not have the upper hand in the employer/employee relationship. Like I said Im working on fixing that.

Coincidentally, I have a sister who went temp to perm as well. Im sure there are businesses that take advantage of the system but permanent hiring through this process is more common than comments here are making it out to be. 

Anthony D
Anthony D

What about those most powerful zombies? You know the ones. Whether or not the company turns a proft, they get a bonus. They take credit for the company's successes, but blame "dead wood" at the bottom for their failures. Yes, I mean that most dreaded zombie, the CEO.

Squirrel
Squirrel

The comments to this article are far more accurate than the article itself. But that should be expected when the author only speaks with the president of a staffing firm and quotes authors with unknown credentials. But when, "hiring managers are reluctant to make a quick decision," we have found the zombies.

One thing has not changed: You get what you pay for. "Temp-to-hire" is the cheap predecessor to hiring an employee with a probationary period. It has no cost benefit, and insures an immediate distrust of the organization by a new employee that may never disappear. Considering that the distrust of companies by the general public, and even their very own customers, has soared in recent years, only a hiring manager would fail to recognize the flaws in this practice.

Finally, the word, "attitude," means nothing, and should never be used when defining job performance.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

I was with you up to your last sentence, and there it fell apart.  Attitude is EVERYTHING in a business environment.  A positive, helpful attitude helps boost overall morale and productivity among the entire staff, even if the person displaying that positive attitude isn't as productive as their fellows.  Overall productivity is at least as good or better than not.

On the other hand, even of a person is a stellar producer, if they have a really crappy attitude - and it shows - the rest of the staff suffers and total productivity goes DOWN.  That can't be tolerated.

It's all about the big picture.  There's too much emphasis on the person these days.  If the focus was on the overall business, productivity and enhancing the bottom line (often by counter-intuitive things like actually HIRING people INSTEAD of piling  more responsibilities on existing employees and not paying for it as today's businesses are doing - and suffering for it) then there would be many more jobs than there are now, more money flowing through the economy and a faster economic recovery.

Squirrel
Squirrel

“Attitude” is a counterproductive and generic word that tells us nothing. Simply lose the word and it will all make sense:

They have a, “positive, helpful attitude.”

Subtract the word, “attitude.”

They are positive and helpful.

They have a, “crappy attitude – and it shows.”

Subtract the word, “attitude.”

They are, “crappy – and it shows.”

See the problem? What makes them, “crappy?” Do they have an unhappy look on their face? Do they throw things? Are they late for work? Do they raise their voice? All of these things “show,” but are they all true?

Another example: Your boss calls you into their office and tells you that they have been told that you have a, “crappy attitude.” You respond by saying, “I do not have a crappy attitude.” Your boss says, “Thank you,” and the meeting ends. Would you feel comfortable that the issue was resolved?

If you refuse to accept the word, “attitude,” it forces people to give you the details you need instead.

Productivity in the U.S. is at an all-time high because people are being worked to death. When a manager terminates 25% of their staff and gives the remaining staff the extra work, the company only sees payroll reduced by 25%. They don't see employees leaving and the costs associated with replacing them. They ignore Newton’s Third Law. Management must be graded on employee retention for a company to get a realistic view of the big picture.

Kaddrius
Kaddrius

“Temp-to-hire is an incredible way to try someone out before you take on the full risk and cost of having them be an employee. Your commitment at the beginning is equal. They’re coming in to try out the job, and you are trying them out in a real-world setting where they are literally going to be able to integrate with your team or not,” suggests Hall, who adds: “it’s a beautiful time for that too.”

___________________________________________________--

Wrong.  The 'potential' employer still holds all the cards.  Most people need a steady income to live and be able to plan for a future that is longer than 3 month incements.  Sometimes they will with one hand dangle the carrot of permanent employment in front of a person's face while holding the way to prove dedication (literally or figuratively) in the other.

I have met many people over the years who were puzzled by my response that dedication comes when the company where I am working and the company that signs the paycheck are one and the same.  They feel it is quite reasonable to string people along for months or even years with the faint hope of becoming a permanent member of the team.

This article should really be classed as advertainment for the fluffy treatment of a means of employment that is often unprofessional, crass, and inhumane in its debasement of intelligent adults who can never think beyond the next paycheck while they are in its grasp.

But you go corporate America, since there are no news headlines when you ask 500 temps to stay home via the Friday afternoon phone call, the way there might be if you permanently laid off 500 'real' employees.

I have seen both sides of the staffing industry.  There is some good out there, but it is by far the smaller part.

EricPost
EricPost

Nice in theory but temps rarely get full time jobs. It costs the company way too much to hire them permanently. The job market is such, they keep them on as temps or move to another qualified temp

ipfletch
ipfletch

Okay. Where to begin...

"Zombie hires"- yeah, that's really cute, catchy and demeaning. It's especially useful in the current climate, as a new derogatory term really was needed for businesses that want to find an excuse to fire people.

 The individual showing up to work in her "pajamas"? One clear and direct conversation between that person and their supervisor could have dealt with that effectively. Since it doesn't sound like that ever took place, who is really to blame there- the individual or their (apparently) cowardly boss? A dress code is a dress code- if you don't enforce it, you don't get to complain about the results.

"Temp-to-hire" is nothing new and in many instances is simply a dodge.  Often, the business itself will continue renewing the temp contract rather than offer the individual a position, which will put that individual on their books and end up costing the business more in terms of benefits and salary. How do I know this? Because this has been my life for the past 6+ years. Yes, there are state regulations that are supposed to prohibit this kind of activity- but guess what? You're never going to hear of a business getting busted on this because that means the individual in question is going to be let go.

"Don't dawdle"? Trust me, they don't- and yes, in many situations that I've seen go down, it's still unfair. Is every person a perfect match for their position? Certainly not. However, over the past few years I've seen very talented individuals go down the tubes due to the fact that they were being overseen by supervisors either incapable of communicating clearly, or had their priorities so misplaced that these people were inevitably put in a position to fail (or quite simply, were thrown under the bus in order to cover for that sub-par "permanent" employee).

But, golly- I just realized all the things I've laid out are how things actually *happen* in the workplace today; what can I possibly have been thinking, posting this here in response to a business "self-help" article? My profuse apologies if I upset some oblivious hack's day.

Squirrel
Squirrel

Right on target. Thank you!