I’m confident in this prediction: If you’ve ever held an office job, you will love Office Space. (If you haven’t seen it, get it now.) Anyone can find something in the movie that resonates. Maybe you connect with the guy who can’t bring himself to do more than 15 minutes of real work a week. Maybe you’re the one locked in a daily standoff with the fax machine. Maybe you’re like everyone in the movie under the thumb of a monotonous, soul-crushing boss.
I’m a Milton Waddams guy. Now that’s not to say I’m a mumbly guy with no apparent skills or role and a creepy fascination with my stapler (others will be the judge of that), but I can’t get enough of the guy. Milt was useless. When you watch the movie, you can’t figure out why the company hired him in the first place or why it keeps him on the payroll. In fact, some consultants in the movie looked into Milt and discovered that he actually had been laid off years before. No one ever told Milt he’d been downsized, and a “glitch” in the payroll system kept cutting him a paycheck. Therefore, Milt continued to wander aimlessly and mumble, and the company continued to shuffle him around the office with the furniture.
Did the consultants break the news to ol’ Milt? Of course not. They “fixed the glitch,” cut off Milt’s paycheck, and sat back to let the problem take care of itself.
I won’t ask you to raise your hands but, if I did, I bet many (all?) of you out there have sat back at some point hoping a problem would fix itself. And really, who can blame you? Confronting problem employees is not fun. It’s a difficult and emotional discussion when you tell someone that their performance is not up to par or that the company no longer needs them. Few of us in our right mind really want to have a conversation like that with anyone. It exposes us to risk and is downright unpleasant.
Avoiding the pain, though, carries more risk and trades an unpleasant situation today for an unbearable one down the road. Other employees will notice that you’re not dealing with a low performer or a miscreant, and the corrosive effect of low expectations is sure to cause better employees to doubt why they need to bust their hump to do a good job. And what about the underperforming employee? How are you going to let him go now for poor performance that you’ve tolerated for years? Surely, in his mind, you must have had another, real reason for letting him go–and maybe it’s that suspicion that leads him to file a lawsuit.
So Milt isn’t just funny–he’s a reminder. He’s a reminder that you have to be on top of all your employees. He’s a reminder that you have to manage your employees with action, not omission. You have to take on unpleasant situations before they become unbearable. You have to discipline appropriately and timely. Finally, when the time comes to part ways, you have to make it happen yourself.
Spoiler alert: The consultants in Office Space were comically wrong. Fixing the glitch and hoping the problem will work itself out did not work for them and it won’t work for you. Remember what Milt did after his paychecks stopped without explanation and his boss took Milt’s beloved stapler?
He burned the place down.