My daughter recently completed a six week stint, working two full-time jobs. One as an information worker, processing applications as part of a process that is essential to new students  at a university in Orlando, and then working 40 hours a week at a second, seasonal job as a ZOMBIE actor for a major theme park.  Each evening as her day job would conclude, she would drive almost an hour to her ZOMBIE job, and through the magic of make-up, wardrobe, and her exceptional acting abilities transform herself into the walking dead.

My daughter the Zombie
My daughter the Zombie

You might think that my assessment of her acting skills is a bit biased (and yes I’m sure it is) but the fact is that when each of her four siblings visited the theme park during the annual Halloween scare fest, she scared the living snot out of them. One of our sons told us later that he had a great time even though his sister made him scream like a little girl.

Now that Halloween is over, I wonder, are we surrounded by zombies? How many of our friends and coworkers are part of the living dead, part of a growing workforce that feels isolated and disengaged.  Jane McGonigal thinks it could grow into epic proportions.  In her book “Reality is Broken”  she offers that human needs  are not being met and that “nine to five” worker are among the ever-growing number of people escaping reality and joining the gaming community which she cites at over 183 million people. I wonder how these individuals behave at work, could they be office zombies?

If Zombies are present then there are organizational issues and designs that turn good employees (they were initially hired because someone thought they were a great fit for the position) in the walking dead. Zombies in the workforce (employees who quit but stay) are a direct  failure of leadership. They are employees who have lost engagement because basic needs are not being met (Herzberg; Two Factor Theory). In January of 2012, The Ken Blanchard Companies sponsored a Leadership Livecast addressing the issue of employees who quit but stay. Its focus on employees who quit but stay accurately described workforce Zombies. While many of the thought leaders invited to talk, addressed a variety of issues that lead to this phenomenon often times they were focused only on the symptoms and not the root cause.

Conley, a Blanchard thought leader, suggests in his blog post “Have Your People Quit and Stayed? Twelve Factors of Employee Engagement”  factors that describe toxic environments. In these environments employees are not empowered to make decisions, employees are engaged in meaningless work and are unable to see how what they do matters to the success of the organization. TOXICITYEmployees do not know how they stand based on their performance because  feedback emanates from organizational gate keepers unable to judge performance.  These employees find themselves doing jobs where task requirements are often unresolvable because of competing priorities issued by competing gate keepers. In toxic environments employees often feel they have been set up to fail!

One of my favorite adages is “the organization is perfectly designed for the results that it obtains.” Schein declared that establishing the organizational culture is the primary job of leadership. Thought leaders from Collins to Mintzberg and others include culture as a primary responsibility of leadership. They claim that it is as equally as important as defining the mission, vision and values of an organization. When leadership creates a toxic culture, Zombie’s rise.  Senior and junior executives, middle management and all other level of employees brought into these organizations either assimilate into the toxic environment (deciding not to fight but to promulgate it) or they fight the culture and in the end they quit. The culture always wins! The question that remains for the employee is wether they quit and leave or quit and stay. Spoiler alert… Leaders create toxic organizational cultures and they also create workforce zombies.

Of course, the leader that ultimately determines the culture lives in the C-Suite. His or her actions and decisions ripple through the organization. Even the most basic value chains feel the ripples starting with employee turnover, low morale,  broken promises, broken processes (maintained by longterm gate keepers), and ultimately leading to a loss of customers and declining revenue. Organizational leaders find themselves having to lead by transactional means and then become flummoxed when they can’t maintain their promises.

Unfortunately toxic environments seem to be on the rise, a result of the post-2008 financial crisis, the exacerbated recession and the new normal for accepting high unemployment numbers. With business opportunities scarce and jobs even scarcer organizations are being stressed like never before. Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) consultants describe individuals who are highly stressed as being “in the grip”. “In the grip” describes a stressed individual behaving in a negative or immature manner. Organizations need to stop acting as if they are in the grip.  If there is to be a cure for workforce zombies and toxic environments then C leaders need to build cultures that recognize the importance of the workforce to the value chain. C leaders need to be strong enough to resist the temptation of people short cuts to profitability and realize that lasting value is achieved by building organizational capacity  through its human capital.

by John F. Reneski MBA TM (EdD 2014)
© All Rights Reserved
November 10, 2013




  1. Another unappreciated employee who found happiness in a positive work place. says:

    Negative reinforcement is a major source of the toxic work environment. The “If they don’t like it they can leave” mentality of corporate is so disruptive. It’s amazing how many staff say “If they would just acknowledge me. Just say ‘Thanks, you did a great job’ that’s all I want. Just appreciate my contribution.” I also think lack of employee evaluations is a real problem. They are rarely done on time (if at all) leaving the employee wondering where they stand in the company; Not just their performance but their value. Everyone knows the value of positive work environments and feedback, so why has punitive work philosophy become so prominent. So sad.


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