Nobody is talking much about the phenomenon I’ve dubbed FEIP: Full Employment of Incompetent People.
But we are there.
Let’s assume you and I are among the competent crowd. You’ve got a to-do list, you care about getting it done, and you take some pride in how colleagues and customers regard your work. Me? I got this column written on time, and the spelling and grammar were pretty clean.
But in such a tight job market, incompetent people in all kinds of jobs ― from retail to startups to health care ― are not getting fired. Their coworkers know they’re not doing the work, and their manager knows it, too — but keeping them around is slightly better than having their desk sit vacant for a few months, and paying someone to replace them 20 or 30 percent more.
It’s not a topic that employers, human resources leaders, or outside recruiters want to touch with a 20-foot pole. In normal times, sometimes you’d hear a CEO mention their devotion to the late Jack Welch’s philosophy of actively pruning the bottom 10 percent of employee ranks. But at the moment, everyone is pretending that 100 percent of their workers are worthy of Employee-of-the-Month status. I did have one recruiter who focuses on biotech, Chris Palatucci of Coulter Partners, acknowledge that his firm is “doing a few more confidential searches, because the manager doesn’t want to lose the incumbent while the search is underway, or they’d be screwed.”
Let me define what I mean by incompetent people, and then let’s look at the data that support my hypothesis of FEIP (pronounced “feep,” by the way.) They are late for shifts and don’t have great excuses. They don’t care about quality or customer service. They can’t manage their calendar, and you need to send them four e-mails to remind them about something that is a core part of the job. When they do show up at meetings, they have shaky explanations about why their “action items” from the last meeting didn’t get acted on. At the pizza shop, they’re the worker who forgets half the toppings, undercooks the pie, and doesn’t answer the phone when the customer calls to ask about a refund.
Who don’t I include in this definition? People who are overstressed from two years of trudging through a global pandemic, people who are working three jobs because their employer can’t fill those other two, and people who aren’t getting the right support because they’re surrounded by slackers that the bigwigs are reluctant to fire.
“We’re in such an extreme moment of labor shortage” in most industries and occupations, says Alicia Sasser Modestino, a professor at Northeastern University who directs the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. As pandemic restrictions eased, the economy experienced “a ferocious tsunami of pent-up demand” for things like travel, restaurant meals, advertising, and home goods. But employers had trouble getting former employees to come back, and during the depths of COVID, “the leading edge of baby boomers retired.” The friction between high demand and labor shortages put companies “in a bind,” Modestino says. “They can’t afford to lose anybody. Just poor performance isn’t going to get you fired right now.” That means the pink slip is taking an extended vacation.
Government labor statistics don’t exactly have a way to measure FEIP, but they hint at it. What the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “layoffs and discharges” measures the rate at which people are being fired or laid off involuntarily, and in the most recent three months for which there’s data — December, January, and February — those levels are nearly one-third lower than they were in the same period of 2019 and 2020, prior to the pandemic. In certain key industries, including data processing and software, that layoff and discharge level was half what it was before the pandemic.
So fewer people are being cut loose by their employers, but we’re seeing a record high level of people quitting — about 4.4 million workers are giving notice every month in the United States. The number of open positions is also close to the all-time high: more than 11 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some of the most employable people are walking out the door, companies are desperate to hire, and they’re not firing or laying off at the rate they once did. So who is left? People who might not be able to get hired somewhere else.
“Firms have to hold on to whatever workers they have,” says Linh Tô, a professor of economics at Boston University. “That leaves the worst workers – the low-performing workers — to stay.”
And there’s a vicious cycle in trying to fill jobs now: since there is so much job-shuffling in the workforce, Tô observes, there’s less stigma attached to someone leaving a job after a short time — and employers can’t afford to be as measured and careful in their hiring process as they have been historically. So that fills the ranks with even more potentially “low performing workers.”
And in a world where managers and employees often work remotely, and see one another via jittery Zoom connections, it may be tougher to spot (or easier to ignore) incompetence.
The more positive way of looking at today’s tight labor market is to note that people without long-running industry experience can now crack into companies that might not have hired them before, says Rachel Lipson, director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University. Companies may have more willingness to invest in training their employees over time. They may be more open to hiring older workers, or workers with a criminal record. “We’ve built a system over the last 30 or 40 years, particularly for front-line and low-wage roles,” she says, that assumed that when people quit or were fired, “there’d be a whole line of people on the other side of the door waiting to fill them.” That’s not the case today.
But for those of you clocking in every day and taking care of business, living with FEIP is not much fun.