The Work Zombie

Read all about work zombies in this interesting article!
The Work Zombie
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Work zombies exists in every professional setting. We recognize them instantly because they always appear to be very busy. However, in reality, all a work zombie does is delegate responsibilities to other people. They’re ineffective and bad teammates but somehow know how to gain their bosses’ trust. Of course, this results in toxic and unproductive environments in which they know how to survive perfectly.

At first, we could imagine that the term “work zombie” refers to those employees who work a lot of hours or are gradually automated by an excess of tasks, low motivation, and poor recognition or compensation.

However, there is a clear difference between workers who are very busy and those who simply wander around the company pretending to do something. That difference is productivity. Some people think that this low-performance is due to a lack of commitment. However, those who have analyzed this type of behavior pose another question: why do companies keep these types of workers?

First of all, we should mention that work zombies not only exist in public offices. These types of people  also work in private companies, universities, factories, and any other type of business. How do they manage to survive? What strategies and characteristics define them?

A work zombie has few skills. However, they manage to survive in any job because they gain their managers’ trust. Likewise, they don’t particularly draw a lot of attention to themselves, despite sometimes being that toxic element in the workplace environment.

The work zombie pretends to be busy but isn't very productive.

How to recognize a work zombie

In 2004, a Gallup survey was carried out to evaluate the commitment of various companies in the United States and Europe. The results revealed something that experts defined as a ‘cultural and business crisis’.

Almost 64% of employees say they don’t feel committed to their work or to their company’s goals. Their only concern is to fulfill their work expectations and collect their paycheck. According to them, this is due to the low recognition they receive as well as the bad relationship they have with middle or higher management.

Of the remaining 36%, 15% would qualify as work zombies. Companies know that they exist. However, although many consider them to be ‘bad apples’, some believe it’s normal to find them within any company. Therefore, they just accept them as a normal part of the workplace, something they can’t do anything about.

Kevin Daum, the well-known writer, business specialist, and Smart Business Magazine columnist, defines a work zombie as an overlooked character we should pay more attention to. Sometimes, the company itself overlooks that these workers are the ones that affect productivity and the workplace the most.

Indifference is just one of the many negative attitudes that a work zombie can spread in the workplace.

Five traits of a work zombie

  • They leave before their shift is over: They somehow always manage to sneak out. The workday isn’t over yet but they’re already putting their things away calmly and cheerfully. Also, they take pride in what they do because they assume that this behavior is acceptable.
  • They love gossip: One of their main motivations to go to work is gossip. They eat rumors up and thrive in knowing the latest information.
  • They’re always the bearer of bad news: A work zombie has a special ability to find out anything. However, it always seems to be negative: layoffs, problems, sanctions, etc.
  • They’re never in a rush: Work zombies are never in a hurry. They’re always late, take longer breaks than usual, and never hesitate to leave before everybody else.
  • They lack aspirations: The work zombie doesn’t lack talent or skills, only aspirations. Their only goal is to survive at their job and let time pass by. That attitude of ‘not doing anything in the morning and passing it off to the afternoon’ disconcerts others and makes them feel uncomfortable.

Why do companies let a work zombie exist in the workplace?

We pointed out that work zombies exist in all companies at the beginning of the article. But why do companies tolerate these individuals? Well, first of all, it should be noted that not all companies allow these people that affect their image and productivity to stay in their company for long.

However, a large part of workforces consist of these individuals because:

  • Some companies don’t have performance evaluation systems in place. Also, not all team leaders look at them twice. Most work zombies are friendly to everyone and rarely cause conflicts.
  • It can also be because the manager of the company is also a work zombie. Whether we believe it or not, many people advocate functionality and not innovation. They prefer docile people who don’t cause problems and only limit themselves to ‘being’. In this sense, they only want people who don’t argue, contribute ideas, nor bring any changes.
Sometimes the work zombie survives because they are well-liked by their manager.

To conclude, whether we like it or not, work zombies will keep existing in companies if policies don’t change. Likewise, they’ll thrive if there’s no real commitment to efficiency. Meanwhile, you should avoid letting yourself be infected  by that virus and attitude so you don’t let yourself become a work zombie.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.