7 Common Characteristics of Unproductive Employees

Caucasian businessman drinking coffee and yawning

By Adam Heitzman

When it comes to a business setting, you can think of "unproductive" in three different ways. First, an employee can be so outgoing and bubbly in the office that you actually miss the fact that he/she has never really actually been productive. Second, you can see that an employee's work is starting to fade or decline and realize that the employee has become unproductive. Or lastly, and employee may just plain be unproductive and everyone knows it.

However, in all three situations, the characteristics of someone being unproductive are the same. How they got there or why they're there might be a different story, but as an employer it all starts with being able to recognize some of these characteristics. If you can recognize that an employee is unproductive that's the first step in making changes.

Consider some of these traits and actions to look for below:


It doesn't matter why someone is complaining or whom he/she is complaining to (or about), complaints often show that someone is not willing to put in the work to make a change. It's a time waster, and it's almost always easier to complain than to be productive. As John Brandon mentioned in a past article, "The really productive people don't dwell on the problem. They just do the work."

Making Excuses

Similar to complaining, making excuses is not the way to be productive. It's one thing if things don't get done because other things take priority, but if something doesn't get done because of an unfair excuse, then that's a problem with the employee. Start paying attention and see if there seems to be an excuse for everything. One or two every once in a while is OK, but excuses can get out of hand quickly.

Putting Things Off

This characteristic can go right along with excuses. Most of the time an employee will put something off because of an excuse, but sometimes you'll notice that he/she will act like it can wait and brush a task off as "not a big deal." Again, while this might be okay in small doses, if it becomes a habit you have a problem.

Running Everything By the Boss

This may happen for two reasons: Either the employee is hoping the boss will just do the work or delegate it to someone else (usually because of excuses the employee lays out) or the employee doesn't feel like he/she can be independent and get things done. In either situation, an employee won't be productive. Part of productivity is being able to take the problems at hand and get creative and work hard to solve them, and actually wanting to solve them. Running to the boss doesn't help anyone get to that point and therefore hurts productivity.

Only Caring about Getting Credit

This is a classic sign of someone who does not really care about the job; therefore only worrying about being productive if it's going to get him/her credit in the long run. In order to really be productive you have to be creative and innovative in your role--simply doing what your told and then stopping your work isn't always using your time efficiently. Even more so than being unproductive, this is a characteristic that really shows when an employee is not motivated, which brings us to our next point.

There is No Motivation or Drive

You can usually tell if someone does not have motivation or drive for a business if they're doing all of the things mentioned above--making excuses, putting things off, complaining, always bothering the boss, etc. All of these feelings combined with a lethargic attitude contribute to not being productive. Why would an employee be productive if they don't care about the company and what that productivity could produce? After all, being productive takes work.
In some cases, there is a lack of motivation and productivity simply because that employee was the wrong fit to begin with.

Personal Betterment and Brand is Slipping

This is usually what happens when people get complacent at their job. Maybe they're doing what they're told and not making excuses or complaining, and maybe even sometimes they solve problems on their own and get things done, but if their personal brand and betterment is slipping then the work turns to routine and productivity. Part of being productive is learning new skills and taking pride in an online brand (even if it's just to help the company). This shows independence and it shows motivation. Without this, productivity lacks.

The Takeaway

As you can see, a lot of the characteristics mentioned above compliment one another and string together. It almost works like a domino effect, so you'll likely see an unproductive employee exhibiting more than three or four characteristics on the list. The best thing you can do as an employer is be able to look for and recognize these traits and then take steps to re-motivate the employee.