Commentary & Analysis
Bad Apples: Why Managers Find It So Difficult to Deal with Problematic Employees
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: March 27, 2007
Bad Apples: Why Managers Find It So Difficult to Deal with Problematic Employees by Dottie DeHart March 27, 2007 -- Every organization has at least one: that employee, who for whatever reason, behaves as though coming to work is a fate worse than death. You know, the guy who drags down coworker morale with his horrific attitude, or the gal whose absence transforms an office of formerly solitary cubicle hermits into a place where people productively work together to get extraordinary results. He (or she, as the case may be) is your company's "bad apple." Joanne G. Sujansky, PhD, founder and president of KEYGroup® (keygroupconsulting.com), warns that if you want to keep him (or her) from spoiling the whole barrel, well, you've got your work cut out for you. She cites a recent study--conducted by William Felps, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington Business School, and Terrence Mitchell, a professor of management and organization at the UW Business School and a UW psychology professor, and published in Research in Organizational Behavior--that explores just how much damage one bad apple can wreak. "This study takes an interesting look at a problem that is all too prevalent in corporate America," says Sujansky. "The authors point out that it's likely that your bad apples are harming your other employees' morale, which can lead to an overall team breakdown. When bad apples are present, people aren't as willing to handle problems that arise, don't foster open communication with one another, and generally stop functioning as a team--not a great recipe for high performance and productivity." Clearly, managers should make dealing with bad apples a top priority. But as Sujansky points out, doing so is no easy (or welcome) task. After all, managers are only human--and bad apples have a tendency to be just as draining for them as they are for everyone else in the company. In fact, many managers don't know how to even begin dealing with these problematic employees. Managers should make dealing with bad apples a top priority, but doing so is not an easy--or welcome--task "It's been our experience that bad apples usually comprise only a small percentage of an organization," says Sujansky. "But because they require more effort to handle than other employees, it's not uncommon for managers to spend a great deal of their time dealing with or listening to the bad apple's various concerns or complaints or the complaints they receive from other employees about the bad apple. Clearly, managers need to think about the illogic of such an efforts-to-results ratio!" If managers don't deal with their bad apples--either (metaphorically) cutting out the rotten behaviors or tossing the entire apple out of the barrel--their "spoiling" effects will only multiply. The first step, though, is understanding just what makes these employees so difficult to handle. Sujansky spells out the reasons managers are so flummoxed by bad apples, along with some practical techniques for dealing with them once and for all. Problem #1: Some company cultures tolerate managers' passing bad apples from department to department. Rather than try to bring their bad apple's behavior to an end, many managers choose to simply move the employee to another department. By the time they get to you, they've been with the company for so long that it seems impossible to fire them. You're tempted to follow the lead of your predecessors and simply shuffle your bad apples along to the next team--but all that does is move around the misery. Solution: "Quite simply, you must create a culture that doesn't allow people to pawn problems off on others," says Sujansky. "At KEYGroup we call this kind of company a Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization. A VEO has the kind of corporate culture in which that elusive sense of ownership can flourish. It's like this: when managers feel that they 'own' their work and their company, they won't allow a bad apple to spoil either one. If your culture allows bad apples to be passed around from department to department without any consequence for their behavior, well, that's exactly what will happen. If you have a VEO in which every employee innovates constantly, executes relentlessly, and works with a sense of passion, bad apples simply won't be able to survive." Problem #2: Managers expect team members to deal with the bad apple, but they can't--or won't. People have a great deal of difficulty giving feedback to their peers. They'll almost always push the problem back to managers rather than confront the employee directly. Solution: "The study shows that confrontation by team members can occasionally be successful," says Sujansky. "The problem comes when team members don't feel like they have enough power in the situation. Here's another instance when developing a VEO will solve the problem. First, the sense of ownership instilled in employees who work in VEOs makes them want to find a solution to the problem themselves. In these kinds of workplaces, clear and open communication is key. Bad apples aren't afraid to pull out all of the stops to redirect your attention from poor behavior to their more positive traits, or to some other employee. "By the way, healthy peer communication doesn't just happen," she adds. "Smart leaders know they have to foster it, and there are plenty of ways to do so. For instance, we've developed a teambuilding activity called KEYGroup Quest that helps our clients dramatically improve their teams' communication, ingenuity, and problem-solving skills. Basically, team members spend a day completing and videotaping assigned tasks around their city. It works very, very well, and it's fun, too." Problem #3: Bad apples can be master manipulators. After all, they've stayed around this long for a reason. When you confront them, bad apples aren't afraid to pull out all of the stops to redirect your attention from poor behavior to their more positive traits, or to some other employee. Maybe yours will mention an account she just brought in, or maybe she will point out that one of her fellow employees was late to work for the third time that month. Solution: "Regardless of what your bad apple is telling you in order to distract you, stay focused on addressing the issues at hand," says Sujansky. "Simply say, 'That's not what we're here to discuss,' and bring her back to the subject of her destructive attitude. Rest assured that if you ignore it, you'll have that same employee in your office the next month and the month after that as you attempt to solve the same problem again and again." Problem #4: Bad apples aren't always poor performers. Some can be great producers for the company. If your bad apple's problem is simply a negative attitude or a tendency to bully other employees, this bad apple-ness, if you will, may not prevent leaders from viewing him as an asset. Maybe he's a big producer, or maybe he's talented in some hard-to-find skill. His "good" qualities may make you reluctant to confront him, much less get rid of him altogether. You must decide whether or not the bad apple's negative behaviors outweigh his one big sale or his singular skill. Solution: "It's important that you provide balanced feedback to all of your direct reports, including your bad apples," says Sujansky. "Acknowledge the positive contributions your bad apple is making, but don't be afraid to confront the behaviors that negatively affect others. Besides, after the confrontation, the bad apple may realize that his annoying behaviors will limit his progress and promotability in the organization. Or at the very least, he may realize that his behavior will prevent him from getting support from others when his success is on the line. Ultimately, you must decide whether or not the bad apple's negative behaviors outweigh his one big sale or his singular skill. Keeping these positives a part of the organization may not be as critical as increasing the productivity of the whole team." Problem #5: Rather than model and recognize the behavior they want, expect, and demand, managers focus too much attention on poor behavior. According to the Felps and Mitchell study, one reason this happens is because the positive behavior that does occur in the office can't cancel out the negative. There's just something in human nature that allows the bad to outweigh the good. If you don't give employees a lot of positive to focus on, their attention will naturally gravitate to the negative. Solution: "While you shouldn't ignore the negative behavior in the office, you should deliberately place much more emphasis on showcasing the positive," says Sujansky. "Reward employees who go out of their way to help their teammates on projects. Create a peer review system. And be open and responsive to employee feedback. If you create employees who value teamwork and understand how their behavior affects their coworkers, you may actually modify the bad apple's destructive tendencies." Problem #6: Some managers are afraid to fire bad apples for fear of legal retribution. Bad apples, by definition, are troublemakers. And it stands to reason that people who cause problems working inside a company are likely to also cause problems on their way out the door. If you're like many managers, you may fear that if you fire your bad apple--or even confront or discipline her--she'll threaten to file suit for discrimination or harassment or any other reason she thinks will work. Great leaders should coach, provide balanced feedback, help the employee develop a plan for correction, discuss what you document, and document what you discuss. Solution: "Legal retribution shouldn't be a worry for you if you follow the sound human resource practices required of a leader," says Sujansky. "Great leaders should coach, provide balanced feedback, help the employee develop a plan for correction, discuss what you document, and document what you discuss. After each meeting with her, cite the problem, the action taken to correct or eliminate it, the dates, the result that occurred, and any comments that will help you to recall the sessions. And be sure to create fact-based, objective documentation that includes all levels of performance and behavior, both positive and negative." Problem #7: Firing employees, no matter how bad their behavior or poor their performance, is never easy. If bad apples refuse to change their behavior, the time will come when you must let them go. Unfortunately, firing people is such an unpleasant experience that most managers will put it off for as long as possible. And many have never been trained in how to appropriately fire employees. Success lies in fail-safing your hiring practices. Hire for talent and values and character, not just for skill sets. Solution: "Even in a VEO there may come a time when an employee just isn't working out," says Sujansky. "It's important that managers know exactly how to approach these situations. Make sure you discuss your situation and intended actions with your human resource professional and/or legal counsel. They will help you plan and conduct the exit meeting with the bad apple. Here are the important points that should be made in the exit meeting: a reminder of previous discussions and warnings that have been previously communicated to the bad apple, a brief explanation of why the separation is taking place, and the follow-up activities necessary to complete the exit strategy. This final meeting shouldn't be a surprise to the bad apple. It should be the implementation of the next step that has been communicated in a previous meeting. Let him know his being fired is the consequence for the lack of turnaround in his performance." "Another important point the study makes is that companies can avoid the bad apple disease altogether," says Sujansky. "I wholeheartedly agree, and in fact, this is a topic KEYGroup constantly addresses with our clients. Success lies in fail-safing your hiring practices. Hire for talent and values and character, not just for skill sets. You can teach people the skills they need, but you can't always teach work ethic or integrity or respect. These are the raw materials that make up a VEO. Remember, culture is everything, so make sure you build the kind you want, one employee at a time."