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Managerial Rx-How to Get Rid of Bad Apples


Last updated 7/13/2010

Every organization has at least one bad apple: the guy or gal who brings everyone down by spending most of the day complaining. New research shows that these folks aren’t just annoying; they indeed can spoil the entire corporate culture. And managers who don’t make dealing with bad apples a top priority do so at their peril.

A recent study conducted by the University of Washington Business School explores just how much damage one bad apple can wreak. The study, published in Research in Organizational Behavior, shows that in the presence of bad apples people aren't as willing to handle problems that arise, don't communicate with one another, and generally stop functioning as a team—not a great recipe for high performance and productivity.

Unfortunately, many managers don't even know how to begin dealing with these problematic employees. And although bad apples usually comprise only a small percentage of an organization, managers have to spend an inordinate amount of their time and effort on them.

Following are some of 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 corporate cultures tolerate passing bad apples from department to department. Rather than try to improve a bad apple's behavior, many managers simply pass the problem on to someone else. By the time a bad apple arrives in your department he or she may have been around for so long that termination seems impossible. You may be tempted to follow the lead of your predecessors and simply shuffle your bad apples along to the next team—but all that does is reshuffle the misery.

Solution: Strive to create what I call a “Vibrant Entrepreneurial Organization”—a corporate culture in which managers feel a sense of ownership of their work and their company. In a VEO every employee innovates constantly, executes relentlessly, and works with a sense of passion, so 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 UW study shows that confrontation by team members can occasionally be successful. Problems arise when team members feel they don’t have enough power in the situation. Here's another instance when developing a VEO will solve the problem. When employees are empowered and have a sense of ownership they want to find solutions themselves.

Problem #3: Bad apples can be master manipulators. After all, there’s a reason they have such staying power. When you confront them, bad apples aren't afraid to pull out all of the stops to redirect your attention from their problematic behavior to their more positive traits, or as is often the case, to some other employee. She may 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: Ignore the bad apple’s efforts to distract you; stay focused on the issues at hand. 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 the bad behavior, you'll have that same employee in your office the next month and the month after that for the same reasons.

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, his "bad appleness" 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.

Solution: "It's important that you provide balanced feedback to all of your direct reports, including your bad apples. Acknowledge their positive contributions, 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. Ultimately, you must decide whether or not the bad apple's assets outweigh his negative behaviors.

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 UW study, the positive behavior that occurs 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 information 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. Reward employees who go out of their way to help their teammates on projects. If you encourage employees to value teamwork and to 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.

Solution: Legal retribution shouldn't be a worry for you if you follow the sound human resource practices required of a leader. Great leaders should coach, provide balanced feedback and help each employee develop a development plan. Discuss what you document and document what you discuss. After each meeting with, cite the problem, the action taken to correct or eliminate it, the dates, the results, and any comments that will help you to recall the sessions. 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.

Solution: Even in a VEO there may come a time when an employee just isn't working out. 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
  • A brief explanation of why the separation is taking place
  • A list of follow-up activities

This final meeting shouldn't come as a surprise to the bad apple. It should be the culmination of what has already been communicated in a previous meeting. Let him know his being fired is a direct consequence of the lack of turnaround in his performance.

Another important point the study makes is that companies can avoid the bad apple disease altogether by taking steps for fail-safe  hiring practices. Hire for talent and values and character, not just for skill sets. Always keep in mind that it’s much easier to teach people the skills they need, than to teach abstracts like work ethic, integrity, or respect.