Bad Apples will Spoil the Barrel and Much More

By Mike Cook for the BBJ

It is challenging to run a successful business, more challenging yet to be a successful business operator and develop a great working culture. The current historically low levels of unemployment finds many employers struggling to find the people they need to effectively run their operations. As I have mentioned before, I facilitate a group of local business owner and they all report this as being one of the most challenging times for their business to find the folks they are looking for. Additionally, they are struggling with making decisions to let go marginal performers, especially those who are able to produce the results expected but continually push the boundaries of what is acceptable in the culture they have worked so hard to build.To put it simply, there is a spectrum of behaviors that can lead people to do things that are good for themselves and bad for others and in times like these the boundaries of acceptable sometimes get blurry.

But now more than ever may be the time for employers to be on high alert regarding the destructive and expensive impact of “bad apples.” To be sure, all of us are capable of offering up bad or counter productive behavior in our place of work. This is normal human behavior, human being are always subject to bad days, bad moments or maybe even a bad week now and then. This does not make either us or them “bad apples.” The “bad apple” is an altogether different sort of character. To qualify as a “bad apple” a person must exhibit a pattern of behavior that consistently favors their objectives to the detriment of others or run counter to the best interests of the business.

What do I mean by a pattern of behavior? Patterns look like this…

  • Testing and/or criticizing company policies and rules
  • Lacking motivation, performing the bare minimum of work and/or refusing to work
  • Spreading malicious gossip/rumors, treating employees/employers with a lack of respect
  • Maintaining control over the workplace atmosphere by using negativity
  • Conducting themselves in a manner that leaves others feeling stressed.

Much of this behavior is not practiced in the light of day, it occurs in break rooms, bathroom conversations or, on the way into or away from the workplace in the parking lot. Occasionally, the “bad apple” will recognize the absence of a force in favor of the company’s interest and publicly humiliate a co-work, assuming there will be no enforcement of company rules or longer-term consequences.

Now is without a doubt the worst possible time to tolerate the “bad apples” in your midst and it may also be the toughest time to lose capable employees even when they bring negative baggage as finding replacements will be challenging.

Be forewarned however, you risk great deal more by not addressing the “bad apple” immediately. The tolerance for counter-productive you demonstrate to your employees when you fail to or put off dealing with those who undermine you sends a message to all employees. That message; something is more important to you than having the working culture you profess to desire. Marginal employees will get the message, and in some cases follow the lead of the “bad apples” or possibly become less engaged, further impacting their already marginal performance. Worse yet, your best employees, the ones who are aware of market conditions and understand their value, will quietly update their resumes and then simply submit their resignation when the time suits them. You can always wait for the better employees to speak up and challenge your tolerance, but this is a plan based in hope and relies entirely on whether top employees want to invest any more of themselves than they already have. Not a good idea.

I leave it to you to choose a course of action but choose you must. If you go the route of dismissing whichever “bad apples” you identify you do have options. Washington is a an “employment at will” state. This means that an employer or employee may generally terminate an employment relationship at any time and for any reason. What you may be risking if you simply dismiss an employee you consider to be a “bad apple” is the possibility of paying unemployment benefits. This is certainly not an ideal situation but the payments you make may well be offset by the benefits to your working environment.

Of course, if you are more patient you may wish to establish a paper trail to possibly avoid the unemployment payments. This would require documentation on your part, warnings should be put in writing, performance documented over some specified period of time leading to a possible final warning prior to termination. You need to be the judge of the risk/reward equation in your own case.

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