'Bad apples' are as contagious, and as dangerous, as the flu

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 21, 2007
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The coughing, sneezing and malaise of flu and cold season can impact the workplace, but bad vibes from one employee are just as contagious, infecting and hurting the rest of the work team, says a new study.

The effect of the “bad apple” employee on co-workers is the subject of a research paper appearing in the December 2006 issue of Research in Organizational Behavior.

“If only for bottom-line reasons, you should pay attention to it because it will have a dramatic impact" on co-workers' job satisfaction, the group's ability to function over time, and the group's productivity and performance,” lead researcher and University of Washington doctoral student William Felps told HR News.

There's a difference, though, between bad apples and employees whose thinking challenges the status quo, something that's not always appreciated, caution Felps and co-researcher Terence Mitchell.

Unlike bad apples, “positive deviants” help spark organizational innovation, they note. “People with divergent ideas can be a real asset to the company or organization. They need managerial protection, not prosecution,” Felps said. Don’t single someone out just because he or she is different, he warns.

Bad apples are employees who do not do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or verbally attack people around them, according to Felps and Mitchell.

The men and graduate student Eliza Byington analyzed about two dozen published studies on how teams and employee groups interact and the impact of bad teammates on a good team. They were inspired to investigate the impact of bad apples after Felps' wife noticed that her own work environment—which she characterized as cold and unfriendly—changed markedly during the absence of a caustic co-worker who made fun of other employees routinely.

“People started helping each other, playing classical music on their radios and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were. ... He truly was the 'bad apple' that spoiled the barrel,” Felps noted in a press release.

Bad vs. good apples

A bad apple can have more influence on the team or group than the other team members combined, they discovered from research that looked at groups of five to 15 employees in the manufacturing, fast food and university sectors.

That's because people pay more attention and react more intensely to the bad apple employee. The true impact, Felps said, hits when it begins spreading among the group, creating mini-versions of the bad apple.

“People do not expect negative events and behaviors, so when we see them we pay attention to them, ruminate over them and generally attempt to marshall all our resources to cope with the negativity in some way," Mitchell said in a press release.

“Good behavior is not put into the spotlight as much as negative behavior is," Mitchell added.

He is professor of management and organization at the University of Washington’s business school, and a psychology professor.

“Most organizations do not have very effective ways to handle the problem," Mitchell pointed out. “This is especially true when the problem employee has longevity, experience or power.”

And sometimes the bad apple can be an otherwise effective employee. That seemed the case in a 2006 Society for Human Resource Management bulletin board posting by one member.

The problem employee, the member wrote, was very good at her job, went “the extra mile” and made few mistakes. Her attitude, though, was harming the group.

“She adds nothing [to] the weekly meetings and acts in body language like she does not want to be there,” the SHRM member wrote. The employee shot down new team members' ideas and balked at working with the new vice president, who became her supervisor when the previous supervisor resigned.

Strategies

Part of the problem is whether people feel empowered to take action, Felps told HR News.

In the case of his wife's employer, upper management “was fairly detached from the work group and they didn't give the work group any resources to deal with this problem.”

“It just festered,” he said, and she eventually left.

For employers with a bad apple employee whom they've already confronted and who would rather retain the employee, Felps suggests the following strategies:

  • If possible, restructure the work environment so others can work more independently while isolating the bad apple.
  • Forge closer bonds with other group members. The idea is to reaffirm good relationships with officemates to minimize negativity that will spread.
  • Practice an attitude of caring detachment.

“It’s cheesy, but simply by changing your attitude to one of ‘you have no power over me,’ bad apples are less likely … to spoil office dynamics and outcomes,” Felps said in an e-mail.

Ideally, though, employers should take special care when it comes to hiring employees.

“This would include checking references and administering personality tests so that those who are really low on agreeableness, emotional stability or conscientiousness are screened out,” Felps said.

If the negativity develops after the employee is on board, sometimes the only choice, Felps and Mitchell conclude, is to show the employee the exit.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews

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