Managing Bad Apples Is Key to Productivity

Guest post by Terry Sember:

Bad apples are employees who cause problems, reduce productivity, or have a negative impact on morale. These types of workers come with a variety of traits, personalities and problems. Most managers are well-equipped to handle problems with sales, production, negotiations, or suppliers, but almost universally, managers feel inadequate when it comes to solving personality problems or person-to-person conflicts. And these often have the biggest influence on productivity in the workplace.

Identifying Bad Apples
Some easy to recognize signs of a troublesome employee include tardiness, leaving work early, failing to follow instructions, argumentativeness, and inability to take direction well. The best test for a bad employee is to ask if he negatively affects the company’s bottom line. Whatever he is doing (or not doing) can make it harder for other people to get their work done, or for him to complete his. Some types of bad apples include backstabbers, passive-aggressives, liars, bullies, whiners, career climbers, gossips, laziness and more. The ultimate outcome of the employee’s attitude or behavior is that the company does not succeed as well as it could have.

Evaluate Productivity
When it comes down to it, employees are primarily valuable to the company because of the work they accomplish which helps the company make money. There may be employees who work for you that you don’t like, find annoying, or whom other people dislike, but the ultimate test of whether they are bad apples is how they impact productivity.

You need to look not only at that employee’s own productivity, but at how she influences productivity for the entire company. An employee who does not do his job well is an obvious problem, but one that drains the resources of the company from other employees is not as easy to spot sometimes.

Understanding Bad Apple Behavior
Just as there are lots of behavior that qualifies as problematic, there are many reasons that can explain bad apple behavior. If you can pinpoint and understand the reasons behind your employee’s actions (or inactions), you’ll be in a better position to be able to solve the problem.
Some common reasons for below par activity include:
– he doesn’t like his job
– he doesn’t like the work environment
– she doesn’t like her co-workers
– she feels dissatisfied within the company
– he has skill set deficiencies he is trying to manage or cover up
– he really has no idea he’s not measuring up
– she is experiencing a personal, health, or family problem outside of work
– he has a basic clash with management
– she has basic personality traits that are just incompatible with the job or company.

The best way to find out the reason behind your employee’s behavior is simply to talk to her. Find out what her concerns are, how she feels, and what’s going on in her life. It’s impossible to properly correct something if you can’t identify the cause and sometimes we as managers tend to over think things when there really is a simple explanation. If you have an employee who is not turning in projects on time, you could extrapolate all sorts of complicated reasons for this – she can’t work with the new version of the software, she’s trying to make you look bad, and so on, when the explanation might be as simple as the fact that another manager is giving her work that is more urgent. Find the root of the problem and you can then fix it. Unless you understand the core cause of the problem, you might end up just solving a symptom, but not resolving the underlying issue. A solution that deals only with the symptoms is going to be an incomplete solution. If you spackle over a cracked wall in your house you can mask the problem, but it will simply crack again if you have a shifting foundation that needs to be repaired. Your employee is in the same situation. You can temporarily change some behaviors, but if the root cause of the problem remains untouched, you’re likely to experience problems with this employee over and over again. You won’t always be able to completely fix the problem, but understanding the cause can help you be a more effective manager.

Rehabilitating Bad Apples
To change a bad apple, first talk to the employee and the team. Find out what is going on. Take some time to observe and create your own conclusions. Next, think about what might be creating the situation. You might have a situation where two people are incompatible or your employee has been placed in a situation that is outside her area of skill or confidence. If you can identify and isolate a situation or problem that is contributing to the behavior, you have a much better chance of creating a solution for it.

If the problem is inherent to the employee’s attitude or personality, first demonstrate the benefits of being a good employee by rewarding other employees. Demonstrate the consequences of bad apple behavior – follow your company protocol for write-ups and discipline. Talk to him about what the problem is, but do so in a way that shows you want to work together to solve the problem. Be prepared to really listen to your employee’s explanations and feedback. Create a goal for the problem employee. Don’t step back and expect him to get there himself – help him reach the goal. Doing so ensures success and shows you are on his side. Provide real suggestions and tips and always give positive feedback as you move along.

Terry Sember is a management consultant and author of Bad Apples: Managing Difficult Employees (Adams Media) and The Essential Supervisor’s Handbook (Career Press). Visit