Sorting out the bad apples in your company

Dennis Schrag/Tree Full of Owls

Tom: He was smart. He was driven. He was charming. He was knowledgeable in many diverse areas – software, engineering and politics. He was good looking. He was young.

His social skills with clients and regulators were superlative. He was a manager’s dream “A” player. The president of the company said, “Clone him, please.” He got whatever he wanted from his laissez faire boss. Senior executives gave him raises, the best computers and the latest software. He was a company’s epiphany.

His teammates and peers? A whole other story. He talked down to them. He was rude and accusatory. In the absence of a responsible supervisor, he directed the teams’ work load, work hours and informal performance appraisals. His projects came first. They hated him. Four peers resigned, noting they could not stand the work environment he caused.

Maybe it was envy. Maybe it was his calculating attitude. But whatever the reason, his peers viewed him as toxic. Management just didn’t get it, or preferred to ignore the situation.

It was when a formal complaint of harassment was filed with the civil right commission that management had to take a more unbiased look. What is the cost-benefit ratio of toxic talent? Call him “The Jerk.”

Laura: She was pleasant. She was entertaining. She was always bubby and enjoyable. But she could never be found. She spent hours chatting with others at work. When it came time for her to complete work, there was always an excuse. She lost the file, her computer died, she forgot the due date. For a while her team covered for her. They completed her work, spent extra time and energy on her assignments.

Because of her effervescent personality, management endorsed her. Her supervisor did not understand the complaints that other employees filed about her. What is the cost-benefit ratio of lethargic talent? Call her “The Shirker.”

The cost is very high.

Research by Will Felps called “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel,” indicates that “Bad apples, including deadbeats, downers and —holes bring down performance 30 percent to 40 percent compared to teams that don’t have them.” According to Mr. Felps, “Individuals fundamentally really want the rewards, benefits and social approval of other people. So if people around you want you to do something, you’ll do it,” he writes. “But if someone persistently and consistently behaves in negative ways, then we find that the whole group conforms to the individual through these contagion mechanisms.”

According to Robert Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University, negative behavior in the workplace is contagious. And it builds momentum. It is the supervisor’s job to stop it and turn bad attitudes around. Mr. Sutton is direct: “It’s crucial for leaders to screen out bad apples before they’re hired — and if they do slip through the cracks, bosses must make every effort to reform or (if necessary) oust them. Leaders who believe that destructive superstars are ‘too important’ to fire often underestimate the damage they can do.” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 24, 2011 “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything.”)

Baird CEO Paul Purcell makes it clear during the employment interview. “If I discover you are an —hole, I am going to fire you. Simple.”

David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer wrote the article, “Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation,” published in the Harvard Management Update, in 2006. Their research of more than 1.2 million employees shows that management demotivates employees by failing to correct the work place culture.

They note, “…managers must face up to poor performance. (They must) identify and deal decisively with the 5 percent of (their) employees who don’t want to work. Most people want to work and be proud of what they do (the achievement need). But there are employees who are, in effect, ‘allergic’ to work — they’ll do just about anything to avoid it. They are unmotivated, and a disciplinary approach — including dismissal — is about the only way they can be managed. It will raise the morale and performance of other team members to see an obstacle to their performance removed.”

Sort out the bad apples early. What will you do with the toxic Toms and lazy Lauras this week?

Dennis Schrag is president of the Longview Group of Iowa City. E-mail him at