What Do You Do With a “Bad Apple” Employee?

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”Winston Churchill

If you have an employee with a bad attitude, what do you do? If he is a weak performer, the answer is easy: “Get rid of him right away. But what if he’s very good at what he does? Your business might be able to tolerate him — but only if the rest of your employees are willing to work with him.

Like their arboreal relatives, rotten-apple employees come in several varieties.

1. There are those who are simply grumpy all the time. They don’t hate your business per se. They hate life. These types are unlikely to ruin your business so long as their power is limited. Don’t put them in charge of larger groups of people. Isolate them. Give them managers who understand how to work with them.

2. Some rotten apples are miserable to select groups of people. Some apply their meanness to subordinates, others to supervisors, and still others in some randomly targeted fashion. The very-good and hardworking employees of this variety can be managed reasonably well with periodic psychological-adjustment sessions. A sensible dangling of carrot and stick usually does the trick.

3. The third variety is the political misfit, an employee who believes that business — and everything about business — is evil. These people are usually young, bright, and recently graduated from a liberal arts college, where they have been spoon-fed socialist propaganda.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that these employees can become your best. Just keep them busy and give them some responsibility. They will grumble along the way, but most of the time they will catch on and stop their badmouthing.

Here’s what to do if you have a grumbler in your working group:

  • Figure out what kind of rotten apple he is. (See above.)
  • Find out how he’s viewed by the rest of the crew.
  • Communicate your perspective on how to deal with him to his supervisors and important colleagues. (Be careful how you do this or it can backfire.)
  • If you can come to an agreement about him — agree that he’s irritating but useful — bring him in, explain to him that he is great but you need some cooperation from him, and then give him three or four months to improve.
  • If he doesn’t improve and the good people around him find him increasingly annoying, start looking for a replacement.

Some management experts recommend “observing and qualifying” the culprit’s behavior so that you can meet with him and give him specific examples of his negativity. I’m dubious about that sort of approach. I’ve found that most people who act this way are very good at defending themselves against any specific criticism. They leave the meeting angry and upset.

I’ve had better luck praising them for what they do well and making only the vaguest references to the undesirable behavior as something I’d like them to help me eliminate. I don’t think any one solution is perfect. It’s a matter of what works best for the people involved.