I recently read an article that grabbed my attention, “How One Bad Employee Can Corrupt a Whole Team” by Stephen Dimmock and William C. Gerken, from the March 2018 edition of the Harvard Business Review. I quickly began to reflect back on past teammates who had bad attitudes, were highly political, or were just poor workers. I’ve seen it happen while working with peers on teams and as a leader. After experiencing this phenomenon throughout my career, I have come to agree with the old adage, “One bad apple can spoil the bunch.”


I remember the first time I witnessed this. It happened in my husband’s family business. A long-time employee had become a permanent fixture within the organization. But she had a negative attitude and delivered crummy customer service. Instead of being employed because of her solid performance, she remained because no one had the chutzpah to let her go. No one confronted her about her attitude or behavior. It wasn’t until the family business was sold that she was let go. They were losing customers and it was causing other employees to act the same way. Because her lousy behavior was tolerated without any consequences—others followed suit.


When I became a leader at a large recruiting organization, I hired someone who had a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, she was a poor performer who made numerous errors. This person put me in some pretty uncomfortable situations with customers—even faxing the wrong pricing document to the wrong customer (yikes). Over and over I thought to myself, “I can fix her, improve her, train her, or put her in different roles where she might thrive”. But in the end, I only shuffled the problem from myself to someone else. It wasn’t fair. But like many managers, I thought I had the answer.


Two talent engineers looking at a computer together


Managers too often become frozen by fear. I have seen this play out in a variety of ways. They are afraid to hold a problematic employee accountable for fear of losing a great skill set or tribal knowledge. Sometimes they are fearful of losing a legacy customer, while others are afraid that their customers might become mad if an employee is terminated and start to look for a new partner. None of these fears justify keeping a rotten apple on the team. From my experience, the impact of letting a bad apple go is minor in comparison to the impact of keeping a negative influence on your team.


How do you prevent a bad attitude or underachiever from taking over your team or worse yet—creating other bad apples on your team? I wish I could tell you that I have the attitude thing all figured out. I don’t. But I can tell you that our team at DISHER has developed a process that eliminates 90% of these difficulties from taking the organization down. Here are the top five ways to maintain a positive culture of performance.


How to Maintain a Positive Workforce 

1. Know and understand your organization’s mission and hire for it.

At DISHER, our mission is to Make a Positive Difference. Our vision is to leave the world better than we found it through integral relationships and innovative solutions for our customers, coworkers, and communities. It is our why—our purpose. We have 12 Culture Characteristics that help us live out our mission and vision. We talk about our mission, vision, and our values during phone screening potential candidates and in face-to-face interviews. We ask questions to learn about a potential team member’s why—what makes them tick? There must be alignment.


2. Follow a hiring process and stick to it.

We hire first for attitude. In our process, we have no less than three rounds of interviews with multiple trained interviewers. When it’s time to calibrate, we all have to be aligned with the decision. If there is one person that believes that their attitude is not aligned to our values, we pass on that candidate. It makes our Talent Solutions recruiting process that much harder in the short term. But we all know and understand that one bad attitude can wreak havoc on culture in the long term.


3. Deal with poor behavior as soon as it occurs.

Many leaders don’t tackle the tough conversations right away—or maybe ever. Nobody likes confrontation. However, it’s important for managers to take the initiative to meet with the offender and communicate directly and clearly about what behavior is acceptable and what is not. I have found that in the majority of situations, people just aren’t aware that they are acting like a jerk. The ability to fall back on your core values can make all the difference.


4. Before you pull the plug, consider outside coaching for the individual.

If it’s a leader, send them to leadership training with practical application and individual coaching. If it’s a team member, help them find a suitable mentor to work on areas they need to improve.


A man mentors another employee


5. The last straw is termination.

Never fall prey to that feeling that you can’t get rid of someone because they have all of the customer relationships or all of the technical skills. You are killing your team by keeping him/her around. Nine times out of ten, you will find those left on your team will step up to the challenge of filling in any gaps they leave behind. Yes, you might be set back for a short while, but in the long game—you’ll be far better off!


If you need help building a culture that thrives, let us know. We would love the opportunity to come alongside your team with talent recruiting, culture assessments, and leadership training and coaching for real organizational transformation.