How to Spot a Bad Apple in Your Organization

August 31, 2022・7 mins read
How to Spot a Bad Apple in Your Organization
Every organization has 1 or 2, but that doesn’t mean employers can turn a blind eye. Bad apples — problem employees — can erode productivity and engagement, eventually poisoning entire departments and creating a toxic environment around them. What should managers and other decision-makers do when dealing with difficult employees, though? How do organizations even identify bad apples in the 1st place?

What is a bad apple when it comes to the workplace?

First, it’s important to establish a definition of what a bad apple is in this sense. Problem employees come in many different shapes and forms. They’re not always the person who leaves early or comes in late, either. They may also not be job-jumpers. They may not even be underperformers. In fact, they’re often some of the longest-serving employees within an organization simply because nobody wants to address their problem behaviors. To identify bad apples within any organization, managers and decision-makers should look for some specific traits:

They complain about their responsibilities/roles within the organization

In many cases, this means that the employee is less productive than others, but that’s not always the case. In many cases, these employees may meet or even exceed productivity expectations set for their roles, but do not perform to their full potential because they spend a great deal of their time complaining about the work.

They’re avaricious toward others

Bad apples don’t work well with their teammates, but they take it to extremes, often bullying or outright attacking others. In some instances, this may be overt, but bad apples can also be subtle. Instead of attacking team members directly, they can mount whisper campaigns and speak negatively about their coworkers to managers and other leaders.

They manipulate others and situations

Managers will find that most bad apples do anything in their power to deflect attention from themselves whenever their behavior is noticed. They’ll blame others for their shortcomings or point out their positive traits and behaviors to take the focus off their mistakes. Most bad apples will also not admit that anything is their fault.

Their poison will spread

Bad apples are a lot like conspiracy theorists in that the poison they spew will spread through the workplace. One bad apple can eventually rot an entire barrel, and the lies, half-truths, and complaints of problem employees can eventually poison entire teams or departments. Within small businesses, they may contaminate the entire employee pool. They do this by constantly complaining, outright lying, and even pitting other employees against each other.

They’re rarely happy or their moods change very quickly

Bad apples rarely take joy in their work unless they have something to complain about. And when they do find something wrong, their moods can shift very quickly because they can’t regulate them. Because of their mercurial nature and problem-seeking behavior, they cost their managers a lot of time and effort.

What should employers do with bad apples when they find them?

Once identified, what do employers do with problem employees? While the 1st instinct might be to start documenting behavior to begin the termination process, that may not be the right strategy. Instead, employers, managers, and decision-makers should consider taking a measured approach to get to the root of the employee’s underlying dissatisfaction and attempt to turn the situation around. Unfortunately, there is no single solution to dealing with these employees. Instead, managers will need to take a different route depending on the problem behavior. Explore possible action plans below, broken down by behavior type.


Employees who focus too much on what’s wrong or who balk at assignments for no good reason can affect morale and productivity. What can managers do with them, though? In many cases, this is done to project intelligence, as these individuals can see critics as being authorities. The good news is that managers can work around this by turning the tables. Transform the individual’s expertise and intelligence into a positive aspect for the team. In some cases, simply asking the employee for their input and what they would suggest to fix a particular problem can ease the situation. By actively engaging them and asking for their constructive input, managers can eliminate many negative behaviors. That’s not to say that this will immediately stop the problem or that all negative employees will respond positively to this tactic. However, it’s worth exploring before taking any other steps.

Domineering and egotistical

Employees who seem to know it all or who dominate conversation can be problematic, particularly if they resent having to complete routine, mundane tasks. In most cases, managers should take a dual approach to solve the problem. First, it’s important to have a conversation about the behavior, but avoid calling them out on their egoistical behavior. Instead, point out how harmful and damaging it can be to other team members. Just as importantly, managers must also focus on what the employee brings to the table. In many cases, they have top-quality skills that offer a lot of value to the team. By communicating the value they bring to the team but explaining that this doesn’t justify behavior that negatively affects others, managers can alter the situation. Finally, managers should also consider the entirety of the individual’s workload. Are there low-value tasks that could be replaced with something that might challenge the employee more?

Everything’s a disaster

Almost every team has 1 of these individuals. Their life is a disaster, both personally and professionally. Something seems to go wrong every week (or more often). The good news is that crisis-prone employees can be transformed into valuable assets. First, understand that many work-related problems stem from major life issues with a spouse, children, or aging parents. Managers must tread carefully here to define the issue and, if it seems that work problems stem from something in their personal life, offer them access to the resources they need to begin the healing and recovery process.
Have candid, considerate conversations with these employees to define the issue.
Have candid, considerate conversations with these employees to define the issue, whether it’s family-related, medical in nature, or something else. Then define an action plan that includes compassionate care.

Rebellion/challenging authority 

Managers dealing with employees who rebel against what they’re asked to do or who routinely challenge authority may feel like they have their hands full. However, these employees can become very valuable assets. The trick is to change the behavior to 1 that criticizes operations and procedures to drive better efficiency and innovation. Managers can achieve this through conscientious coaching and compassionate listening, as well as the ability to work with the employee to reframe questions or statements that are too derisive or cutting.

The big picture when it comes to bad apples in companies

Ultimately, every organization will deal with bad apples from time to time. In some cases, they should be moved out of the organization, but this is very rare. More often these employees can be transformed into valuable assets by building on the qualities that seem to make them problematic in the 1st place. Managers should approach each situation with an open mind and a willingness to work with the employee to change the behavior. There is no such thing as an irredeemable bad apple. The trick is to compassionately guide change for the better.
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