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Bad Apples in the Workplace (Part I)

By Corina Sibley |

You're probably familiar with the phrase "one bad apple spoils the barrel" referring to one person spoiling things for the rest of us. But did you know that one bad apple on your team has a proven damaging impact on your company’s productivity which in turn is harmful to your bottom line?

As an HR professional and entrepreneur, I know this to be true from experience. But in recent years, it has also been proven in research. Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands found that there are three bad apple personalities that can derail a team, decreasing their productivity by 30% – 40%.1 In a tough economy, that is a lot of productivity to be losing out on to your competitors. Not only does the team’s productivity go down, but the team will mimic the bad apple’s behaviour, even with each other, something Felps calls the "spillover effect".

So, what is a business owner or manager to do? First, we need to identify who these bad apples are. The best way of dealing with them is to avoid hiring them in the first place and we will cover that in this article. The next article will cover how to deal quickly and effectively with any you may have already working for you.

The Three Types of Bad Apples

The Jerk: the person who attacks or insults others, often with the intention of humiliating or embarrassing them.

The Slacker: the person who does less than they can, withholding their effort (in other words is disengaged).

The Depressive Pessimist: the person who sees the glass as half empty, sees no silver lining, comes across as insecure.

I'm sure you can identify with one if not more of these bad apple types in a workplace setting and have your own stories about how they impacted both your team and the office environment in general. One particular "Jerk" I remember well was the leader of an organization I did some consultation work with. His spillover effect was so tangible that I did not even need to ask whether he was in the office or not; I could tell the minute I walked in the building! When he was not there, people’s moods were better, they helped each other more and there was a feeling of camaraderie in the air. Otherwise, he tended to pit colleagues against each other, humiliate people in front of their colleagues, direct reports and superiors and in general, promote a CYA, finger-pointing, blame-game culture. On which days do you think his team was more productive?

How to Avoid Hiring a Bad Apple

There are three key things you can do to avoid hiring that bad apple in the first place:

  1. Use the behavioural interview technique to ferret out those bad apple behaviours.
  2. In the interview, assess both the How and the What; how the person works as well as what technical skills they bring to the table.
  3. Always conduct a reference check before making an offer of employment.

The Behavioural Interview

The idea behind the behavioural interview technique is that past behaviour indicates future behaviour. You are trying to find out what a candidate did do in a particular situation they really dealt with, not what they would do in a simulated scenario.

For example, here’s three different ways you could ask a question to assess a candidate’s customer service skills:

  1. Typical Interview Question: "Have you ever had to deal with a difficult customer?"
  2. Typical Scenario Question: "Tell me how you would deal with a difficult customer who was unhappy with their purchase".
  3. Behavioural Question: "Give me an example of a time when you dealt with a difficult customer. What was the situation and how did you handle it?"

You can see the difference. The first question just requires a yes/no response. The second question requires a more detailed response but makes it easy for the candidate to tell you what you want to hear. The third one forces them to provide an example of something that they did do in the past.

When listening to their answer, watch out for words like “I usually”, “generally”, and “we” in the candidate’s answers and don’t be afraid to probe further to get more specific details. For example, “You’ve said “we” quite often, please let me know what your specific role was in that situation.”

Assessing for Fit – the How versus the What

Don’t just focus on technical skills in the interview, but also include questions that will help you figure out if the person is the right fit for your team and organization. Asking questions in the following areas will help you build a picture of how this person works:

  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Team work skills
  • Integrity
  • Taking personal accountability for mistakes
  • Personal initiative on the job

For example, "At your last job, how did you go about building relationships with each member of your team?"

Reference Checking

Before making an offer, ensure you have conducted thorough reference checks on your candidate:

  • First get their written permission to do so as opinions expressed as part of the reference checking process are subject to Canada’s varied privacy laws
  • Ensure that your candidate provides at least three business references, two of whom should be previous supervisors.
  • You can also use a background checking vendor to help conduct a check on the candidate’s employment history, educational credentials and criminal record check.

Bottom Line

The bad apple effect is real and can hurt your business. By recognizing the bad apple behaviour types and taking preventative measures in not hiring them in the first place, you will help your business to remain productive and competitive.

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