SURVEY SAYS: Is There a Bad Apple in Your Workplace?

February 20, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Last week we asked if you had a "bad apple" in your workplace - how they affect others where you work - and what, if anything, you've done/tried to do about it.

In view of the nature of the question, it is perhaps not so surprising that everyone who responded to last week’s survey either has – or has had – a “bad apple” in their workplace.   And, as one might expect, the presence of the bad apple – described in a related story (see  “Is There a ‘Bad Apple’ in Your Bunch?” ) as people who don’t do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others – was indeed toxic.

A couple of things stood out in the responses to the survey:  

First, and in some ways most significantly, these bad apples appear to have a disappointingly robust “survival rate.”   “Management” – which I will describe here as anyone who is higher in the organizational food chain than the respondent – seems all too willing to turn a blind eye to the problem.   Notes one reader, We had a terrible one for two years.   He was rude to our outside wholesalers, asking snidely, ‘Don’t you understand?’ to the less technologically-able ones, snotty to our clients, was unprofessionally dressed on a regular basis, and he talked down to all women in our office, even to his supervisor!    Despite numerous complaints, little was done to correct his foul attitude, and it took a company reorganization to get rid of him.” 

“This person has done so many things – comes in at 9, leaves at 5: ‘I’m working an 8 hour day because I ate lunch at my desk’; no problem solving skills: ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t find that information for you’; no initiative, including patently false offers of ‘Let me know if I can help’; poor work ethic – often out; incompetence: ‘I’m not as familiar with that information, maybe so-and-so can help you’; inaccuracies galore to the point where I don’t trust the accuracy of anything she produces.” noted another.  “I had a bad apple that worked harder at pretending to work than actually doing her job. The whole team knew this and so did I but, unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools to prove it,” another mentioned.    

“This person does not have enough work to do, so she spends her time schmoozing with the execs, holding gab sessions with her direct reports, and is out of the office on ‘business’ at least a day or two each week.   She lies about extra time she works, pushes off work on other areas, skips out when the boss is gone, doesn’t take responsibility for her area, and is the cause of low morale in the dept.,” noted another.   Still another said about their “bad apple,” “If you make a suggestion when he is in a good mood, he thinks you’re brilliant. If you make a suggestion when he is in a bad mood, he says you aren’t a team player and have a bad attitude and puts it in your employee file.”   

Another said simply, “I can’t say, my e-mails may be read, but, yes, we have one.”

Second, their toxic impact comes through loud and clear .   In fact, while it wasn't explicitly noted in many responses, one gets a clear sense that the willingness of "management" to tolerate the situation - or worse, to press others in the workplace to "get along" in an obviously untenable situation - simply makes matters worse.   As one reader noted, "I, and others before me, have tried to address the issue with our bosses over the years.   They've acknowledged that she does not have a good work ethic, but nothing happens."   Another noted, "We have a very rotten apple in our midst.   I want to fire her, and the powers that be won't let me.   She is a lawsuit waiting to happen."     

Another observed, "A few years ago one such bad apple became manager of a team through attrition rather than skill, with very little understanding of (or perhaps indifference to) workplace dynamics. The most talented team members became disenfranchised and were either forced out or left."   Another cited a situation where the bad apple's "assorted bosses have seen fit to move her out of the support role she clearly felt was beneath her (without managing to master the skills), into other positions. Others have decided not to seek out her 'assistance' any more."

Performance Not Always "Bad"

Third, their toxic impact is not always a performance issue - and thus can be hard to confront.  "She has successfully brainwashed her nearby co-workers that it's an 'us' versus 'them' world," noted one.  "We have four to five team members that make up this audience, which has created a huge wedge among the 'factions.'   She and her buddies sneak up and down the back stairs so there's no accountability for their comings and goings.   We struggle with this everyday and just wish she'd quit!   But her audience loves her (her supervisor being one of them), so there's no possibility. And she's does a good job, so there are no performance issues."

"As for bad apples, we used to tolerate them, particularly if they did good work," notes one manager.  "If they didn't do good work, we'd discipline them and sometimes terminate their employment for these 'tangible' reasons.   We've evolved our thinking on this topic, and bad attitudes are now 'coachable' situations in and of themselves."

And well they should be - the final point gleaned is that "management" might be surprised at what a difference dealing with these situations can make .   One reader shared his experience in dealing with a "toxic" manager who was "a frustrated sports writer and would spend his days reading sports, sending in sports stories he had written to b-list magazines, chatting with friends by phone, etc.   The fact that he was never disciplined was a morale killer amongst everyone who worked nearby.   I called him in, explained what I expected, and told him that I was new, but that his reputation was not good.   About a week later, I caught him using the city's computers to send off a sports story.   I warned him, called HR, and wrote it up.   As I remember, it happened again and again.   I confronted him (accompanied by either a lawyer or an HR person, as I remember) and basically told him he had 30 days to find another job or I would bring formal charges.    He left within two weeks.   What was surprising was the number of other employees who came in to thank me afterwards. He had been poisoning the environment for so long they had thought there was nothing anyone could do.   Productivity was improved, morale was much improved." 

Another, having had to deal with a bad apple with a "stalker personality" said, "Finally, I turned in my resignation (the week before Christmas), saying I could no longer deal with such tension and work overload. That was the last straw: In order to retain me, the employer fired him. The immediate increase in employee morale and retention was amazing."

As For Resolutions

As for resolutions, one reader said she "can't wait to hear from others on their success stories of turning a like situation around.   It's absolutely demoralizing to the department, and we don't know how to stop her power.   Please help!"   

Unfortunately, this week's respondents were a little short on helpful suggestions to deal with these situations.   Most that offered a suggestion went for avoidance: "You treat them like you would the flu or plague, you avoid long contact periods with them because you don't want to catch what they have," offered one.

"The one inherent quality of the BAD APPLE is the sucking noise - everyone around the bad apple getting sucked into the negative attitude -- including co-workers' personalities, work product, personal lives, etc.   The optimists in the group have to try and isolate themselves and 'tune-out' the bad apple," agreed another.  

Sometimes, of course, the situation is "resolved" by others "voting with their feet":  "We went our separate ways; I formed a benefits advisory firm with two other partners, and one of our criteria is we all have to agree on the hire, and if there are problems they are gone. Life is too short to work with people you don't like or those that can't get along," noted one.

Nor is confronting the situation always a good move.   As one reader noted, " I've attempted to provide concrete evidence of her incompetence...and it appears I am now the bad person because of it...."

"Why can't all the 'bad apples' start their own company, go work together, and leave the rest of us alone?" was the observation of another.

But this week's Editor's Choice goes to the reader who noted simply:  " Bad apples....we don't get rid of them, we PROMOTE them!!!!"

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!

I can't say, my e-mails may be read, but, yes, we have one.


Funny the subject of "bad apples" should come up today, as I've just dealt with another email from one.

My organization is full of bad apples, primarily of the kind who are *never* at fault. Example: I got a sternly worded email about how I'd received several emails asking me about a plan which had overdue reporting. I replied that the plan was actually not under the deadline in the email and that I had never received any emails about it. This morning, I got an email which indicated that the total inaccuracy of the previous accusatory email was really all my fault -- because I should have told my reconciler of the situation. So I forwarded another email (without comment) showing that I *had* notified the person in question, more than a month ago. I've no doubt it will still end up being my fault, somehow.

This kind of behavior is widespread here. There's always a reason the other person wasn't wrong and it was really all my fault. As a result, I maintain files of several thousand emails, to prove that I didn't do whatever they said I did. I spend a decent amount of my day at defending previous actions and checking others' work to see if they really did what I instructed (and, if they didn't, it was my fault).

There are other kinds of bad apples, too, of course, like the co-worker who is almost always sick on Fridays and Mondays and major deadlines. Or the one whose clients I continually have to calm down because he hasn't responded to their messages in several weeks.

Personally, I wish everyone would just do their jobs, so I could do mine.


As for bad apples, we used to tolerate them, particularly if they did good work.   If they didn't do good work, we'd discipline them and sometimes terminate their employment for these "tangible" reasons.   We've evolved our thinking on this topic, and bad attitudes are now "coachable" situations in and of themselves.


Bad apples............we don't get rid of them, we PROMOTE them!!!!


A few years ago one such bad apple became manager of a team through attrition rather than skill, with very little understanding of (or perhaps indifference to) workplace dynamics. The most talented team members became disenfranchised and were either forced out or left.   The entire team recognized that this person wasn't suited for the role. Now, thankfully, everyone seems to be in a better position -- and the bad apple recently was downsized.


Since you're leaving it open... the problem with our "bad apple" is that the individual doesn't do anything: attend off-site functions, participate in meetings, interact with peers, etc.   The individual doesn't do any work either, currently exercising disability leave.  


Survey - I had a bad apple that worked harder at pretending to work than actually doing her job. The whole team knew this and so did I but unfortunately I didn't have the tools to prove it. She was included in a reduction in workforce and received a nice severance package to leave.   This person's desk was completely decorated in Hello Miss Kitty items that anytime I see them in a store I just cringe so does everyone that worked for me!


When I approached my supervisor about the late arrivals and sometimes long lunches of my coworkers, I was told that I was being petty.   They are only clerks and not paid all that well.   More is expected of me because I am paid more.   Well, when we accepted the terms of employment, didn't we agree to work standard hours?   As a bank, we only work 37.5 hours to begin with.   Is it my fault that I negotiated a higher salary?


Bad apple - YES!   This person does not have enough work to do so she spends her time schmoozing with the execs, holding gab sessions with her direct reports and is out of the office on "business" at least a day or two each week.   She lies about extra time she works, pushes off work on other areas, skips out when the boss is gone, doesn't take responsibility for her area and is the cause of low morale in the dept.    It was even reported that she was seen at the casino when she was out on business.   However, she's always there to claim the glory.

I, and others before me, have tried to address the issue with our bosses over the years.   They've acknowledged that she does not have a good work ethic, but nothing happens.   It makes me crazy and I tend to ignore her whenever possible.   I am hoping I can remain positive in my job, but it's a moment by moment thing.   I keep hoping for her next vacation.   The tension goes away....


yes - the current bad apple is me.   i need to find a new job.   i do try, however, not to let my unhappiness rub off too much - I don't want the competition in the job market.


I was in sales management for a large insurance company and was on the distribution side.   This company decided to close the office we were in and I was the last management person left to supervise the closing.   Our vending service, as a way, of thanking us for our past business opened up the vending machines and told us we should help ourselves to whatever was left.

Within a day two machines were completely cleaned out and as we found out later one particular (bad apple) individual had gone in with a bag and cleaned everything out. When confronted about it he vehemently denied it even though others had seen him do it.   If that wasn't bad enough, we had sent out a memo to the representatives that as they were moving out to their new locations, if it was on the weekend they should not "prop" the front door open as the alarm would trigger a call to the police department and as you can guess it happened and it was the same person and he denied ever knowing that it would happen even though he had discussed it with a staff person a week before!

How was it resolved?   We went our separate ways, I formed a benefits advisory firm with two other partners and one of our criteria is we all have to agree on the hire and if there are problems they are gone, life is too short to work with people you don't like or those that can't get along. It's nice to be in business for yourself!  


We do. He is a micromanager and hovers around my coworkers. (I don't report to him so he gives me a break). However, we have documentation supporting that when we are relaxed and he is not around we are more productive...even with our little water cooler sessions. He is also extremely moody and unpredictable. If you make a suggestion when he is in a good mood he thinks you're brilliant. If you make a suggestion when he is in a bad mood he says you aren't a team player and have a bad attitude and puts it in your employee file.

Thank GOD he is not my supervisor!!! But, he is definitely toxic to the whole setting. If he didn't have 16 years with the company I would be surprised that he is still here...


There always seems to be that one bad apple running around in the workplace...The one inherent quality of the BAD APPLE is the sucking noise - everyone around the bad apple getting sucked into the negative attitude-- including co-workers' personalities, work product, personal lives, etc.   The optimists in the group have to try and isolate themselves and "tune-out" the bad apple.  

Although someone may not be having the best day, week, or even year, we have the bad apples of the world to thank for making their lives seem more difficult and unfair than everyone else's!


I actually want to chime in on your toxic employee question.

When I took over the * office in charge of *'s pensions, I personally interviewed every employee in the place.   Amongst the questions I asked were where would you put more resources and where would you put less.

From that line of questions it soon emerged that one unit head was "toxic". He was a frustrated sports writer and would spend his days reading sports, sending in sports stories he had written to b-list magazines, chatting with friends by phone, etc.   The fact that he was never disciplined was a morale killer amongst everyone who worked nearby.

I called him in, explained what I expected, and told him that I was new, but that his reputation was not good.   Remember, this was a public employee, civil service, union shop.   About a week later, I caught him using the city's computers to send off a sports story.   I warned him, called HR, and wrote it up.   As I remember, it happened again and again.   I confronted him (accompanied by either a lawyer or an HR person as I remember) and basically told him he had 30 days to find another job or I would bring formal charges.    He left within two weeks.

What was surprising was the number of other employees who came in to thank me afterwards. He had been poisoning the environment for so long, they had thought there was nothing anyone could do.   Productivity was improved, morale was much improved.   I have always thought that of all the internal things I did it was the single best managerial move I made, though, I admit, it was painful at the time.


You treat them like you would the flu or plague, you avoid long contact periods with them because you don't want to catch what they have.


Oh we had a crab apple and thankfully she is gone.   It was painful to have to bear our souls to her about the problem and it took a long time.   You never want to see someone let go, but in this instance, we are a more well-oiled machine and collaborating like we never had before.   Others from around the organization now love working with our department!


I think every workplace has the misfortune of having a "bad apple" or two. Why can't all the "bad apples"   start their own company, go work together, and leave the rest of us alone?   My message to them:   Get your boo-hiss bandwagon outta my cubicle!


While I struggle to get everything done in 9 - 10 hours per day and was self taught on systems, my toxic friend has been here since Thanksgiving, but seems to have no responsibilities.   My friend spends hours surfing the web (that's how I learned that Anna Nicole had died suddenly) and my friend disappears for a couple of hours in the afternoon.   

Your item about bad apples in the workplace really hit home with me - I had experience with 2 over the years.

The first was almost unbelievable: a stalker personality, focused on a female co-worker. He spent most of his "work" time harassing her, and then others who attempted to intervene. Eventually his marriage broke up due to this behavior; that just made matters worse at work. My employer paid for counseling and psychological help for him (going well beyond the call of duty there!), with no real success or change in activity.

Finally, I turned in my resignation (the week before Christmas), saying I could no longer deal with such tension and work overload. That was the last straw: in order to retain me, the employer fired him. The immediate increase in employee morale and retention was amazing.

The second was after I purchased the business. Again, a male co-worker (made me wonder about my ability to get along with other guys . . . . ), outright sexual harassment of two females. I paid for counseling, hired a consultant to help me deal with the issues, no change despite my best efforts. One of the women resigned; at that point I had a "heart to heart" with him, pointing out that he was on very thin ice with his behavior. No change, just got worse! When the second

woman resigned, I fired him immediately - turned out to be the best decision I made that year.

So, I fully agree with your survey item - if you have a bad apple, get rid of them as quickly as you can - or you will lose the good employees, and be stuck with the bad, as well as a bad reputation as an employer, and difficulty in hiring in the future.


I used to work in a "group area" of 4 people (no cubicle walls, just our 4 desks). One woman insisted on playing her radio all day every day, tuned to a country station. For most of the day she would spend complaining about her 3 children, balancing her checkbook, filing her nails, talking about the latest diet she was on, complaints about how little she was paid which "forced" her to put in so many hours of overtime just to make ends meet (it appeared she actually worked about 5 hours a day, if that).   All to the tunes of country music, as if the litany couldn't be more depressing.   When she was on vacation it was heaven because NO ONE turned her radio on at all, or if we did, it was to a rock station--and we had the best time!

Bad apples?   We had a terrible one for two years.   He was rude to our outside wholesalers, asking snidely "don't you understand" to the less technologically-able ones, snotty to our clients, was unprofessionally dressed on a regular basis, and he talked down to all women in our office, even to his supervisor!    Despite numerous complaints, little was done to correct his foul attitude, and it took a company reorganization to get rid of him.


Yes, we do have a bad apple...it's me... And that is why I quit today...So much is wrong here that I just didn't think I could make a positive impact any longer...


It hit my nerve too.   We had someone who was constantly negative no matter the situation.   This individual is no longer with us, and if anyone has missed him, I haven't heard it mentioned, even in passing.   In fact, the office atmosphere is more calm and peaceful in addition to higher productivity and lower stress.   Those improvements make me close my eyes and smile.


Yes, yes, yes - we have a very rotten apple in our midst.   I want to fire her and the powers that be won't let me.   She is a lawsuit waiting to happen.   Many of us walk the long way around the office to avoid going past her.   The last time she was on vacation I had employees offering me cash bribes to keep the temp and tell the bad employee not to come back.  


Oh boy, do we have a bad apple right now. Never in my 15 years of working here have I been so frustrated. This person has done so many things - comes in at 9, leaves at 5: "I'm working an 8 hour day because I ate lunch at my desk"; no problem solving skills: "I'm sorry, I couldn't find that information for you"; no initiative, including patently false offers of: "let me know if I can help"; poor work ethic - often out; incompetence: "I'm not as familiar with that information, maybe so-and-so can help you"; inaccuracies galore to the point where I don't trust the accuracy of anything she produces. I could go on for days. Unfortunately her assorted bosses have seen fit to move her out of the support role she clearly felt was beneath her (without managing to master the skills), into other positions. Others have decided not to seek out her "assistance" any more. I've attempted to provide concrete evidence of her incompetence...and it appears I am now the bad person because of it....

It really just does take 1 bad apple to poison the work environment.


I know I missed the deadline for input, but like you, this story hits a HUGE nerve with me, and our entire department management team.

We have one.   She has successfully brainwashed her nearby co-workers that it's an "us" versus "them" world.   She refuses to participate in group potlucks, games, birthdays or anything fun.   She's a negative talker and talks constantly and loudly to "her audience."   We have 4 - 5 team members that make up this audience which has created a huge wedge among the "factions."   She and her buddies sneak up and down the back stairs so there's no accountability for their comings and goings. Everyone else uses the front office as an entrance and exit.

We've tried to force the group to attend potlucks and participate in have fun....aren't we mean?   They show up with scowls on their faces and refuse any food.   We've ask for their honest feedback about problems within the department which was an eye opener and a huge mistake.   We struggle with this everyday and just wish she'd quit!   But her audience loves her (her supervisor being one of them), so there's no possibility. And she's does a good job, so there are no performance issues.

Can't wait to hear from others on their success stories of turning a like situation around.   It's absolutely demoralizing to the department and we don't know how to stop her power.   Please help!

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