One Bad Apple Can Ruin the Barrel

The more experience I get and the more time I spend in business, the more I learn about the subtleties of seemingly obvious things. For example, the adage that one bad apple can ruin the barrel has been stated so often that it can be quickly discarded as a truism with no value. But it’s incredibly true and profound and so complex that many entrepreneurs lose big points by not guarding this.

I have been amazed at how even one bad employee who has a poor attitude can infect an employee group or a department or possibly an entire company/organization. It has been a difficult principle for me to grasp, because, as person with a finance background, I tend to think in terms of numbers. On a mathematical level, the idea of one employee having an outsized impact on an entire organization doesn’t make any sense. You would figure that adding one person to a 500 person company would have a very limited effect on an organization because they represent such a small percentage of the organization. However, the math is less important when you consider the reverberating impact. Because all of us are social creatures and work is not always pleasant, negativity tends to breed quickly.

When I refer to a “bad” employee, I’m not talking about folks who are clearly not doing their job and are clearly a disruptive force. These cases tend to solve themselves fairly easily — the clearly disruptive, non-performing employees will either be terminated or simply withdraw from the company before too much damage is done.  Unfortunately, the poor employee I’m referring to is a person who is much more complex to discern. Often, they have a job that cannot be measured objectively, and they are subtle in the way they disrupt the organization. Or, even worse for us as leaders, this person could have a combination of talent and disruptive behavior.

Let’s take an example: An employee comes to a company with a highly specialized skill that the company desperately needs. This person is very competent at his or her job, but they also clearly have a poor attitude. Now, we need to consider who this employee interacts with on a day-to-day basis. If their position is truly in a silo and they don’t work directly with any others, there may be limited risk for you. You may be able to keep them on staff and utilize them for their specific skills. However, let’s say that the employee interfaces with 499 people. In this case, it is doubtful that the person would be able to have a home at the company without there being big problems.

Now let’s take a more subtle example, where the disruptive but talented employee is touching and engaging with a few people regularly. In reality, every employee (even those in highly specialized and contained roles) will probably work with 2-3 people every day. If this is the case, the risk needs to be assessed very carefully. You must look past the disruptive employee and think very carefully about the individuals with whom he or she is interfacing every day. Are they good, solid employees who will tune out this kind of negativity, or are they employees who might be swayed? Are they employees with strong leadership skills or do they tend to be more passive in a work setting? There’s no right answer here. As an employer, you need to be weighing the potential value that the disruptive employee is bringing to your company against the potential damage they could inflict by poisoning their immediate colleagues. These calls are sometimes hard.

You should also be considering the amount of confidentiality required for the disruptive employee’s role.  Unfortunately, the people we are speaking about often have these very highly specialized roles (otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all). Often, highly specialized roles (like accounting and compliance) tend to require a great deal of discretion and confidentiality.

Personally, I would not want an accountant with a poor attitude who is vocal about the finances of the company.  On the other hand, I might be able to live with a customer service representative who is great on the phone but who has a poor attitude internally.

Now, there is one more factor to consider with a disruptive employee, and it’s the hardest one of all — they might actually be right. What you perceive as disruption or a poor attitude might actually be an employee flagging something very important that requires your attention. They could be seeing something you don’t see.

Entrepreneurs tend to be big ego people, whether they show it (Donald Trump) or whether they don’t show it (Bill Gates). As an employer, you have to do your best to suppress your ego. I’ve seen business owners label people as having a bad attitude when, in fact, the person is a star who is trying to make the organization better.

Entrepreneurship is an inside game where you are only limited by the strength of your character, your skill, your judgment, and the quality of your product or service. Only you can know whether you are a good listener and acting from the right place in your heart.

This concept is, unfortunately, hard to tackle and not something you can learn from an article – it comes from lots of experience and your entire worldview.  However, the effect of one person on an organization can be immense.