One "bad apple" in a team of workers really can "spoil the entire barrel," new business research shows.
Whether it's an office bully, team slacker or a chronic pessimist, a single employee can seriously damage an entire company, according to William Felps and Terence Mitchell of the University of Washington Business School.
The researchers define a bad apple as a toxic teammate who shows one or all of three features: dodging their work, dumping some of their responsibilities on others; persistently expressing pessimism, irritability and general unhappiness; and bullying co-workers.
The bullies have specialties: making fun of someone, saying something hurtful, making inappropriate ethnic or religious remark, cursing at someone, playing mean pranks, acting rudely and publicly embarrassing someone.
Over the past 20 years or so, scientists have conducted numerous studies of the effects of negative behaviors at work, including discrimination, sexual harassment, violence and dishonest reporting. However, bad-apple behavior has been somewhat overlooked, Felps said.
"Almost all of us have either had the personal experience of working with someone who displayed bad apple behaviors or had a friend, coworker, or spouse who has shared such stories with us," Felps and Mitchell wrote in a report of their research detailed in the current issue of Research in Organizational Behavior.
"When this process starts to unfold at work, it consumes inordinate amounts of time, psychological resources and emotional energy," they added.
Felps and Mitchell analyzed about two dozen published studies that focused on interactions among co-workers. Particularly, they examined research on smaller groups of five to 15 employees in manufacturing, fast food and university settings. Small teams require more member-to-member interactions and workers are more likely to respond to a teammate's negative behavior.
In one study of 51 manufacturing teams, they found that teams with one bad apple were more likely to have conflict, poor communication and cooperation breakdowns. The outcome was inadequate performance.
They found three typical responses to the trouble-making employee. In the first line of action, another worker asks the bad apple to change. If this is ineffective, as generally occurs when the team members have no seniority, the other employees will alienate the bad apple. Then, co-workers become frustrated, distracted and defensive.
Defensive responses, such as anger, social withdrawal and fear, can worsen the situation by cultivating lack of trust in team members and an overall negative atmosphere.
Co-workers typically don't have the means to prevail over a thorn in the office. So what can the higher-ups do to keep problem workers in check?
"Managers at companies, particularly those in which employees often work in teams, should take special care when hiring new employees," Felps said.
"This would include checking references and administering personality tests so that those who are really low on agreeableness, emotional stability or conscientiousness are screened out," he said
If a bad apple does slip through the selection cracks, he said, managers should place the individual in a less interactive position, or alternatively, fire the employee.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.