How A Bad Employee Spoils the Team


4 Dec, 2021

You are only as strong as your weakest link“. “One bad apple spoils the barrel“. If you think about it, there’s a lot of sayings about the negative difference one person can make. But is this really true? Can one bad employee wreck a team?

Many managers tend to look away from bad behaviour, and hope that things will sort themselves out. This is precisely the wrong thing to do as often you end up with productivity problems and employee turnover from your best employees.

There was some very elegant research done by Will Felps, Terence R Mithcell and Eliza Byington back in 2006 on this issue. They first did a review of all of the current research on the issue of bad employee behaviour, and then conducted clinical tests to find out exactly what happens when one negative group member joins a group.

In their research, they defined negative group member in one of three ways. They used academic language, but the categories were:

  • The slacker – Someone who doesn’t pull their weight, doesn’t take on tasks or responsibilities, who doesn’t contribute or meet deadlines.
  • The jerk – Someone who is obnoxious and puts people down, makes fun of people, these are the ones making ethnic or sexist jokes, publicly embarrasses people and are generally rude.
  • The depressed pessimist – Someone who always believes that anything the company tries is doomed to failure, they are highly anxious, insecure & irritable

I am sure most people at one time or other in their careers have met one of these charmers. Often Maverick employees exhibit these traits. 

But what happens to the group when you add in one of these people? Well according to their findings, the group productivity drops between 30-40%.

Add to that effect, you start to see other team members begin to exhibit the traits of the negative person, which increases the problems for the team in terms of productivity, cooperation, creativity, morale and learning. People are less interested in finishing a task – they just want to “get it over with“.

You also start to see your best employees leaving for other jobs, leaving the poor performer behind in your team.

So the next time you are tempted to avoid dealing with a negative person in the workplace, you may want to review the research, and ask yourself if you are more willing to reduce your team’s productivity by 30-40% than have an uncomfortable conversation with one person.

If you want more information about the study, here’s a link to the full research report “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups”.

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Ingrid: Lead Author, Australian Employee Manual

HR Author and Lecturer with over 25 years' experience in human resources and workplace relations in Australia. Lead Author of Instant HR Policies & Procedures, NDIS Direct Employment HR Manual, and Employee Performance Reviews: Tips, Templates and Tactics.

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