How A Bad Employee Spoils the Team


15 Nov, 2023

“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?

Leaders often grapple with the challenge of addressing negative behaviours within teams, sometimes avoiding uncomfortable conversations under the assumption that mature employees should self-correct.

But what is the impact of one bad employee on a team?

Impact of one bad employee on a team

One of the key studies on the issue of the impact one bad employee has on a team was completed by Will Felps, Terence R Mitchell and Eliza Byington in 2006.

They reviewed all 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 and irritable.

The key finding of their research was striking: The addition of a single detrimental employee can lead to a substantial 30-40% reduction in group productivity.

This decline extends beyond the individual’s output, triggering a ripple effect of social contagion. Team members unconsciously adopt negative emotions, resulting in decreased productivity, cooperation, creativity, morale, and learning.

You start to see other team members begin to exhibit the traits of the negative person and disengage from the business, which increases the problems for the team in terms of productivity, cooperation, creativity, morale and learning.

Most managers have met one of these problem employees: Often Maverick employees exhibit these traits.

When an employee hears someone constantly griping about how bad a business or a manager is, even if they are not unhappy in their role, they start to question themselves and it plants a seed of discontent in their mind.

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

The Effects of Bad Behaviour on a Team

The adverse effects of a lone disruptor on a team include:

  • Diminished productivity
  • Fragmented teams
  • Siloed work environments
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Elevated turnover
  • Presentism (fulfilling essential duties only)
  • Resentment
  • Poor output quality
  • Late project deliveries
  • Eroded profits
  • Unhappy clients

Impact of a dishonest employee

If the employee is dishonest, a study by Stephen Dimmock and William C Gerken showed that even your most honest employees is more likely to commit fraud if they work with a dishonest individual.

That study found that dishonest behaviour had a multiplier effect.

Individuals were 37% more likely to commit misconduct if they work with a new co-worker with a history of misconduct.

The more closely employees work together, the stronger the peer effect on misconduct.

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 avoiding having an uncomfortable conversation with one person is worth reducing your team’s productivity by 30-40% and creating massive flow-on effects to your business.

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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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