Most business owners have encountered one of the most troublesome types of employee, the type I call the "high-performing bad apple."
These are individuals who typically do great work--they're sharp, knowledgeable, and influence others--but who have a pervasive bad attitude, challenge company policy or authority, and constantly grouse about work. They also tend to belittle the company--usually behind your back, but sometimes openly.
The problem with these high-performing bad apples (let's call them HPBAs) is that their negativity is almost never contained solely to them; their insidious influence can quickly turn even otherwise happy colleagues against the company.
Effective leaders quickly identify an HPBA and take time to weigh how to handle the situation. And it's a tricky one: You don't want to lose a top performer, but you simply can't allow one person to cripple the whole team's morale.
Here are four steps to dealing with your star's bad attitude.
1. Ask Yourself: Is His Complaint Legitimate?
First, you want to make sure that the bad attitude doesn't stem from a real issue. Perhaps your bad apple has a real right to be angry. If you know you or the company has made some recent mistakes and you feel it's understandable for employees to be temporarily upset, focus your attention on correcting that problem first and foremost.
But for most bad apples, you'll need to deal with the negativity itself--which tends to be centered on that one person's emotional reactions to authority and direction from management, rather than on an external situation.
2. Pinpoint Her Bad Behaviors
A clear sign that you're dealing with an attitude problem is when you witness outbursts over the smallest of issues, even in situations where the majority of employees should have no objection. Sometimes you'll see the negativity yourself; you may also hear about it through the grapevine. Keep an eye out for employees who seem to take personal offense in situations that most should not find offensive.
For example, a saleswoman with HPBA tendencies might blow up when her manager comes to town and doesn't coordinate with her to see an important customer in her territory. It's a minor error in business protocol, a small breach of courtesy--but the saleswoman overreacts due to her own insecurities.
3. Address the Behavioral Problem
You need to address the problem as soon as possible after you begin noticing bad behavior; even one employee's defeatist and contrarian talk can have great influence with his colleagues. It may even affect people in upper management.
If you don't address the problem promptly, you'll likely be seen as weak or out of touch. So what do you say when you call him into your office? Here are the three main bases you need to cover.
- Calmly explain that you've seen their discontent and are worried that it's spreading to others.
- Listen to their complaints, and respond with facts to set the record straight.
- Make an emotional appeal: His behavior is probably driven by emotion, and emotion is neutralized with emotion, not with facts alone.
4. If You Don't See a Change, Take Decisive Action
If you don't see the problem improving but you need to keep the employee, consider restricting her exposure to others to contain her divisive message. And if the bad apple has blown a new situation out of proportion and has already hurt morale, address the situation directly with the other employees before isolating her.
Of course, if you don't see a lasting change, there's always a last resort. If your employee continues to disrupt morale, she usually must be terminated--you simply can't afford the ongoing contamination.
If this path must be taken, be sure you've documented the bad behavior and are avoiding an improper termination. The best policy is always to have "no comment" concerning why an employee was terminated. In the case of the bad apple, most will intuitively understand.
If the situation necessitates a public statement, however, be sure to get legal or HR review to avoid slander. Communicate the approved statement first to the affected managers, then to their direct reports.
In the end, taking action will signal to everyone that you are engaged in the business, that you know what's going on among employees, that you care about their well-being--and, above all, that you're dedicated to maintaining a cohesive and successful organization.