Supervising a Bad Apple? Consider Making Applesauce | Handling Problem Employees

“A rotten apple spoils the whole barrel,” it’s said. That means someone let one bad apple rot. Who?

Sadly, I’ve heard plenty of supervisors whine about problem employees and then, by doing nothing, let them spoil the work environment and their careers too. There’s no excuse for this.

Apple analysis

Supervisors are responsible for all the apples allocated to them.

Not every apple is crisp and shiny. Some have dark spots from bruises. Others have shriveled from their time in the barrel. A small number are decaying under the weight of the other apples.

So we need to pick through the barrel and:

  • Put the good ones in the frig so they’ll last
  • Turn the bruised ones into applesauce or pies
  • Discard the truly rotten ones

This way we save most of the lot, getting full value from it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to “bad apple” employees, the first inclination by many supervisors is to come up with a plan to “throw them out.”

They use strategies like:

Passing the buck: The supervisor tells HR the employee is simply a bad fit and asks them to find the employee a job in another department.

Building a case: The supervisor starts to “keep book” on the employee, logging every performance and behavioral misstep, negative impacts on coworkers, complaints about them, and “potentially dire consequences” to the company if retained.

Driving them out: The supervisor makes the employee’s life as miserable as possible by either ignoring or constantly confronting them, nitpicking, reassigning work they like, and creating a no-win environment until the employee can’t take it anymore.

In these scenarios there will never be applesauce or pie.

Giving every apple a chance

Remember those bruised apples and the shriveled ones? Part of a supervisor’s job is to preserve them.

Here are some approaches:

Stop using the label: Whether you’ve hired or inherited a” bad apple,” stop using that label to describe him/her. It’s a negative that stokes dislike, fosters bias, and blackens their good points

Get over your dislike: Take your emotions out of the equation. Your job is to direct, correct, motivate, communicate, and provide feedback that will turn unacceptable behavior around.

Focus on actions: Discipline yourself to deal objectively with your employee’s actions and his/her  impact on the company and coworkers. What you see and hear is what matters, not what you suppose or interpret.

Insist on improvement: Provide specific feedback on areas of improvement, options for achieving it, and milestones to be met. Create clear accountability for making improvements in work output and relationships, with stated consequences if not attained.

Do what you say: Be trustworthy by delivering on your commitments to support  the employee’s improvement initiatives and on the actions you’ll take if they don’t turn around.

Employees who have successfully become bad apples stay that way because they’re getting what they want.  Unfortunately, for some, it’s a badge of honor that they flaunt. Some may be bullies, slackers, or malcontents.

The truth is that some of these employees have gotten themselves in a “negative identity” box they can’t get out of. Sometimes it just takes an effective supervisor to do what’s needed to help them get onto a better path.

Consider all the “bad apple,” ” bad actor” athletes who bounce from one team to another, until there’s that one coach who turns them around. There are examples everywhere that supervisors can follow.

Bad apple employees aren’t usually any happier in that role deep down than the supervisors who have to deal with them.

At least make applesauce

It’s easy to look into the barrel, see one rotten apple, and decide to throw them all out. No business can sustain that and no supervisor can justify it. Our job is to get the best out of our employees, recognizing that all of us have flaws that, if ignored, can be ruinous.

We need to deal with every employee in an open and fair way, helping them to realize their full potential. Perhaps they’ll thank you for helping them with a shiny red apple.

Photo from t1nytr0n via Flickr

7 thoughts on “Supervising a Bad Apple? Consider Making Applesauce | Handling Problem Employees

  1. Excellent analogies! I only have one remark – driving them away, in terms of making their lives miserable at work so much that they want to leave. Isn’t that mobbing and against the law? At least in my country it is :)

    I entirely agree with this approach – trying to get the most out of the given situation and the workforce you have is a characteristic of a good leader.

    • Donna, many thanks for taking the time to write this helpful comment. I’ve never heard the term “mobbing” here. To your point, however, actions by supervisors that would be considered harassment or discrimination to “drive an employee” out would certainly be grounds for grievance and possibly against the law. The degree of pressure I was referring to here was more about actions that would take away the joy, satisfaction, and growth opportunities the employee seeks. What I’ve seen done is creating a kind of “dead end” atmosphere where the employee feels they have no leverage to make their work life better. It’s not a nice thing to do and, to me, is a failure of supervision. Every employee needs a chance to turn things around and someone who’ll invest in them. If that doesn’t work, then the next step is obvious. Great to hear from you, ~Dawn

  2. Hey Dawn – One of your best posts! Businesses need to learn how to manage people, with all their flaws. And give them a chance to grow. Sadly, many managers are either not emotionally capable of that type of commitment to people’s growth, or avoid the hard work. I guess this line of people need assistance as well.

    • Kathy, many thanks for the kudos. Means a lot. Your observation about managers not “emotionally capable” is right on. It’s too bad there isn’t a good was to assess that factor. If it were, employees who be a lot better off! Great comment!

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