When I picked up a pack of strawberries at the grocery store, I stood there for a moment and smelled their fresh aromas and examined how beautifully red they were. I could almost taste how juicy and sweet they would be. I even went into the future for a moment in thinking how satisfied I would feel after I ate them on a piece of white cake after dinner, and how much my kids would enjoy them. It made me feel happy. 

You know how this story goes. As more things got piled into the refrigerator over the next few days, the strawberries got moved to the back, out of sight. When I rediscovered them, I remembered all the good thoughts I had about them. I pulled them out and to my dismay, I saw that one little rotten guy had gotten the best of the strawberries around him. Half my container had been spoiled! I was so disappointed to throw some of them away, as there was no recovery. If only I had opened them the day I bought them, I would have discovered that one of those berries looked less than stellar; I could have saved the other six before they were tainted. 

This scenario is one business owners have dealt with. One bad apple, one rotten tomato, or one nasty strawberry. They all started out as being the best version of themselves, full of flavor and life. But over time, a little bump or scratch can cause that piece of fruit to start to rot. And in a short amount of time, they can spoil a whole bunch of fruit if not removed quickly. That one bad apple can tell the other apple how unfair their work hours are. And that one rotten tomato can tell another that their direct manager doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And that one nasty strawberry can complain to another that we shouldn’t have to clean up every day when we leave the jobsite. 

Before you know what’s happened, the bunch is spoiled.

It Just Takes One

As owners and operators, if we don’t take the culture and employee morale seriously, we can have a ruined business right before our eyes. It can trickle down to the workmanship and quality, to the treatment of customers and to the interaction with each other and management. And sometimes all it takes to start down this path is one bad apple (or strawberry). 

I speak from experience on this. Not just one experience either; I have let the rot spoil more than I care to admit because I was scared. But being scared came with a huge price to the organization and the mess I had to clean up was worse than the fear of a bad conversation. 

One employee in particular was a high revenue-generating individual. Losing someone who produced so much in sales was scary enough; their knowledge of the industry also would be a lot to lose. But the attitude and poor work habits they had affected everyone around them. They took advantage of grey areas, they upset people they needed to work closely with, and undermined the process any chance they could get. They would manipulate and disregard requests. They would throw people under the bus to protect themselves. It was a mess. 

And I let it go, because I thought we can’t do it without them. Their sales are too much to lose. But high sales don’t always equate to high profits. 

Thankfully, this person is no longer with the organization. And while it was difficult at first, it was one of the best things that happened to the company. 

Since then, I have realized attitude is such an important aspect to the whole pie; I will not let one bad apple ruin it again. Allowing a certain type of behavior to occur without feedback, discipline, or a change in behavior is softly showing others this type of behavior is acceptable. And so, the spoiling of the bunch continues. These are examples we deal with daily in high turnover positions, but also are still completely true in higher level positions as well. 

In any case, I follow three rules when it comes to dealing with a bad apple.

1. Immediate Feedback

This first step is key to successful future behavior – early intervention. If an employee has acted in a way that could build upon poor work habits, address the behavior early in a neutral way before it can spiral beyond recovery. Focus on the behavior versus the attitude or feeling. And do not discount neutral positive feedback as well. With overall consistent feedback, employees will understand the expectations of their behaviors. In identifying early, we hope to deal with and address the main, root problem. Facing the problem head-on and in a neutral way, while the issue may be fresh or has only occurred once, can restore the relationship with the employee before any additional damage can be done. 

2. Accountability

Has the behavior occurred more than once? The next step is accountability. If you are giving someone feedback on a same root behavior with no change, it’s time for accountability. Unacceptable behavior should be documented and written up. Behaviors should be immediately addressed just as above, and documentation and write ups solidify the importance of it. An opportunity for coaching could be included here to encourage better future behavior. Accountability doesn’t have to be negative; it can be a chance for personal reflection and growth. 

3. Departure

Behaviors can be changed. And in all the above steps, my hope is that the employee has taken the feedback and accountability well and has made the decision to change their behaviors, which wouldn’t make them a bad apple. 

However, if they have not and the problem remains consistent even with coaching and write-ups, the employee should be terminated. Keeping someone on your team who is tainting others will only spread negativity and rot to others around them. 

In following this process, I have had two recent experiences that had the potential to rot the whole bunch. The first person, Employee A, nailed the interview. They showed motivation and excitement. They were kind and ready to work. During the first few weeks of employment, they interacted with the other employees very well. This person was generous and performed outstanding, thorough work. Everyone in upper management talked about this person and was excited to have someone with this quality on our team. I felt blessed that we had found someone with such a good attitude and willingness to work. 

But then, one day, Employee A had some words of disagreement with a manager. It is fully acceptable to disagree with a manager and have a professional discussion about it, but instead, this person decided to do it in front of the rest of the team, in a loud condescending voice and then preceded to argue about the answer, all in front of the team. Incidents like this continued in showing a complete disrespect of the direct manager and discussions with other employees about being unhappy about the type of work provided. While Employee A continued to work, the attitude they carried with them was negatively impacting others around them. The rot was starting to affect the others. This person was coached, but did not change, and was let go. 

Another hard-working employee, Employee B, who was always on time, started to show up late without a phone call. Excuses were given each time having to do with the alarm not going off, or shutting the alarm off. Employee B was written up each time with a very direct discussion on why it was important to be on time for their job. It was an expectation that was placed and clearly communicated. Because this employee did not change their behaviors, they were let go. 

As leaders, our job is to encourage others in the organization to be effective and productive in their work. But the power ultimately lies within the individual to make the decisions on how they will act and behave. And if the individual has not found it within themselves to change, then the risk to the organization of poor attitude and performance should not be accepted. Remember, a rotten piece of fruit will only spoil the others if not dealt with immediately. The longer they sit unchecked, the more others will be affected.