Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Working Life: Bad Apples:
Dealing with people who just don't get it

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” Mary discussed how to recognize and deal with "bad apples" in organizational life. These folks can destroy organizational morale and productivity faster than you can say William Tell.

Every company, organization or department has at least one employee who doesn’t carry his or her weight, who is actively negative or who sabotages others’ work or performance. You know them: they are the bad apples, and there is one in every bunch. These are the people who don’t do their jobs properly or, conversely, they perform but are complete jerks in the process. They can be lazy, arrogant, mean, untrustworthy, backbiting, condescending, etc. And they can be found in all echelons of an organization.

Basically these are people who don’t respect the organization or their coworkers. Essentially they don’t live the “values” of the organization. And, while values differ from company to company, I’ve never seen “being a jerk” on any company’s value chart.

A bad apple can take a huge toll on a company. Someone who doesn’t carry his weight, is obnoxious, or just plain refuses to play by the rules is like a bad virus. Their attitude and behavior can infect a staff or organization. That, in turn, can affect company morale, trust and productivity. If not addressed your staff will quickly become resentful, jaded and unproductive. And the bottom line will suffer.

The problem is that many managers allow bad apples to fester. Remember—you get what you reward. And when you ignore bad behavior you are essentially rewarding it. By not confronting it and dealing with it, you send the message that it is acceptable. People aren’t stupid. They are going to notice.

In the public sector, government, for example, managers allow this to happen because it is the path of least resistance. Terminating someone is just so time consuming and fraught with potential legal actions that many managers believe it is simply easier to allow bad apples to sit there and rot away. The private sector is more likely to put up with bad behavior if the person is a producer—that is, someone who seemingly serves the bottom line, so his behavior is tolerated. I’m here to tell you that you need to come out from whichever curtain you are hiding behind, because these people are hurting your organization. Do the right thing – confront the situation and get rid of the bad apples.

What is and isn’t bad behavior
So what constitutes a bad apple? Is an occasional outburst or flare-up acceptable? Is bad language okay? How about being late? Each company has to decide what is and isn’t acceptable. You must look to your own corporate value system for the answers. If being late really doesn’t affect the work, then that might be tolerable. But if being punctual is an important part of the job, or if being late angers other co-workers and brings down morale, then it shouldn’t be tolerated.

As an employer, I have tolerated more than I should have at times, especially when the employee was particularly talented and very personable. But if it affected company morale or the bottom line, then the behavior had to stop. I would tolerate the lack of soft skills over hard skills, but there is always a line; the key is to identify it, and it’s different for every company.

How to cope with the bad apples
If the behavior is not so egregious that the person needs to be confronted or fired, then there are some basic coping skills co-workers and managers can employ.
  • Avoidance. Try not to interact with this person any more than necessary.
  • Humor. Try to look at this person as a funny/absurd/opportunity to tell stories. Not the most gracious approach, but sometimes if you can find the humor and the innocence in a situation, it can help you get through it (sexual harassment is not one of them).
  • Consider the political landscape. Is this person really connected? If so, the reality is that you may have to work a bit harder to find a way to deal with this person.
  • Empathy: Most jerks are jerks because there is something deficient about them. And that is kind of sad. Chances are they are jerks in their personal lives as well. Try to find that part of you that would befriend something that was wounded. Try to find some glimmer of humanity. Think Michael Scott from The Office.

When all else fails
Peers and co-workers can play a big role in turning the bad apple around. If the bad apple is a peer, and you feel comfortable doing so, find a way to address the problem tactfully but directly. Do it privately or in a very small, trusted group. Explain to the person what you see him doing and your concerns about it. Express that you want to see him succeed but that you are afraid his current behavior may not be the best way to reach his goals. If nothing happens and you continue to see the ill effects of this behavior, then you must send it up the chain. Find a trusted leader or manager and let them know what is happening. Be sure you can speak articulately and specifically about the impact of the bad apple’s behavior.

If you’re a manager or supervisor and one or more of your employees comes to you with complaints or feedback about a troublesome employee, and you know with certainty that the complaint is valid, you must take action immediately.

There are five steps to take:
  1. Confront the person directly. Tell the person exactly what your concerns are with his behavior. Cite examples. Do not make it personal or single out who complained. Don’t say, “Carol complained about you.” Make sure you do your homework and use “I” or “We. Say: I am not happy with the way you are treating your co-workers.
  2. Describe the impact of the behavior. Use specifics: “When you call your co-workers white trash losers you destroy our teamwork and morale,” or “When you don’t do your weekly reports it adds more work for the rest of your team.”
  3. State the change you want to see. Again be specific. Link to corporate values. “I need you to stop that behavior immediately. You must treat co-workers with civility and respect.”
  4. Be explicit about the ramifications. “If you continue with this behavior, you will be terminated. This is your one warning.”
  5. Follow up. If the behavior is modified then make sure you acknowledge it. Remember, you get what you reward. If the behavior doesn’t change, then you must terminate.

A note about termination... The famous Jack Welch says if you terminate someone for not exhibiting corporate values then you should make that explicit when you speak of the termination. You don’t soft-pedal it by saying “Carol wanted to spend time with her family.” You say, “Carol was asked to leave because she was unable to be a good team player.”
When you get rid of a “bad apple” use it as an opportunity to teach and reinforce your corporate value system.

What if the jerk is you?
Yikes! What do you do if your supervisor has that talk with you? If you are the one with the bad attitude that your co-workers have been complaining about? What do you do? First of all, take a good deep breathe, because you’re going to need it. You have to look at this as an opportunity for growth. Chances are you’ve probably heard this feedback before, so take a good long look at yourself and try to accept the feedback. Make the choice to really look at how you currently operate. Ask your boss for a comprehensive 360 review, where you get feedback from all levels of the organization. This should be accompanied with a game plan for change and a follow-up schedule. You can also ask for a professional coach, who can be a very supportive neutral third party who can give you objective feedback as well as practical guidance in improving how you engage with others.

Above all, don’t spiral into self-loathing or denial. Remember, business is very much a social activity and your behavior may simply be a lack of basic social engagement skills. In many ways we are talking about emotional intelligence. The silver lining here is that with a little work and self-awareness, emotional intelligence and engagement skills can be learned. If you’re the bad apple, you don’t have to be tossed, you just have to accept the challenge to change.

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