One Bad Employee Can Spread Like Cancer Even in a Healthy Culture

One Bad Employee Can Spread Like Cancer Even in a Healthy Culture

I recently saw a sign in a business window that read: “We are hiring.” Then it listed numerous positions, likely every position they had. That wasn’t what shocked me, though. What was shocking was the message at the bottom of the sign: “We do not drug test.”

So many businesses continue to look similarly desperate when they are understaffed, making them less attractive to top talent. Most companies hire reactively, racing to fill openings caused by either turnover or growth. When companies reactively hire, their objectivity is distorted and their hiring standards become compromised, because one bad employee can spread like cancer even in a healthy culture.

The brands that will survive the Great Resignation Era will be the ones who remained relentless with their hiring standards

In business and private settings, it takes only one

The age-old proverb “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel” serves as a perfect metaphor for workplace culture. I find the results of the following experiment to be such an “aha!” leadership moment.

In 2006, Will Felps, today an associate professor at the University of New South Wales Business School in Sydney, conducted a fascinating study demonstrating contagious behavior in the work environment. He split his college students into groups of four and instructed each team to complete a management objective. In addition, he offered the team who performed the best a hundred dollars each. What the students didn’t know was the professor included an actor on some of the teams. These actors played one of three roles: a “Slacker” who would disengage, put his feet up on the table, and send text messages; a “Jerk” who would speak sarcastically and say things like, “Are you kidding me?” and “Clearly, you’ve never taken a business class before”; or a “Depressive Pessimist” who would look like his cat had just died, complain the task was impossible, express doubt that the team could succeed, and sometimes put his head on the desk.

Felps’ first finding was that even when other team members were exceptionally talented and intelligent, one team member’s negative attitude brought down the effectiveness of the entire team and created a toxic work environment. In dozens of trials conducted over monthlong periods, groups with one underperformer did worse than other teams by an alarming rate of 30 to 40 percent. It truly only takes one to make a huge impact on organizational culture.

To make matters worse, the other members started mirroring the poor team member even in the short time of one class. As Felps explains, “Eerily surprising was how the others on the team would start to take on his characteristics.”

When the impostor was a Slacker, the rest of the group lost interest in the project. Eventually, someone else would announce that the task just wasn’t important. If the actor was a Jerk, others in the group also started being jerks by insulting one another and speaking abrasively. When the actor was a Depressed Pessimist, the results were the starkest.

Says Felps, “I remember watching this video of one of the groups. You start out all the members are sitting up straight, energized, and excited to take on this potentially challenging task. By the end, they have their heads actually on the desk, sprawled out.”

If you spend most of your time coaching an employee up, trying to get them to “get it,” you are hiring poorly

John R. DiJulius III, author of The Customer Service Revolution, is president of The DiJulius Group, a customer service consulting firm that works with companies including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Ritz-Carlton, Nestle, PwC, Lexus, and many more. Contact him at 216-839-1430 or

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