New research from Atlassian suggests that working alongside a bad apple is a common experience for nearly a third of people. Here’s what HR can do to stop them in their tracks.
We’ve all worked alongside a bad apple at some point. There’s the person who speaks over you in every.single.meeting; there’s the office gossip who stirs up trouble just for the sake of it; and don’t even get me started on the passive aggressive coworker who’s always trying to tear you down.
These negative micro-behaviours may seem innocuous, but when left unchecked the consequences can be dire.
New research from Atlassian found that 26 per cent of 2000 people surveyed across Australia and the US reported working with a bad apple. Worryingly, 14 per cent said that person was their manager. These people were found to poison an otherwise cohesive team culture and made their colleagues more likely to resign.
Obviously, these aren’t the types of employees you want dominating your workplace culture, so how can you filter them out of your organisation? Atlassian Futurist Dom Price has a few ideas.
Are you creating them?
Before learning how to screen out a bad apple, it’s worth assessing if you’re doing anything to perpetuate their behaviour.
In an article for the AFR about this research, Price posed an interesting question: are employers hiring bad apples or are they creating them?
Speaking to HRM, Price suggests traditional work cultures could very well be to blame.
“Many employers have created a recognition system that supports those people. They don’t get punished, they get put on a pedestal,” says Price, who is also a member of AHRI’s Future of Work advisory panel.
This might look like someone being praised for surpassing their KPIs, even though they threw people under the bus in the process. Or it could be awarding an outspoken employee with a promotion because they’re perceived to have better ‘people skills’, but they’ve actively blocked others from having the space to flourish.
“Then [other people] look at them and think, ‘Well, that behaviour led to success, so I’ll just mirror that.’ And it becomes systemic. The person who speaks the loudest or is a little more aggressive, is suddenly called ‘assertive’. And you think, ‘Really? Are those the behaviours we want? Organisations that have a desire for creativity, innovation and adaptation aren’t going to get that in that environment.”
When bad apples are left to their own devices, the good people in your organisation are likely to head for the door, as we know from previous research that many people would rather quit than have an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague.
“Or, even worse, they stay but become totally disengaged. They just toe the party line.”
Add a values test to your hiring
In some instances, however, you may be hiring them. A bad apple is often well-equipped to charm their way through a job interview.
While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the chance of a bad apple slipping through, Atlassian has done its best by introducing a ‘values interview’ into its recruitment processes.
This is a portion of the interview that outlines to prospective hires how they are expected to act while at work. Each interview panel will include a ‘value interviewer’, not to focus on the candidate’s technical know-how but their values and culture alignment alone.
“The values interviewer has veto rights,” says Price. “I was the values interviewer for a role recently. Technically the person was really good. They’d got really good marks in their first two interviews. But I said, “I’m a no” and, after we had a discussion, [the rest of the panel said], “Okay, we’ll let [the candidate] know.
“As the HR community, we need to step up to the fact that if we don’t do anything, we’re complicit. If we don’t do anything, that’s choosing to do something.” – Dom Price, Futurist, Atlassian
“It was about one of our values which is ‘be the change you seek’. That’s a very important value to us because as we scale, we can’t hire people who need to be told how to drive change. We need people who say, “You know what? I don’t like the way that’s working over there. I’m going to work out why and I have the intent to make it better.'”
The candidate was asked how they’d respond to a friction point they might face in the workplace.
“It wasn’t a pass or fail question. We just wanted to learn about their process. And this person’s response was about how they’d complain and it being upper management’s fault.”
After a second and third opportunity was given to the candidate to change their response, it became clear this wasn’t someone who would take ownership or drive change.
“I said to them, ‘I don’t think you’re going to enjoy this environment because that’s a fundamental expectation of how we work. If we’re having an hour-long meeting, I’ll give you five minutes to whinge about a problem and then 55 minutes to solve it.”
These value interviews are two-way, Price adds. He believes it’s important for candidates to get an authentic view of what life at the company would be like.
“The mistake a lot of people make with Atlassian is that they look at our videos and website and think, ‘That would be a really cool place to work’. And it is, but we hold a really high bar for our people to innovate, delight and perform every day. And that’s not an environment for everyone.”
There’s great benefit in being able to present the realities of working at your company, warts and all. It could prevent you from the costly situation of losing talent three or six months into the role because they’re not experiencing the culture they were sold.
It’s inevitable that the odd bad apple will slip through, says Price, but often they’ll change.
“When I was hired by Atlassian, I had some very archaic ways of working. I was a product of my old environment. Thankfully, someone saw some potential in me. Again, it’s not a pass or fail thing. It’s about saying, has this person got the potential to drive improvement and adaptability? When you have that mindset, you get people who will help you sustainably grow.”
Take the individual focus out of performance reviews
If bad apples slip through the values interview, they’re usually picked up in Atlassian’s new take on performance reviews.
“Like everyone else, it used to be based on individual performance. Say you’re the bad apple. You’ve nailed your sales targets, but you’ve been a complete a***hole in how you got there, you’re going to get an A star in most companies because you made your number. Then you go on to repeat that behaviour.”
At Atlassian, individual performance only accounts for a third of your performance review score. Another third looks at how you perform within your team.
“It asks how you turned up for your team. So all of a sudden your peers and teammates are important stakeholders. That makes things demonstrably different.”
The final third looks into how you lived the company’s values.
“How you got somewhere is just as important as what you got,” says Price.
“A lot of companies will say that, but then their reward system is like, ‘Just do the number. I don’t care how you get there, or if you burn people out in the process, as long as you make the number, we’ll support that.’
“Flipping that to make outcomes account for a third [of their performance review] has made a massive difference for us because it’s basically eliminated the ‘brilliant jerk’. These are people who deliver, but look at the damage they cause. We said we’ve got no room for them.”
Need to stamp out bad behaviour in your organisation, such as bullying or harassment? AHRI’s short course is designed to arm you with effective resources to effectively manage these situations. Sign up for the next session on 5 July 2022.
Solve at team level
Eliminating the bad apple behaviour doesn’t mean firing the person who’s exhibiting it, says Price.
“That can often be futile. It’s about understanding the dynamics of how a team comes together and thinking about how you can democratise that in a way that every team owns [their values].”
Last year, HRM spoke with Price about the unhealthy state of teams across the globe. Employers were often trying to tackle things such as poor wellbeing or cultural issues at an organisational level, which is where inertia often kicks in.
“So we say to leaders, ‘You own the health of your team. You can’t go to HR for this.’ Then we ask, ‘How can we help you do that?’
“This team-centric approach means that if someone with bad apple tendencies slips through – and we all have our moments – a team can go back to their social contract which dedicates how they communicate and how they deliver feedback, for example. This approach not only helps our teams to succeed, it has helped us to stay nimble. Then it’s not the onus of HR alone to drive performance.”
So what should you do next time you see a bad apple in action?
“As the HR community, we need to step up to the fact that if we don’t do anything, we’re complicit. If we don’t do anything, that’s choosing to do something.”
If you’re deciding that this behaviour isn’t something you stand for, HR has to start asking questions such as: ‘How can we empower people to uphold these values in the hiring process? How can we make sure our onboarding experience is giving people a really good taste of what it means to work for our company? How do we make sure our performance reviews are more rounded? And how do we democratise team health?
“These are all things that HR are involved in that will reduce the chances of hiring a bad apple, or lessen the impact if one slips through,” says Price.
“The quicker we call out that behaviour, either as peers, as bosses, or, if you feel safe enough, as subordinates, the quicker that person has the chance of changing or self-selecting out.”