The Rotten Apple Theory in the Workplace

We give the name of rotten apples to co-workers who employ negativity, criticism, or constant abuse. With their behavior, they contaminate the entire workplace, causing stress, suffering, and low productivity.
The Rotten Apple Theory in the Workplace
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

The rotten apple theory tells us that, in every organization, there’s a worker whose attitude or personality can “infect” the rest through their behavior. These people not only cause discomfort and unhappiness in the work environment but are also a great economic burden for the companies themselves, due to their frequent medical leaves, among other things.

“What can I say? I hired the wrong guy. He destroyed everything I spent 10 years working for, starting with me.”

These words were spoken by Steve Jobs referring to John Sculley. He even had to leave the company he opened because of him. This famous case is by no means the only one. In fact, as a study by the Glassdoor group reveals, 95% of companies claim to have hired at least one bad apple every year.

How is it possible? How much influence can one single person have to be able to alter the foundations of an entire organization and create such a negative impact? Many experts say that it’s a sort of a domino effect.

Some people are so harmful that they’re able to destroy the morale of a whole team. In many cases, the impact doesn’t only affect their co-workers. The clients also end up on the receiving end of their bad practices, incompetence, or toxic personality.

People arguing at work.

The rotten apple theory or how a person destabilizes an entire organization

Although the rotten apple theory has been known for years, we still don’t know what to do to prevent this phenomenon. The University of Washington conducted an interesting study in 2007 directed by Dr. William Felps which set out to demonstrate and explain the causes of this theory.

They were able to show, for example, that the negative behavior of a single worker can have an immense influence throughout the organization. And not only that, work problems often don’t limit themselves to the workplace; they can also affect on personal and familial levels. Work conflicts don’t stay at work; we take them with us.

Here’s how these “rotten apples” infect other people:

  • They dodge their own work responsibilities.
  • Rotten apples are pessimistic, defeatist, and extremely critical of everything and everyone.
  • They act like real thugs. They resort to aggression, intimidation, mockery, and criticism.
  • Rotten apples are also dishonest. They make use of illegal methods, write false reports, and use deception and blackmail.
People working in a team.

Why don’t companies have filters to identify rotten apples?

Something that the rotten apple theory reveals to us is that companies generally follow the practice of hiring quickly and firing slowly.

What does that mean? In many organizations, the need to fill a job can cause a quick and ineffective selection process. Sometimes, that immediacy doesn’t take into account principles and other important factors. On top of this, the tests to assess a candidate don’t allow employers to identify hidden personality factors or possible future behavior in the workplace.

Due to this, employers often get carried away by a candidate’s list of skills and their extensive resume. They focus on their excellent training and experience, how they come across, and their assertiveness. However, they often don’t devote time to try to identify other skills, such as their ability to work in a team, a positive attitude, interpersonal sensitivity, self-control, or emotional intelligence.

A rotten apple.

What to do when a rotten apple escapes the filters of selection processes

We said this at the beginning: on average, each company ends up hiring at least one rotten apple every year. The selection processes fail and they soon start to notice the consequences. The workplace becomes “infected” and fellow employees become frustrated, live on the defensive, have to take time off for stress, and productivity problems appear.

What to do in these cases? Strangely enough, these situations often aren’t resolved quickly. The rotten apple theory tells us that it usually takes a long time for co-workers to intervene, despite the fact that they’re the ones who first suffer the impact of these toxic and negative situations. As we can assume, it isn’t always easy to report or expose their behavior nor convince management to intervene.

These days, many organizations continue to function vertically and not horizontally. This means that there often isn’t much flexibility, nor direct communication between employees and management. This business hierarchy means that rotten apples remain longer, infect more and more situations, and increase instability.

This, quite simply, is wrong. Rotten apples should be detected as soon as possible for the good of the entire organization. After identifying them, management should seek to improve their team-working skills. If this doesn’t work, then they should move them to a less-influential position. Finally, if all of this doesn’t solve the problems, then they should consider firing them.

These types of situations require firm, fast, and decisive actions, as passivity will only worsen the situation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.