Paymaster Magazine

It only takes 1 bad apple to infect the rest


Headshot Renier KrigeAuthor: Renier Krige, Founder and CEO of HRDirect

You might know the saying, “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” But, is this true from a business and team perspective? The answer is yes! Behavioural research has confirmed that a single team member with a toxic attitude can negatively influence the behaviour of his/her team members.

It only takes 1 person (with a toxic attitude)

Consider one of the teams involved in the Cape to Rio Yacht Race: with a crew of 15 members, collectively the team is accountable for the overall success of the voyage. Consequently, when the yacht crew is 500 sea miles into their journey across the Atlantic Ocean and one of the crew members develops a toxic attitude, then this person’s behaviour is not only a risk to themselves, but also to those crew members closest to them. Eventually, a single crew member’s toxic attitude places the entire voyage at risk.

Three employee-types like three colours of a traffic light

I believe that there are three types of employees in any organisation. One may compare these employee-types to the colours of a traffic light.

Your green employees are your brand ambassadors. They are cognitively and emotionally connected to the brand and will authentically represent the brand wherever they go. Orange employees may be best-described as “corridor terrorists.” These are your classic fence-sitters who are not yet fully engaged and aligned to the business brand. The good news however, is that these employees can be converted. The red employees may be termed, “psychic vampires.” They ‘drip with blood’ and will arrogantly state that they do not like the organisation they are working for. They might even go as far as saying that do not want to work for the organisation either.

In the 28 years that I’ve been practicing as an HR professional, I have yet to discover a recipe that suitably (and permanently) converts a red employee to green one. Some interventions might lead to temporary improvements in an employee’s toxic behaviour. However, an employee with an inherently toxic attitude will—almost always—remain with, or return to their former bad attitude.

What might the remedy be?

So, what should the HR manager do? What might the remedy be? Two specific actions are key:

  1. Never appoint a toxic employee. To proactively assist with the identification of different attitudinal types, there are psychometric assessments available. These specialised tests help to identify specific attitudes (and values) in job-seeker candidates. These tests help you to proactively manage your talent risk by suitably appointing candidates that best-match a variety of likely team-cultures within an organisation.
  2. If the employee is already in your employment, you may wish to consider terminating their employment. In South Africa, terminating an employee’s employment—for reasons which include a significantly infectious toxic attitude on the part of an employee—need not be as complex or as cumbersome-a-task as it seems. Be sure however, that when doing so, you do it within the full ambit of South African labour law. Albeit that labour legislation in South Africa provides solid employment-protection for employees, these same labour laws also cater for employers who may need to terminate the contract of an employee who consistently affects the organisation in a negative way. The key to doing this with success, lies in following a fair process—for a substantively fair reason—coupled with consistent action having been taken by the employer throughout the process.

In closing, whilst it is never enjoyable to have to dismiss an employee, the risk of a toxic attitude infecting the morale and attitudes of other employees within your organisation is too great. The bottom-line is this: to do something about one person’s bad attitude is far better than to do nothing at all, … even if it means permanently removing the employee with the toxic attitude from the organisation.



About the author: Renier Krige is founder & CEO of HRDirect. HRDirect is a human resources services and solutions offering that assists organisations with understanding and implementing all elements associated with the employee life-cycle.


Paymaster People Solutions (Pty) Ltd is a subsidiary of Grant Thornton Advisory Services Cape (Pty) Ltd
Grant Thornton Advisory Services Cape (Pty) Ltd is a member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd

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Adrian Baillie-Stewart

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