It's not just a colloquialism! One bad apple really will spoil the bunch, both in nature, and in company cultures!
In nature, a bad apple in the box will speed up the ripening process, or worse, it can introduce parasites or worms that will attack the good apples. It's much the same in company cultures. A "bad apple" employee can infect others around them with parasitic thoughts and ideas. Worse, however, is the effect on the employees perception of their leadership team when that team allows a "bad apple" employee to remain and operate in the company unchecked. You wouldn't buy apples from a grocer that routinely displayed or sold bad apples and employees are no different. They won't respect leaders that refuse to deal with the "bad apples" in their organization.
To quote author and leadership coach, Patrick Lencioni, "hard culture is what the leadership of a company focuses their time and attention on and how they go about making decisions." But as it pertains to personnel, it boils down to who a company hires, rewards and keeps and who they repel or reject. Leaders are watched closely by their teams to see what they reward and encourage what they discourage or repel.
Now this all sounds pretty straightforward, right? I mean, a bad apple should be easy to spot and remove, shouldn't it? But it's not always that simple. People are not one dimensional. For example, an employee might be a technical expert, whose experience is rivaled by no other in your industry, but that same employee might not share the company's vision or values, or support it's culture. Should you tolerate the employee's lack of support for the company's culture because they might give you a technical advantage? My answer is an emphatic "NO." Culture is more important than any technical skills one employee could possess.
But as an executive leader, I have not always made the right call in these situations. The reality is that making a change in the situation described above is difficult. We sometimes look for ways to tolerate the bad behaviors, to avoid what we perceive will be the more painful experience of finding a replacement for a technically talented employee. Or possibly, due to limited depth or poor succession planning, the loss of that employee might truly be damaging to the business.
In hindsight, when I have made this wrong choice in the past, my gut instinct had told me to make the change, but I fought my instincts. And in those circumstances, I did not have a mentor or coach available at the time to talk the situation through. Left to your own thoughts, it can be easy to rationalize the wrong behavior.
So what can we learn from my past mistakes (and those of so many others in this situation)?
Culture is more important to your company's success than any one skill set or one employee.
"Bad Apple" employees can severely damage company culture and diminish your credibility as a leader if not dealt with promptly.
Trust your instincts. Don't avoid the hard choice just because the solution might not be obvious. The alternative to making the tough choice could be worse - losing the support of your team!
Seek outside counsel to ensure your thinking is as unbiased as it can be. Emotions play into these decisions as well and independent third party counsel (mentors or coaches) can help you to see through those emotions clearly.
Regularly assess the depth in your organization and your succession plans. This will help you to avoid being in a position where the loss of one employee would appear to be catastrophic, possibly preventing you from making the right choice to keep your culture healthy and thriving.
In the end, "Bad Apples" are indeed easy to spot if you are looking for them. Trust your instincts and remove those "Bad Apples" to protect your culture. You'll be glad you did!