The study, conducted by Will Felps, a Ph.D. candidate in management and organizational behavior, Professor Terence R. Mitchell, and graduate student Eliza Byington, all from the University of Washington Business School, examines the ways in which the negative behavior of proverbial "bad apples" can wreak havoc on a workplace. Unsurprisingly, bad apples undermine creativity and problem-solving, stymie learning, escalate conflict, distract co-workers from their tasks, destroy trust, and produce a host of other ill effects that no organization can afford to ignore.
The study was inspired by the experience of Felps's wife with a bad apple in her own workplace:
Felps' wife was unhappy at work and characterized the environment as cold and unfriendly. Then, she said, a funny thing happened. One of her co-workers who was particularly caustic and was always making fun of other people at the office came down with an illness that caused him to be away for several days.
"And when he was gone, my wife said that the atmosphere of the office changed dramatically," Felps said. "People started helping each other, playing classical music on their radios, and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were.
She hadn't noticed this employee as being a very important person in the office before he came down with this illness but, upon observing the social atmosphere when he was gone, she came to believe that he had a profound and negative impact. He truly was the "bad apple" that spoiled the barrel."
The study, "How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups", is available (in PDF) at Will Felps's web page.