A bad employee? There’s no such thing.

Bad Employee

Let’s just come out and say it: there’s no such thing as a bad employee.

Some posterior-puckering middle manager just hurled himself through a plate glass window or stabbed himself with a pencil, so let me elaborate for a few moments. There are definitely assholes in this world (ironically, many of them become senior executives if they stay at a place long enough). At most jobs, there are people who can’t really do the work that’s necessary for the role. All these things happen.

But I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “bad employee.” I’m going to try and walk through the steps here logically. I will begin with a story, as that might resonate more.

Bad employee: I am one. Right?

If you read this blog on the semi-regular, you might know I got fired from my last gig. That was November 2015 — so it’s almost been a year. (Weird to consider that, as an aside.)

So let’s be really clear here. I got fired. That would make me a bad employee, right? This is how most people think about the idea of firing.

This was underscored to me a few months back. I ran into an old co-worker downtown and he basically tells me, “Well, the rap on you there was that you were a bad employee.” Again, no doubt. This is logical. Firing = bad employee.

But was I really?

Let me walk through a couple of different scenarios and contexts here. You might read this section and say “Oh well, this kid got fired, so he’s bitter, and this is just that.” No. That would be wrong. This is me trying to explain a concept that I think puts a lot of people unfairly in the wrong boxes. Here we go.

Bad employee: The priority concept

There’s a lot of research around how most companies are bad at (a) setting priorities and (b) aligning strategy with day-to-day tasks. This shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone. Most hiring processes are pretty low-context and awful, rooted more in rushed cover-your-ass moves than real strategic thinking. It’s hard to get the right people in the door that way.

Most jobs — new and headcount fills — result because some manager feels they’re overwhelmed. Their boss is on their ass about some number, target, metric, etc. Rather than stopping and thinking about how to solve the problems at hand, the manager instantly screeches “I am understaffed!” He/she demands new headcount. Eventually, ’tis granted.

The point is: a lot of jobs don’t need to exist. In the U.S. alone, it’s about 21.4 million — or about 1 in 5 full-time workers.

Now, think about this. If your job —

  • … has no real connection to priority and …
  • … probably doesn’t even need to exist …

… then, how is it possible to be a bad employee? Just by having your ass in a chair and doing something, you’re a value-add. If you weren’t there, someone else would be overwhelmed or slammed. Right? And projects would be falling by the wayside? In a priority vacuum with unclear job roles, there’s no “bad employee.” There might be someone twiddling their thumbs in the corner, yes. But if they digitally push papers for some sense of urgency-driven middle manager, right there is some value.

Bad employee: Fixed vs. variable conditions

Here’s the second argument. The term “bad employee” implies a fixed condition, like “He has a bad attitude.” There are no fixed conditions at work, because work is always shifting and changing — and often on a dime.

There are amazing producers who sometimes look like a bad employee in a specific context — then go back to being amazing producers. Similarly, there are people who get absolutely nothing done all week (21.4 million!) but once in a while on certain projects? They look like rock stars.

We want work to be logical. Love us some process! But work is made up of human beings (for now). As a result, it’s inherently emotional. There’s no fixed set of conditions around “the bad employee.” People are good, bad, indifferent, surly, nice, mean, assholes, great, lovable, huggable, punchable, and more — and often in the span of one week.

Bad employee: The problems with how we think about it

Let’s be real clear here. Confirmation bias is very powerful. If you do an initial project for your boss and a few things are wrong with it, you instantly have a label in your boss’ eyes. And you know what? It’s going to take a while to overcome that label.

We too often paint things in black and white as regards work. “He is a bad employee!” is just one example of this. There are dozens of others.


The problem is often in how we train managers to deal with these situations. Rather than understanding the complexity, we try to force fast results we want. For example, here’s an article on HBR called “How To Manage A Toxic Employee.” Look at this pull quote:

If the carrot doesn’t work, you can also try the stick. “We all tend to respond more strongly to potential losses than we do to potential gains, so it’s important to show offenders what they stand to lose if they don’t improve,” says Porath. If the person is hesitant to reform, figure out what they care most about — the privilege of working from home, their bonus—and put that at stake. For most people, the possibility of missing out on a promised promotion or suffering other consequences “tied to the pocketbook” will be a strong motivation to behave in a more civil way.

Now we’re into the next problem.

Bad employee: Work isn’t about “fixing” people

This is the mistake we often make, and it happens a lot at the managerial level. The theory goes something like this:

“This person isn’t exactly like me, or similar to the other people on my team. They don’t complete projects in the exact series of steps I would. I want them out!”

And lo and behold, the performance improvement plan was born.

The first question you should ask yourself when you see those italics is: “Well, why did you hire that person?”

Once you’ve glossed that over, or realized the hiring process is a subjective pile of shit and broken glass, move to the next question.

Why is work so often about trying to “fix” people, as opposed to developing the inherent strengths of those people?

That second italics is pretty much the essence of why employee engagement stats are often in the toilet.

Bad employee: Back to me for a second

Let’s briefly discuss the place I got fired from. (I deserved to be fired, by the way, but I wasn’t a “bad employee.”)

See that priority section above? One time I saw a woman spend 50 hours — an entire work week — trying to come up with a branded hashtag for an event. Fifty hours. Meetings, calls, rushing around. Priority vacuum. It happens everywhere.

Now onto this “fixing people” portion. I was very different than my direct boss and most of my department. I’m not really classy or elegant in the least, and many of them were. Ultimately, I just didn’t “fit.” We can screech from the mountaintops forever about work productivity, but everyone knows the real fucking deal.

Work is about like-minded people coming together and getting perks around like-minded things. In the process, they pass off as much real work to others as they possibly can. Updating spreadsheets? No thanks, I’m headed to this client dinner. Tom can handle the spreadsheets.

That’s work in a nutshell. It’s a complex game of emotional manipulation, power cores, hot potato on tasks, and bullshit flying all over the cubicles.

But in the course of all this happening, some people are allowed to be defined as “a bad employee.” Their job might not need to even exist. All day, they work on tasks of no value. They propose ideas — and their boss swats them down.

And yet the term persists. You’re now “the bad employee.”

One final bad employee thought: The aspiration paradox

Find a random guy high up a chain in a business. Now assign this term to him: “has aspirations.” That’s a virtue. This guy is a target-hitter! He’s got upper management written all over him!

Now go find someone down the chain. They have a lot of ideas. Pitching constantly. Some of them are even good! How’s this guy viewed?

In functional companies (which are rare), he’s viewed as a “HiPo,” or high-potential employees.

In most companies? He’s viewed as a threat. A bad employee. “What’s this kid’s game? What’s he chasing?”

I always wonder how we created a working world where having ideas and goals scares the shit out of other people, but somehow we did. Oh wait, evolution helped.

Anything else you’d add on the concept of a bad employee?

Ted Bauer


  1. A number of years ago I was asked to join an HR team as a new “coaching arm” they wanted to try. (Pretty revolutionary for HR, I know). I attended one of their super secret employee relations meetings where they talked about all the bad stuff–what certain employees had done to merit HR’s tender ministrations. Something happened at this meeting that was very different: As they discussed some “bad” actions by an employee, rather than the usual “how do we segregate and ‘manage him out,’ the first comment by one of the HR specialists was “Oh my gosh, what did we do to set this person up to act this way??” Under the circumstances it was the exact right question and their actions support your thought about the possible reasons people get labeled a “bad employee.” That’s revolutionary thinking! (Of course less than a year later, this proactive, innovative HR team was consumed by the larger more traditional HR team of the parent organization and all of that “nonsense” about no bad employees was snuffed out forever). The moral of the story is two-fold: It IS possible for organizations to follow your train of thought and support the person before the process, and… traditional HR models don’t support your kind of crazy thinking. —May they all be outsourced to innovative HR contractors who truly understand your concept here. Thanks for the great post, Ted!

    • Great share. I’ve seen similar things, so I know “HR empathy” isn’t just an ironic band name. But at the “scale” level, HR and most managers are a functional mess.

Reply If You'd Like