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  • Jason Starke, Ph.D.

Organizational Pathogens

Updated: Feb 20

In any given organization, there always seems to be that so-called “bad apple”. This is the individual who is consistently difficult, possibly aggressive, and one who potentially likes to bend or break the rules. In the context of safety during high-risk operations, these individuals can be deadly. An example of this is the accident involving a B-52 at Fairchild AFB in 1994. The commander, Lt. Col. Arthur Holland, had been considered a rogue in the organization (Kern, 1997) which was left unchecked and contributed to the tragedy. The problem is these “bad apples” can “infect” others leading to the moniker of organizational pathogens.

An organizational pathogen - not to be confused with Reason’s idea of a resident pathogen - is an individual in the workplace that acts contrary to the best intentions of the organization and those around him or her. These individuals are like viruses in the company that have the potential to infect those around them (Newswise, n.d.). Sometimes these pathogens can be bullies that instill fear in their colleagues. Other times, it can be an individual who continually cuts corners and deviates from operating procedures from a sense that these instructions are for “others” and not them. Regardless of their actions or intentions, organizational pathogens can have a profound negative effect on the workplace and the overall culture within an organization.

Organizational pathogens arguably can be the catalyst for a downward spiral in the morale and effectiveness of a team (Newswise, n.d.). The counter-productive and errant behaviors of the pathogen cause stress and distrust amongst the employees who tend cope at work through denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear (Executive Forum, n.d.; Newswise, n.d.). Unfortunately, in terms of productivity, morale, and even safety, negative behavior far outweighs positive behavior (AMA, 2019; Newswise, n.d.; Robert I. Sutton, 2012; Tierney & Baumeister, 2019). This means that a single pathogen has a more profound impact than several positive behaviors from the other workers. This also translates into obtaining quality talent in the future as happy employees are 186% more likely to recommend their company for employment. If employees are deflated due to a pathogen and end up not trusting the organization, they are less likely to recommend the organization for employment - or worse yet - leave (Zender, 2018). The issue is that when an organization condones the behaviors of the pathogen, it is really signing off on them.

The sad truth is many organizations do not have very effective ways for dealing with pathogens (Newswise, n.d.). Oftentimes, managers keep pathogens around because they lack the courage to confront their behavior for fear of the perceived consequences it would bring (Executive Forum, n.d.). In a so-called “Just Culture”, policy should give managers the mechanisms to deal with intentional deviant behavior. However, as stated earlier, management dealing with a pathogen is less the norm and more the exception. In fact, it was found that “toxic employees” or pathogens, are simply ignored 44% of the time (McDonough, 2019) . This begs the question as to why an organization would retain a toxic individual despite the negative effects it can have on the organization.

Some reasons that organizations may be reticent to deal with a pathogen - other than fear of retaliation - is that employee may have tenure with the organization, much experience, power, or all three (AMA, 2019; Executive Forum, n.d.). These individuals may be perceived as difficult or impossible to replace and therefore tolerated or ignored. In the B-52 crash referenced earlier, the pathogen in this case was a Lt. Colonel with much experience on the aircraft. Could this have been a reason that - despite the numerous concerns expressed by other crew members prior to the crash (Kern, 1997) - this individual was retained? Leaders who do not make dealing with pathogens a high priority do so at the peril of the organization.

So what can be done to protect the organization from pathogens? The first action is screening during the hiring process. Identifying problematic character traits and behaviors during interviews would be considered the first line of defense (Newswise, n.d.). Further mitigations should include manager training. It was found that many leaders lack the skills and confidence to effectively deal with pathogens (McDonough, 2019). Investing in these skills and instituting strong organizational policy in regard to pathogens to build confidence are probably the best options for effectively dealing with pathogens (McDonough, 2019). In the worst case scenario, where a leader cannot rid the organization of the toxic individual due to that individuals status or experience, Sutton (2012) recommends “subtracting” them from the workplace environment. In the sense of aviation operations where the pathogen is negatively influencing safety, it might mean removing him/her from hazardous operations and giving them other duties. Regardless, as stated, doing nothing is the same as condoning and leaders need to take action against these pathogens.

Organizational pathogens present a real threat to organizations through their own actions and the ability to “infect” others in the workplace. These pathogens have a way of reducing morale and weakening culture. In the context of safety, pathogens can be dangerous. Ignoring the behaviors of these toxic individuals is the same as condoning them. Leaders need to take action to “inoculate” the organization to rid it of these pathogens.



AMA. (2019). Managerial Rx-How to Get Rid of Bad Apples. American Management Association.

Executive Forum. (n.d.). Beware of the Bad Apples You Keep. Executive Forum.

Kern, T. (1997). Redefining airmanship. McGraw-Hill.

McDonough, J. (2019). Bad apples. Employers Council Blog.

Newswise. (n.d.). Workplace “bad apples” spoil barrels of good employees. ReliablePlant. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from /Read/4768/workplace-bad-apples

Robert I. Sutton. (2012, March 12). What Good Bosses Do With Bad Apples. Fast Company.

Tierney, J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2019). The power of bad: How the negativity effect rules us and how we can rule it. Penguin Press.

Zender, T. (2018, March 16). Leadership Lesson: 6 steps to remove a rotten apple from the barrel. Phoenix Business Journal.

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