Good service seems to be tough to come by these days, particularly in the retail industry.

According to a review of the 2012 American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) by 24/7 Wall St., America’s largest retailers aren’t earning high marks with their customers. Discount giant Wal-Mart (WMT) came in last in the study with a score of 71 out of 100 points for customer service (industry average was 76.6), while CVS, Sears (including K-Mart), and grocery store Safeway also scored below –average marks.

Maintaining consistent, high-quality customer service is a tall order for any sized business, but it can be the deciding factor among customers on where to spend their money.

Poor customer service is often rooted in the attitudes of just a few outlier employees that have slipped through the cracks. The challenge for managers is acknowledging and addressing the negative impact these folks can have throughout the company and curb it. In other words, managers need to be willing to step up and deal with the bad apples that may be spoiling the bunch. 

Motivation is Infectious

There are few things worse for managers than having to deal with a poor-performing employee with a bad attitude. Beyond the pain of dealing with human conflict, there are also human resource issues, corporate policies and legal concerns to navigate. As an unfortunate result, far too many managers just avoid dealing with poor performers all together. Taking the ostrich approach will only make matters worse because unresolved problems… well, stay unresolved.

A recent article in Psychology Today by Professor Ron Friedman highlighted a study on the notion of motivational synchronicity. The study conducted by Friedman and his colleagues out of the University of Rochester found that when workers were paired with less-motivated partners, their levels of inspiration and performance suffered. In other words, the bad apples tended to poison the bunch.  

“The more people we see expressing a particular feeling, the more likely we are to adopt it ourselves, amplifying it in the process,” Friedman explained in the article. When managers have workers constantly expressing negative attitudes it will spread throughout the office and cause everyone to suffer. On the flip side, the researchers found that being paired with a highly-motivated individual had positive effects.

The findings may seem obvious, but they don’t seem to be the driving management practice in the corporate world as evidenced by the ACSI findings. It’s one thing to know about the ill effects of poor motivation, but it’s entirely another to actually do something about it.          

The Courage to Offer an Opportunity

All too often, people fall back on sticking with the status quo even if they know it makes them unhappy or isn’t working in their favor. There is contentment in familiarity, especially when other prospects look bleak. Many workers across this country are working in jobs they don’t like for companies they have no allegiance to. As a result, we have disengaged workers going through the motions while their engaged counterparts fight to pick up the slack. It is a manager’s responsibility to step in and identify any “bad apples” and figure out the best way to fix the problem: whether it’s firing them or re-shifting their bad attitudes  

Firing a worker is one of the toughest challenges a manager will face, but as Friedman’s research suggests, keeping a bad employee can have irreversible damage on a company.

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, was notorious for firing the bottom performing 10% of his managers every year. While the sweeping cuts were controversial, it shows he took the responsibility to maintain a positive environment for those who excelled.

Building up the courage to face a low performer with a bad attitude isn’t easy, but the decision to do so should be a no-brainer. In many cases, having them move on will help their career by finding the right employment fit.

As horribly cliché it may sound, it really does only take one bad apple to spoil the bunch. It will be up to managers to decide how long they are willing to let that bad apple rot before reaching in and pulling it from the crate.  

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and the new on-line course The YOU Plan for Career Change on Udemy. Dr. Woody is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership. Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook.