In the crowded, modern business environment, any one person (or group of people) who brings down morale is a serious threat to your bottom line. Whether by spreading gossip, bullying, stealing rewards, or not contributing, we’ve all known employees capable of wreaking havoc on their coworkers’ attitudes. 

The cost of having a bad apple in your team is enough to outweigh the contributions of the other team members — hence the old adage “spoils the bunch.” Negativity in the workplace can spread with the velocity of a nasty virus. 

What happens? Team members want to get away from that kind of soul-draining atmosphere — emotionally and even physically. Then you’ve got employees looking to disengage themselves, and productivity plummets. In other words, unless you solve this issue quickly, your employees will start calling in sick more often, ask to be transferred someplace else, and eventually maybe even quit.

How can you identify a mood-killer in your office? Assuming you’re the boss, they’re likely smart enough to cut back on their negativity around you. If that’s the case, you’ve got to learn to spot the clues.

Clue #1: Visible Displeasure

Unfortunately for them, negative people love to dwell on negativity. That means you’ll often find yourself and other managers running away from their constant complaints and demands. And frankly, you can usually tell a negative worker just by looking at him. They have depression (or angst, or annoyance) painted all over their faces.

This person might be in the middle of a midlife crisis, facing a divorce, or simply hates his life. Whatever the root of his problem is, he can’t keep a poker face while they get the job done. To be fair, it’s not necessarily about the job. But do those things affect the job? You already know the answer.

Clue #2: Not Pulling Weight

If negative employees spent more time working and less talking they wouldn’t be a problem worth writing this article about. Unfortunately, misery loves company. That means you’re more likely to catch a Debbie Downer chatting with coworkers than quietly toiling away.

Their mostly unsolicited conversations waste their coworkers’ time as well as their own, yet few of their colleagues will speak out for fear of further poisoning the environment (kudos to them, if you think about it). In fact, it’s more likely that they enable his behavior by taking some of his responsibilities just to ensure the work gets done on time.

Clue #3: Subtle Bullying

Bad apples will bully other employees as a way to blow off steam. Bullying can come in many ways, from passive-aggressiveness to outright slander, spreading embarrassing rumors, or unwarranted disparagement.

This behavior is incredibly damaging for your company’s morale, so you need to stamp it out before your employees start falling like flies.

Clue #4: Manipulation extraordinaire

The toughest thing about having someone like this in your company is that they’re experts at hiding their true nature. Even when caught red-handed, negative employees will use every trick in the book to draw attention in some other direction.

Whether it’s pointing out coworkers’ shortcomings, claiming victim status, or exaggerating their contributions, bad apples rarely admit their own wrongdoings.

Clue #5: The joker reigns

The unmotivated or unsatisfied employee is often a “joker” who placates coworkers with seemingly innocent and creative comments that cloak his true motive: stripping their self-confidence, degrading a co-worker, and otherwise nullifying activity and production. In other words: class clown, or workplace weasel?

End of the line .. or is it?

If you root out someone affecting the workplace like this, congratulations — you’re a regular Sherlock, and an immediate pink slip might just seem in order. Here’s the rub, though: these morale-killing behaviors were triggered somehow, and what if it was actually you? 

The absolute worst kind of morale problems are generated from situations that involve a justifiably disgruntled employee. Maybe they didn’t get a raise they thought they deserved. Maybe they were treated poorly. The point is, getting rid of someone who hurts the team will only help if that employee is the true source of the problem. So, by all means, use these clues to help you track down the culprit — but also take a look in the mirror to make sure it isn’t you.