Dealing with Bad Coworkers in a Startup

It’s important to get the right people into a startup. The size alone requires it. One bad apple means a huge percentage of your barrel is spoiled.

But what do you do if it’s not your startup? If you don’t have firing authority? What do you do if a colleague is a bad apple?

In a large corporation, you have many options.

  • Talk to the colleague and see if there are ways to make him more effective.
  • Talk to his manager to express your concerns.
  • Talk to the company founder(s) about the colleague.
  • Transfer to a different team.
  • Leave the company.
  • Do nothing.

In a startup, transferring someplace else isn’t an option. Sometimes, neither is leaving, especially if you care deeply about the company’s mission. Caring deeply means doing nothing is not acceptable either.

There are no clear-cut rules for the first three options. They would be more clear-cut if you were at a large corporation, but startups are different. Your course of action depends on the culture of the startup and your relationship with the various parties.

Talking to the colleague directly is usually the best option. The individual may not realize how his behavior is effecting others. He may be a great employee, but not have the right tools or information to do his job well. It’s entirely possible that this bad apple can be mended.

I’m generally not an advocate for going to someone else’s manager before speaking to that person first. It’s a bit disrespectful. But if you’ve already spoken to the colleague, involving his manager is a viable next step.

Going to the founders is a last-straw option. Typically, founders are busy people and may not be able to react effectively, though that depends on their personalities and priorities.

And as a founder, I would want to know about a trouble employee. However, it would need to be something particularly egregious. If your complaint turned out to be unfounded or just a personal grudge, I would label you a complainer. Also, you were hired because you’re a self-starter, and I would wonder why you can’t handle this problem yourself.

With that said, there’s really no room for bad apples. If all other avenues have been tried, sometimes the best way to handle bad apples is to toss them out of the barrel. That would be a call for your colleague’s manager or the founders. If it’s clear that the colleague is that kind of apple, hopefully they will do the right thing for the startup.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.