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By: Kim Strom, Director of UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Ethics and Policy

Picture of a group of green apples. One apple has spoiled and has contaminated the apples closest to it.Though the phrase “one bad apple” evokes (for some of us) a regrettable ear worm sung by The Osmonds, most people are familiar with the whole adage: “one bad apple spoils the bunch.” In tragedies (gun violence), scandals (corporate fraud), abuses of power (police violence), and other forms of misconduct, pundits and public relations reps assure listeners that the incident represents “just one bad apple.” Lost in translation is the rest of the phrase: the danger that the larger organization, like a barrel of apples, is also rotten.

Bad apples come in all shapes and sizes. They can take the form of unethical leaders who send messages that unscrupulous behavior is expected or tolerated. Laissez faire or self-absorbed leaders may not be toxic themselves, but they may fail to notice or act when uncivil or influential employees detrimentally influence the behaviors of others on the team.

Organizational culture plays a pivotal role in the cultivation and empowerment of bad apples and in the institution’s likelihood of resisting (or capitulating to) harmful personnel. Organizational culture refers to the personality, customs, and attitudes of a company, team, or workgroup (Klann, 2007). Culture may be intangible, but it infuses the environment, and it is manifested in the group’s behaviors and decisions. Culture is influenced by implicit and explicit values (“win at all costs,” “learn from mistakes,” “treat others as you want to be treated”). Values that are strongly articulated and upheld can influence a positive work and team environment. In those cases, bad apples find no foothold and they lack the leverage to affect the team.

However, sometimes values are inconsistent or in conflict. Posters and policies may emphasize respect, but leaders make decisions in secrecy, employees mock customers in the breakroom, and the company listserv is used to circulate offensive jokes and cartoons. In these cases, actions speak louder than words and influence norms of behavior. Is it acceptable for an employee to speak up and say “I’d like us to discuss how the listserv is being used” or “We say we believe in being #1 in customer service, but here we are making fun of the people who hire us.” Or do the norms suggest that people who speak up are punished, excluded, or marginalized? Groupthink, for example, is a sign of a culture of non-dissent. Imagine a meeting where a rash or harmful decision is being made but no one in the room expresses concern or discomfort. People who might speak up notice that others are not and assume it is not safe or acceptable to say anything. Or they might assume that everyone else agrees with the plan. Bystander effect refers to the diffusion of responsibility (or collective irresponsibility) that occurs when many people are aware of a problem, but no one steps forward to intervene. On a large scale, the Holocaust and other tragedies are facilitated by bystander apathy and the low cohesion, commitment, and empathy that contribute to it.

It may be impossible to singlehandedly save an organization from bad apples, but resources exist to advance ethics through personal boundaries, courageous followership, positive values, and a healthy organizational culture. No one wants to be part of a scandal, a crime, or a tragedy. Here’s hoping teams can work together for a better barrel.


  1. Klann, G. (2007). Building character: Strengthening the heart of good leadership. Wiley.
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