Workplace abusers: A few “bad apples” or part of a terribly bad harvest?

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In recent weeks, I’ve encountered multiple variations on the “just a few bad apples” excuse/explanation/dodge, meant to assure others that corruption, violence, sexual harassment or assault, or bullying of employees or customers are the acts of a mere handful of miscreants within an organization, or perhaps even a sole rotten one. There’s always going to be a bad apple or two. He was just a bad apple. It’s hard to screen out every bad apple. It’s unfair to define us by a few bad apples. And blah blah blah.

True, the bad apples analogy may sometimes fit the situation. Maybe an organization that tries to do everything right in terms of hiring, supervision, and review finds itself dealing with that rare bad employee who has mistreated others, and somehow the situation got out of hand.

I’ll concede that possibility.

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples.

Where the bad apples analogy actually fits, frequently it is used to reduce the need for organizational and leadership accountability, as if to say that this unusual occurrence somehow makes the underlying misconduct less serious. Instead, a full-throated apology and promise to make things right would be the stand up thing to do.


7 responses

  1. Thank you, David, for making this point. In the residential setting, including public and subsidized housing, just as in the workplace we should think “bad barrel.” If the leadership ignores, permits, or encourages bullying the situation can become intolerable. Good leaders will deal with individuals or groups that harass and bully others, and create an environment where more appropriate forms of relationship are encouraged.

  2. My being bullied in the workplace situation by a bad apple or apples, wound up to be far too political for my taste, but I asked the Chair of the Democratic Central Committee if he would be willing to just informally mediate, or be a “thirdsider”, in a discussion with the bully and I. His response that I should go to a class on “forgiveness” was a bit off-putting, the opposite of your emphasis on organizational leadership, and an example of enabling, endorsing, empowering and apologizing for bad apples.

    With respect to this country’s histories of exploitation and oppression of other countries and peoples, Obama didn’t hesitate to apologize on behalf of his country. For oppressed and damaged other countries and peoples to be required to just forgive us for our power-over and bullying is just ridiculous. Obama was and is a stand up guy.

    Why should a severely damaged target/victim of workplace bullying/mobbing have their rights co-opted by being encouraged or forced to forgive as opposed to encouraging the bully to finally try and be a stand-up man or woman?

  3. I seems to me that a lot of bullying is learned behaviour that flourishes where there is a lack of accountability. When a target manages to expose the bad behaviour, a rotten employer will deny the problem and displace the “badness” onto the target- who will subsequently be out of a job either by choice or force.
    Victim blaming is the do-nothing, blinders on, unjustified positive image preserving response that guarantees the problem will be perpetuated and eventually create a new workplace culture that undermines legitimate work.

  4. In my personal experience, you’re correct…a few bad apples is another lie/excuse made to continue perpetuating the vicious environment, in order to maintain the power to lie, cheat, steal without penalty or fear of prosecution. (I believe socio/psychopathic behavior toward individuals is a good predictor of the same toward money, power, etc)

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