Misbehaviour in the workplace: bad apples or bad barrels?

Updated / Friday, 3 Nov 2017 09:31

Why do some organisations tolerate misbehaviour on the way to the top? Photo: Alex Roimos https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/

Opinion: when it comes to a culture of bad behaviour in a business, is it the fault of an individual or the organisation? 

If you open a newspaper or turn on your favourite news show, it’s likely you’ll find a number of stories of misbehaviour in the workplace. Sexual harassment is rampant and most stories focus on people like Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein, the big names who leave a string of multi-million euro settlements in their wake. 

But the sad truth is that this type of behaviour is widespread and common. About one quarter of all women, and perhaps as many as 50 percent, will experience sexual harassment in the workplace sometime during their career. Abusive supervision and bullying are widespread. Some surveys suggest that more than half of all workers experience or directly witness workplace bullying.

In the last 20 years, a series of corporate scandals have rocked the business world. We’ve seen the collapse of such companies as Enron, WorldCom, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers as a result of financial irregularities. Major banks, including CitiBank and Wells Fargo, have been forced to pay billions in fines as a result of seemingly fraudulent practices. Major manufacturers, notably Volkswagen, are likely to be tied up in litigation for many years as a result of questionable business practices.

It is clear than many organisations have cultures or pursue strategies that make them particularly toxic 

There are two competing explanations for misbehaviour in the workplace: bad apples or bad barrels. The "bad apples" theory ties misbehaviour to the individuals who engage in harassment, bullying, or dishonesty and looks for character flaws or distorted attitudes and beliefs as explanations for this behaviour. 

The "bad barrels" theory looks to the organisation to explain misbehaviour in the workplace. Many Silicon Valley start-ups are criticised for a "bro culture" that combines the worst aspects of an university frat-house with the arrogance of sudden wealth. A bro culture is characterised by immature, misogynistic, male-oriented behavior. The only rule is "boys will be boys", and misbehaviour is not only tolerated but often encouraged. Research on "bad barrels" has attempted to identify characteristics of organisations that make them particularly vulnerable to tolerating or even encouraging destructive behaviour.

The evidence is that both theories are partially true and that each approach might be useful for understanding particular problems in the workplace. First, many of the same characteristics that make people successful in organisations – confidence, willingness to take risks, leadership – can quickly morph into more sinister forms that are likely to lead to a wide range of abusive and damaging activity. If taken to extremes, confidence can turn into arrogance, the willingness to take risks becomes a lack of respect for social norms and and leadership changes into a narcissistic need for power.


One of the recurring problems in organisations is that the same characteristics that can make a person a successful manager or executive can also cause them to behave in ways that are ultimately destructive.  There certainly are bad apples in the workplace and organisations unfortunately often seek this sort of person out and promote them into positives of power and authority.

On the other hand, it is clear than many organisations have cultures or pursue strategies that make them particularly toxic. There have been several descriptions of a culture of arrogance, disdain for rules and a tolerance of abuse in companies ranging from Uber to Fox NewsVolkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal can be traced in part to a corporate strategy. Here, top management set goals and targets without any clear sense of how these could be achieved, and then held their engineering and manufacturing departments responsible for meeting them. In the end, the only way to meet some goals was to cheat and this is exactly what occurred for over a decade.

Most organisations want to have engaged employees who are highly committed to the company and who are part of a strong culture. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of organisation that can become a "bad barrel".  When an organisation has a strong culture and highly committed employees, it can be easy for the members of that organisation to show hostility to people who do not fit that image or culture. For example, reports of sexual harassment have often been particularly virulent in organisations that were traditionally male-dominated, such as police or the military.

Many of the characteristics that make people successful in organisations can quickly morph into more sinister forms 

A strong sense of identification with the organisation is often the glue that holds together conspiracies to cheat customers, violate laws and regulations and carry out wide-ranging and long-term acts of fraud and misrepresentation. It is often loyalty to the organisation that explains the willingness of employees to co-operate in behaviour that is clearly both dishonest and destructive.

What can organisations do to break these cycles of misbehaviour in the workplace?  Firstly, they should constantly measure and monitor. They need to invest resources to assess and understand their cultures and to use that knowledge to head off problems before they escalate. 

"Most organisations want to have engaged employees who are highly committed to the company and who are part of a strong culture"

Secondly, they need to provide safe and effective mechanisms for employees to report misbehaviour and to receive relief from bullying, abusive supervision and pressure to go along with bad behaviour. Most human resource departments simply do not have the tools and the standing to effectively deal with misbehaviour in the workplace. Organisations who want to take this issue seriously will need to create effective mechanisms that are both credible and effective in providing employees with protection.

Ultimately, bad behaviour in the workplace is a fundamental challenge for the senior leadership in an organisation. Unless this leadership is willing to take visible and effective steps to reduce the incidence and severity of workplace misbehaviour, this will continue to eat away at the sustainability and success of that business.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ