Just a bad apple?

中国日报网 2015-07-28 15:17



Reader question:

Please explain “bad apple” in this sentence: “We’ve heard enough ‘It’s just a bad apple’ argument.”

My comments:

I’ve heard enough of the bad apple argument, too but first we have to understand what a bad apple is and does.

A bad apple is a rotten apple. Farmers have long observed that once an apple begins to rot in a basket, other apples begin to rot as well, like, very soon.

Hence the proverb: One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

Metaphorically, when we talk about people as bad apples, we mean to say that a few bad ones in an organization, any organization, will make the whole group look bad or rotten. These few bad people have an adverse influence on others in the same way one bad apple in the basketful of apples spoils the whole bunch.

Now, the bad apple argument.

It goes like this. Let’s say a government official is caught taking bribes, which happens a lot these days actually.

It happens so often that we may as well make it plural and say a few government officials are caught taking bribes, say, earlier this week. The government spokesman will very likely talk to the public, if he does, explaining the situation using the bad apple argument. He’ll say that these are just a few bad apples. Even though they are really bad and should be dealt with severely and without mercy, the organization itself is still good, strong and fresh as ever.

He will, as a matter of fact, assure you (you’ve heard of this before, too, I’m sure) that 99 per cent of officials are wholesome, good and trustworthy, etc and so forth.

But all that jazz is just an attempt to sweep the whole thing under the carpet – so that everybody will stop looking into the matter further and move on.

From America, we hear the bad apple argument a lot, too. Whenever a white police officer kills an unarmed black man, for example, the police department will say the convicted officer (if convicted at all; many of them go scot-free) is just a bad apple amongst good people. In other words, all other white officers love black people.

You see, when you use the bad argument a lot, you run the risk of being accused of using it as an excuse in order to stop people from talking about the larger issues, such as widespread corruption in government or racism on policing the street.

And that is tiresome and….


All right. Here are media examples of “bad apple”, a bad person among supposedly a good group of excellent people:

1. WAY, WAY back, before dot-coms became dot-bombs, Kenneth L. Lay was part rock star, part high priest among rival energy executives. His company, Enron Corp., had seized opportunities created by deregulation and the Internet to transform the energy business, turning itself into America's seventh-biggest public company in the process. At an industry conference in 1999, Mr. Lay was asked how he could top the ninefold expansion of Enron’s market capitalization over the previous decade. According to The Economist, Mr. Lay responded coolly: “We’ll do it again this coming decade.”

Not long after that forecast, Enron admitted that its profits for the years 1997 to 2000 had been overstated by $591 million. That confession began a downward spiral that ended in Enron’s 2001 bankruptcy. But yesterday a Houston jury accepted the government’s contention that Mr. Lay’s bragging was deliberately dishonest rather than merely hollow. Along with Jeffrey K. Skilling, his right-hand man at Enron and briefly his successor as chief executive, Mr. Lay was found guilty of misleading investors about the true state of his firm. The sentencing phase of the trial will begin in September. Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling may spend the rest of their lives in prison.

These convictions follow those of bosses from other firms that imploded around the same time, such as Tyco International Ltd., WorldCom Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp. But Enron was the first and most famous of the corporate failures, and the Lay and Skilling verdicts are the most symbolically significant. The government's prosecutors, who were up against a defense team that cost almost $70 million, deserve credit. The criminals’ victims -- investors who lost savings, and workers who lost both their jobs and their savings because their retirement plans were invested in Enron stock -- may now feel some emotional redress. Meanwhile, many plan to sue for financial redress as well.

There is a danger in this verdict, however. In the wake of Enron’s bankruptcy, some argued that the problems of corporate America were the work of a few bad apples. That argument lost, for the good reason that fully 250 U.S. public companies had to restate their accounts in 2002, up from 92 five years earlier. Corporate America’s problems reflected lax oversight of auditors, conflicts of interest at audit companies, accounting rules with too many inviting loopholes and so on. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in 2002 to fix these systemic weaknesses, now faces a backlash from firms that complain of stiff compliance costs. Although some tweaks in the way the law is implemented may be justified, the welcome Enron verdict should not color the regulatory question. This decade’s business scandals were not just about bad apples, and putting those apples in jail is not going to change that.

- Not Just Bad Apples, WashingtonPost.com, May 26, 2006.

2. You’re probably familiar with the phrase “one bad apple spoils the barrel” referring to one person spoiling things for the rest of us. But did you know that one bad apple on your team has a proven damaging impact on your company’s productivity which in turn is harmful to your bottom line?

As an HR professional and entrepreneur, I know this to be true from experience. But in recent years, it has also been proven in research. Will Felps, a professor at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands found that there are three bad apple personalities that can derail a team, decreasing their productivity by 30% – 40%. In a tough economy, that is a lot of productivity to be losing out on to your competitors. Not only does the team’s productivity go down, but the team will mimic the bad apple’s behaviour, even with each other, something Felps calls the “spillover effect”.

So, what is a business owner or manager to do? First, we need to identify who these bad apples are. The best way of dealing with them is to avoid hiring them in the first place and we will cover that in this article. The next article will cover how to deal quickly and effectively with any you may have already working for you.

The Three Types of Bad Apples

The Jerk: the person who attacks or insults others, often with the intention of humiliating or embarrassing them.

The Slacker: the person who does less than they can, withholding their effort (in other words is disengaged).

The Depressive Pessimist: the person who sees the glass as half empty, sees no silver lining, comes across as insecure.

- Bad Apples in the Workplace, by Corina Sibley, CanadaOne.com, November 1, 2012.

3. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver yesterday defended his tenure as one of the most powerful lawmakers in Albany, downplaying the latest corruption scandals and insisting there are “rotten apples” in any organization.

“In any group there are rotten apples. It’s unfortunate that it happened,” said Silver, referring to the federal bribery indictment filed last week against Assemblyman Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx).

Silver, since 1994 the powerful Democratic speaker of the 150-member chamber, deflected responsibility for what US Attorney Preet Bharara called “rampant” corruption in New York government.

“I don’t feel any responsibility. I don’t interview people [when they run for office],” said Silver, who attended a ceremony celebrating the expansion of the Century 21 store in his downtown district.

Silver has come under fire the past year over his handling of sex- harassment allegations filed against Assemblyman and former Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez.

According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, 31 state office holders have been convicted of a crime, censured or accused of misconduct the past seven years — just a third of Silver’s tenure at the helm of the Assembly.

- Shelly: My hands are clean, NYPost.com, April 10, 2013.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



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