“One bad apple spoils the barrel.” So says an English proverb going back to the 1300s, and literally true: As an apple spoils, it releases gases that speed the process in adjacent ones. Using that as a metaphor for business ethics, three researchers wondered, to what degree do the apple (individual), barrel (organization), or the circumstances spread bad behavior?
These Pennsylvania State University scientists crunched the numbers from 136 studies over 30 years, covering 44,000 people. Their results may surprise you. The biggest predictors of making an ethical (or unethical) choice were traits of the organization and situation—the specific issue—with personal traits well behind. Consider the range of correlations between ethical choices and the top four subfactors in each category:
- Organization: 0.479–0.272
- Situation: 0.419–0.338
- Individual: 0.267–0.164
Notice that the #1 correlation for individual traits is only as strong as the #8 subfactor in the other two categories. (A correlation of 1.0 means when one measure changes, the other changes by the same amount, while a correlation of 0 obviously means there is no connection between the two.)
The study defined an “unethical choice” as either intention to do something bad or actually doing it. The scientists were surprised to see that the correlations were stronger for behavior than intention. This suggests people don’t rationally decide to be unethical so much as they sometimes react to an opportunity unethically. The study’s traits shape how they react.
The situation traits relate to the potential harm, including how much harm, how soon it could hit, and how similar the victims are to the decider. Peer agreement with the action plays a strong role as well. Thus the most effective ethical training might feature group discussions focusing on the harms caused by specific situations, to people and the organization.
Organizations seen as having ethical, principled, or benevolent climates increased the odds of good ethical choices. But there is an important warning here. Just having a “code of conduct” or values list on the walls had no impact. By far the strongest predictor of an individual worker being ethical was if their organization actively enforced a code (0.479). That requires paying attention to how top performers get there, not just their bottom-line numbers, and punishing selfish behaviors.
One personal trait, the second strongest in fact, was really an organizational trait: People with high job satisfaction were more likely to make the ethical choice. Add this as yet another reason to focus attention on your worker’s needs.
Regarding other individual traits, “Machiavellian” people who “tend to use… relationships opportunistically and deceive others for personal gain” are less likely to do the right thing. So too people who think ethics vary depending on the situation (“relativists”). Gender, age, and education did not impact ethical choices, after accounting for the other personal traits.
Preventing the financial harm of ethics violations starts with changing your climate. The researchers say, “firms promoting an ‘everyone for himself’ atmosphere… are more likely to encourage unethical choices,” as opposed to “a climate that focuses employees’ attention on the well-being of multiple stakeholders, such as employees, customers, and the community… or on following rules that protect the company and others.” Also, “a strong ethical culture… clearly communicates the range of acceptable and unacceptable behavior (e.g., through leader role-modeling, rewards systems, and informal norms).”
Keep a clean barrel, and most of your apples won’t spoil.
Source: Kish-Gephart, Jennifer J., David A. Harrison, and Linda Klebe Treviño, ‘Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 95.1 (2010), 1–31 <https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017103>.
 Cunningham, Malorie, ‘“A Few Bad Apples”: Phrase Describing Rotten Police Officers Used to Have Different Meaning’, ABC News, 2020 <https://abcnews.go.com/US/bad-apples-phrase-describing-rotten-police-officers-meaning/story?id=71201096> [accessed 27 October 2022].
 For statistics geeks, I’m not bothering to report direction (positive or negative) because they are probably what you would predict. For example, working in an organization with a strong ethical climate reduced the chances of an individual making unethical choices.
 Referring to Niccolo Machiavelli. His 1532 political book The Prince is still often cited in modern political discussions. Many critics consider him unethical because it describes using manipulation and deceit to lead. Others suggest he is merely stating how things are done in politics (at the time or still today), not how they should be done.