Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work

How the Experts Characterize a "Bad Apple" At Work

One bad apple spoils the bunch via Flickr

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior.   However, there is significant overlap, and I read the business ethics literature in hopes of learning what drives people towards idolatry.

I hit the jackpot with a paper by Linda Treviño, one of the leaders in the field of business ethics.[i]  Treviño and colleagues did a meta-analysis of 136 prior publications studying the causes of unethical behavior, with a total sample size of 43,914 people.  Not surprisingly, any attempt to quantify human behavior is complicated, with many interdependent factors.  Nevertheless, there are enough people to do some real statistics, and what the framework she provided helped me understand the 80 hours of interviews I conducted as background for this book.  Unethical decisions at work can be traced to three sources: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.[ii]

People-centric drivers of unethical behavior

In general, Trevino showed that people who look out for number one are more likely to make unethical choices.  In addition, the data showed a statistically significant correlation between unethical behavior and the following personality characteristics:

  • a relative moral philosophy (i.e. values change with circumstances, which also is one of the key characteristics of idolatry.)
  • a propensity to manipulate others
  • an inability to see a connection between his or her own actions and consequences to other people

Equally interesting were the characteristics that did not correlate with unethical choices:

  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • level within the organization.

The latter finding was particularly disturbing to the authors because “integrity tests are most often used with lower level employees.”[iii]

Go to the next post to learn how circumstances and corporate culture impact ethical decisions.

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work is an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, the Five Star Best Seller on Amazon.

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[i] Linda Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.  She is the author of over 70 articles as well as several books.

[ii]   Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. Abstract.

[iii] Ibid p.20

How To Identify When You Are Too Devoted To Work

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 13

The last post describes first part of the Busting Your Corporate Idol: How To Reconnect With Values & Regain Control Of Your Life, which introduces the concept of Corporate Idolatry, and reviews the nature of both idolatry and corporations.  The middle part of the book, “The Corporate Ladder Revisited” tells stories from life in the corporate world, and examines three factors that contribute to a life of Corporate Idolatry.  According to the business ethics literature, unethical behavior at work can be because of unethical people, challenging circumstances, or an unethical corporate culture.  The same three factors lead the adoption of a company-first value system. Proper understanding of the interplay among people, circumstances, and corporate culture is essential in order to identify the causes of Corporate Idolatry, and then to set appropriate boundaries around your life.

Chapter 4 introduces Scorpions, Foxes, and Wolves, three types of people you must be able to identify if you are to know who to trust in the workplace.  The animal names come from the Aesop’s fable The Scorpion and the Frog, and from the parable the Fox and the Wolf.

“The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…” from

And if you think everything at work depends on you, Chapter 5 will burst your bubble.  Psychologists call it “The Illusion of Control,” and it can manifest in the workplace as a special kind of idolatry.  Chapter 6 tackles company culture, which like all cultures uses things like rules, traditions, myths, and rituals to perpetuate itself.

Here is a story from a company that ships radiolabeled isotopes for medical tests.  “Something went wrong with the reactor and the people on the night shift had to run in to the reactor to get [the isotype in order to make the shipment deadline.] They got 10 times the dose they legally should have.  It wasn’t driven by commercial gain.  It was driven by “oh we’ve go to do a good job.”

What are the stories from your company?

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