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August 22, 2008

Bad-Apple Picking

Daniel Ames contends that firms can better protect themselves from unscrupulous employees by fostering ethical norms rather than trying to identify potential troublemakers.

Topics: Leadership

There’s something almost irresistible about the adage that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch — an unscrupulous individual whose lack of integrity can humiliate an unwitting organization or even bring it to its knees. Witness Société Générale’s rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel or knife-and-mallet wielding Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut involved in a love-triangle.

Hand in hand with the notion that one bad apple can single-handedly wreak havoc on a firm is the idea that we can — and should — spot them in advance. According to the adage, the way to prevent problems stemming from unethical conduct is to identify and weed out provocateurs before they make trouble. The problem with this fix is that it’s almost entirely wrong.

Let’s start with the first part of the story: bad apples are behind most trouble. A century of social science highlights how behavior is a joint function of people (their character, their vulnerabilities and so forth) and the situations in which they act (incentives, pressures, temptations, who their role models are and so forth). To be sure, some people’s characters need very little opportunity to prompt their unethical behavior, and indeed some people simply create those opportunities for themselves.

But some situations are powerful enough to sway almost anyone to commit egregious acts, even though most people outside the circumstances would view such actions as unacceptable. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo of Stanford University argues that the terrifying, sleep-deprived, pressure-cooker, no-rules environment at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 was sufficiently intense and relentless to evoke sadistic behavior from otherwise normal, well-adjusted soldiers.

Management scholars Ann Tenbrunsel of the University of Notre Dame and David Messick of Northwestern University suggest that much unethical behavior in organizations stems from people being in situations where they can readily deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing. Thanks to an organization’s habitual language or labels for describing things — the ways in which decisions are framed, for instance — decent people can do awful things while seeing themselves as just and reasonable.

None of this is to dismiss the idea of personal responsibility for one’s own behavior. But if the goal is to predict improper behavior, screening for bad apples may not be sufficient to forecast who will do what.

Do bad apples exist? Yes. Is “bad-appleness” the best explanation for bad behavior? Sometimes it is, but in many cases the story is considerably more complicated.

Now, the second part of the story: can bad apples be spotted? One tempting approach is to catch bad apples on their way in the door by gauging their integrity during the job-application process. Pose an ethical dilemma to a candidate, for example, and use the response to predict whether their moral compass passes muster.

This method appears to be utterly rational, but my reluctant conclusion is that it’s likely to be almost meaningless, or worse. Recent work on ethical thinking suggests there are multiple mental systems in play. Research by such neuroscientists as Joshua Greene of Harvard University suggests that moral choices and behavior often flow from intuitive, unconscious, sometimes emotional processes that are distinct from rational or conscious processes. Asking someone to respond to a hypothetical ethical situation could tap into this latter system of conscious thought, extemporaneous account-giving and verbal proficiency. When put on the spot, a charming sociopath could fabricate an enchanting account about impeccably ethical behavior, even though his or her actual behavior in a real situation might be something quite different; a tongue-tied do-gooder might botch his or her answer but do the right thing if the situation actually happened.

Posing ethical challenges to screen applicants could be worse than useless if an organization believed that such screening meant it was free of bad apples. Misplaced confidence in gatekeeping could lead an organization to ease up elsewhere in reinforcing the importance of integrity.

Does this mean scrapping ethics and integrity from the application and interview process? Not at all. Discussing integrity during an interview can provide an important signaling function, saying, in effect, “We care about integrity here.” Rather than focus on whether someone passes an ethics test, perhaps focus on showing candidates from Day One that the organization takes integrity seriously.

Bad apples exist and can cause dramatic harm to an organization. But this isn’t the only, or perhaps not even the dominant, explanation for bad behavior. And while it may be tempting to try to catch these individuals before they get through the door, practical and reliable methods for doing so are not readily at hand. It may be better to start sending a message from their first interactions with the firm that integrity is taken seriously inside the organization.

And, organizations can build what Tenbrunsel calls an ethical infrastructure — formal and informal systems of communication, sanctioning, decision framing and so forth — that creates conditions that encourage everyone to do the right thing.

Daniel Ames is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.


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