Rotten Apples

Category: People Published on Jul 16 2015

I have worked at some pretty rotten places during my career. I like to think that I was there to gather first-hand experience and some wonderful stories on the types of behavior that are exhibited in unhealthy cultures.

One of my favorite stories is about a prior employer who locked up the office supplies. Originally they were kept on a shelf and all employees were empowered to take a pen or a box of staples when they needed them. And then one day, the owner of the company decided that we were going through too many pens. Maintenance workers were brought in to build a secure closet. The executive secretary then moved all of the office supplies into this closet and locked them up. She was the holder of the only key.

From that point on, to get a new pen, you had to present the old one and show that it was out of ink. The first time I asked for staples (I used a lot of them in my job as accounts payable clerk) she offered me a strip of staples. I looked at her and asked: “Are you planning on coming down again in another hour to give me more?”

As absurd as this sounds, it gets worse, because while the office supplies had been secured the really expensive supplies (steel bars, cleaning supplies, etc.) were walking out the back door of the plant on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, my own behavior at this company was nothing to brag about. Bill Maguire, adjunct professor at Penn State University said it best: “You just can’t work in a corrupt system without it corrupting you.”

Bill was talking about the decades he spent working in a NJ government agency. Because it was his first job out of college, he didn’t realize how bad things were at this job until much later in his life. He just acclimated to the environment over time. Like me, he is not proud of all of his activities while working there.

Like us, many of you may have worked at companies or agencies that were rotten – in large or small ways. As a small business owner, the question becomes, how do I keep my business from becoming like these?

It all comes back to the basics. Build a company that has a firm foundation in what it stands for. Document your vision, mission, and values and then share them with the world. Assist employees to live them on a daily basis to reinforce the culture. Then catch employees doing the right things and reward them. And if anyone acts counter to desired behaviors, even if they are your top performer or the smartest person in the company, find a way to have them conform or move them out of the company.

Very few people go into business with the idea that they are going to create a rotten culture. Instead, the corruption starts slowly and insidiously in small exceptions and favoritisms; when bad behavior is overlooked in favor of high performance.

There is an old saying that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch. In reality, this is untrue. A spoiled apple exudes a gas that actually causes the apples around it to ripen and spoil more quickly. Benjamin Franklin had it more accurate when he said “the rotten apple spoils his companion.”

The moral* of the story is: watch your company culture. Nurture it, strengthen it, and celebrate it. And celebrate those who exhibit the best qualities of it - they are the good apples who will keep it strong.

Have a great day!


*I just couldn’t resist the whole moral thing after the Franklin quote.