Mark’s post about prisoner abuse provides a peg on which to hang some remarks on the “…few bad apples” metaphor, which is commonly misused. The complete expression is “even a few bad apples will quickly ruin the whole barrel”, because the decay quickly spreads to the good ones. The implication is that bad apples must be removed immediately, because they are worse for the system than they appear. It’s a justification for rapid and fell attention to the beginnings of corruption in a human system, and for making that attention the duty of highest authority.
Recently, the phrase has been attached to quite different ideas, such as “…it’s only a few bad apples; the [army, police department, school system, etc.] is basically [sound, honest, capable, etc.] “, or (worse) “…every organization always has a few bad apples, there’s nothing particularly wrong here”, meanings that justifiy institutional inaction and excuse managerial failure.
The metaphor arose to describe a real phenomenon, namely the rapid spread of rot from seemingly inconsequential and exceptional cases in human organizations, and I think we should try to use it in the original sense. Discovery that one or more bad apples have been allowed to remain in a system (let alone hidden by suppressing reports) should be a damning indictment of management in any context.