Rotten apples

It’s time to remind ourselves what the “rotten apples” metaphor means and what it does not. It means that a even very few corrupt individuals in an organization need to be detected and dealt with quickly, because the rot otherwise quickly spreads and infects the whole system.  Someone getting away with stuff is an object lesson to his peers.

It does not mean that a problem is limited, minor, and atypical of the system generally.  It is incorrect usage to say of a scandal that it is “just a few rotten apples, not the whole barrel” and it is also an ethical and managerial blunder.


  1. says

    It’s the blame-the-bottom-ranks alternative to “the fish rots from the head”. But both phrases are originally clear on the notion that a few bad actors can turn an entire system corrupt if they’re not removed immediately.

  2. Seitz says

    Similarly (though not exactly relevant), people often seem to forget the lesson of the Fox and the Grapes. Losing a game and, say, blaming the refs, or making some other excuse is not “sour grapes”. Losing a game and saying that it’s not big deal because you never really wanted to win anyway is “sour grapes”. Sorry, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine.