The myth of the rogue employee: rotten barrels create rotten apples

No Myth

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Often people will say that a problem has happened because of one “rogue” employee (reporter, cop, trader, or whatever). This is a myth, a dangerous myth. Why is this a myth? All employees work and operate within an organisational context. For a rogue employee to exist, and operate, there has to be a lack of organisational (managerial) oversight. As Susan Silbey describes it there has to a rotten barrel to create a rotten apple.  A case in point is the trader who squanders billions in trades. Someone has to either look the other way or enable these trades. They rarely, if ever, have the sole discretion to engage that size of money in single unauthorised trades because of the internal controls all trading houses have in place.  In a sense, the rogue employee argument is a tacit or implicit admittance that the organisational control system is broken.  In that sense, the “rogue” employee is a dangerous myth because it is an attempt to cover systemic issues.

When a rogue employee defence is used, it is also an admission that the internal communication system, where negative (or critical) information is not being communicated upwards, is not working.

By that, I mean, junior employees, immediate subordinates, or colleagues, do not feel or believe they should communicate such “rogue” behaviour upwards.  They may look away because they are complicit, or because they fear for the own position, or because they do not care so long as it does not affect them personally.  “I’m ok so who cares if the organisation is going to be harmed, so long as I am safe”.

One of the more pernicious uses of this myth recently has been by the News of the World. The management there and in the News Corp consistently and persistently insisted there was one rogue reporter.  Even as the evidence mounted that this was not the case, the defence was still used.  Yet, the defence, undoubtedly developed for managerial reasons as well as legal reasons, left the organisation vulnerable to its unravelling. Once it was proven otherwise, the whole defence crumbled.  As it crumbled, the News of the World episode showed why the rogue employee is a myth and showed the corrupt culture within parts of the News of the World and News Corp.

What the episode demonstrated was that all employees rely upon the organisational structure to do their job. They need access to money and other resources to do their job. To get these resources, they rely upon the organisation and their colleagues. In this, someone else is going to know or be involved in their activity.  In some cases, the co-workers may be unaware of the activity or its extent. However, even a small amount of wrongdoing is going to be known by others simply through conversation and observation from interacting on a daily basis. For example, a rogue cop who has sex with female crime suspects or victims in a police station will start to raise suspicions. Why are there so many women in his company? Is he working on sexual assault cases? Why are the women always distraught after their interaction? Why is he always alone with female crime suspects? In that way an officer will start to exhibit a pattern of behaviour that his colleagues will either suspect, or know, is wrong.  Substitute the terms complaints from suspects or missing drug money and the story is the same. in a sense, there is no smoke without a fire.

What the rogue employee myth allows the fellow employees to feel that they have no responsibility for their colleagues’ behaviour.  At the same time, it presents a false, deceptive, dangerous image to the public. They are being led to believe there are no systemic problems within an organisation where the “rogue” employee emerged, but in reality, the organisation remains corrupted.  The culture and environment that allowed that rogue employee to exist and thrive, until their downfall, still exists. Only at the point where an organisation recognises the organisational or systemic problem will the trust be restored.

This is similar to but not the same as the rotten apple theory.  The rotten apple theory was often used to explain “rogue” cops. Everyone else was clean except this rogue officer. However, this argument no longer holds within police forces within the United States.  Instead, the argument is that the barrel becomes rotten before rotten apples emerge. Moreover, rotten apple theory does not explain why rogue police officers tend to exist within specific forces or specific areas within a force rather than across police as a whole.  In many ways, the rogue employee is more likely in a field where organisations are self-regulating, but that only explains how they emerge rather than how they operate. Although, for industries, like the international financial trading/banking, that rely heavily on self-regulating, it shows how important culture of compliance is by its absence.

The rotten or bad apple theory is also important for another reason. The psychological strength and structure of teams is the life blood of an organisations. The modern organisation is more a collection of interconnected teams rather than a mass of individual employees. In this sense, the modern organisation is more resilient and the chance of a rogue employee is reduced. However, the team structure of organisations shows that a reliance on them is less viable. What one may find is that “rotten apples” are employees who undermine team performance and in turn weaken the organisation.  In that sense, rotten apple employees (in any industry) can occur, but their effect can be limited. However, this is a different issue (team and organisational efficacy) than individually corrupt employees acting “rogue.”  In other words, even a rogue employee is still part of a team and team controls can limit their effect.

What you should consider the next time someone offers the “rogue employee” myth are the following questions.

  • Where was their manager?
  • What organisational controls are in place?
  • Where they applied correctly?
  • What system do you have for employees to pass critical (negative) information upwards?

How often is the crticial upwards communication system used? By that, I do not mean whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is an external activity. Instead, this is about how often fellow employees or other managers reporting the “rogue” employee’s behaviour.  To the extent that they were, you will find a healthy internal environment. To the extent that they were not reported, you will find an unhealthy internal environment.  In that sense, you will find the rotten apples revealing a rotten barrel.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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