One bad apple? That old chestnut.

Another week and sexual harassment allegations have rocked yet another prominent organisation

Honestly, it’s becoming as predictable as death, taxes and Tom Jones banging on about hangingout with Elvis.

It could almost be sweepstake material if it weren’t so utterly reprehensible. Roll up, roll up! Which brand will be hit by a sex pestery scandal next? Get your bets in. 

This time it’s a business lobby group, the CBI,under the spotlight. Director General Tony Danker (rhyming slang klaxon) was sacked this week following an investigation into claims he harassed a female staff member. 

Once again, it took a media investigation to bring these allegations to light, succeeding where the CBI’s internal processes failed. 

The board of the CBI said that the married father of two’s conduct ‘fell short’ of what was expected and admitted ‘serious failings’ in how it acted on the allegations. 

Amid calls for the business lobbying body to be disbanded, industrialist Juergen Maier – a former CBI president’s committee member – called the sacking of Danker a “wake-up moment” forbusiness leaders. He urged them to conduct root and branch reviews to “make sure we have the cultures in place that don’t allow these behaviours to happen.”

So far, so nod-in-agreement-worthy. 

Let’s set aside how depressing it is that in 2023, we’re still talking about “wake-up calls” about the basics of misogynistic culture. I mean how many more “wake-up calls” need to happen? 

It’s something else Maier said that struck me:

“Unfortunately, you do have bad apples. Businesses are communities at the end of the day, and we have bad apples in our communities.”

There’s a telling misuse of a metaphor at play here. And it’s important, because language matters.

The “one bad apple” line is often trotted out to suggest that poor behaviour can be considered in isolation and should not be seen as typical for that group. It’s been used to explain everything from the torture of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib to police misconduct. 

Yet, in its most common usage, it is misused. Because the proverb this term originally comes from is “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.”. 

Bad apples don’t exist in isolation. They infect the fruit surrounding it until the entire fruit bowl rots away. 

Or, put another way, if you have sex pests in positions of power, you create a culture in which such behaviour is not merely overlooked but allowed to thrive. 

The CBI is a case in point. Aside from Danker, three more employees have been suspended amid sexual misconduct allegations from a dozen women. 

And it was ever thus. For every scalp, every resignation, there are always others, quaking in the wings. Either because they are guilty of similar conduct or have been complicit through silence or inaction.

These networks of complicity are central to understanding the persistence of sexual and other types of harassment in organisations. 

Ground-breaking academic research published in the US in 2021 explored why sexual harassment persists in all kinds of organisations for prolonged periods – often as an open secret.

The authors explained that “using power and manipulating information, perpetrators buildnetworks that protect them from sanction and enable their behaviour to continue unchecked.”

In the organisations they studied, they found that these networks “metastasised and caused lasting harm to victims, other employees and the organisation as a whole”.

Perhaps the scholars’ most disturbing conclusion was that these networks can survive and thrive even if the original perpetrator is removed.

So, there we have it. Removing the “one bad apple” is never enough to stop the rot.

The carefully worded statements drafted by PRs and lawyers would have us believe that a public scalp draws the matter to a close. (“Move on! There’s nothing more to see here!”).

But it is rarely the case because the damage is often systemic and deep-rooted.

The research concluded that “formal and informal ties among network of complicity members must also be weakened or broken, and victims must be integrated into networks of support. Bystanders must be trained and activated to take positive action, and power must be diffused through egalitarian leadership.”

Another way the bad apple analogy breaks down is the suggestion that the rot is always visible. Because it really isn’t. Often, it takes too many ruined lives before the behaviour is called out. And even then, there’s no guarantee victims will be taken seriously or that justice will be served. 

Anyone on the receiving end of toxic sexual behaviour in the workplace will have heard one of the following justifications. 

“But they’re happily married!” 

“It’s just harmless banter!” 

“It was just a bit of fun that went too far!”

How can we remove the rotten apples when so many organisations fail to recognise the rot? When, even when it stinks, so many seem happy to hold their nose and look the other way?

I wonder how many corporate executives, politicians and senior law enforcement officers feel vulnerable right now? And how many people around them are complicit in their silence? The answers: not enough, and too many.

The next time you hear the “bad apple”explanation for unacceptable and illegal behaviour, the question to ask is – how many others have been tainted, enabled and emboldened? 

And the next question naturally becomes, is the removal of the “one bad apple” ever reallyenough? 

Do totemic sackings fix the underlying problems? Or by the time the toxic behaviour bubbles to the surface and makes headlines, is wholesale systemic overhaul the only answer?

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Hello. I’m Sara. This site is home to my writing for the Western Mail, a newspaper kind enough to publish my internal ramblechats. In 2022 I was named Wales Media Awards Columnist of The Year for this column. Madness. You’ll find me spaffing opinions on feminism, inequality, festivals, tech, art and whatever else pops into my head at 3am the day before deadline. There’s also bonus content, when the muse takes me (WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? I DIDN’T ORDER THIS CAB! Etc…).

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