No Such Thing as a Bad Apple? Understanding Organizational Misconduct


Why do some organizations continue to flourish despite the harm they cause to their workers, consumers, and surrounding communities? Is there a single person or group within an organization who should be blamed for misconduct, or is misconduct a foundational structure within some institutions? On the Delve podcast, Sarah Gordon, Desautels Professor of Organizational Behaviour, and host Saku Mantere discuss why organizational misconduct is so prevalent in society. Through a closer look at the Chicago Police Department, Professor Gordon explores possible ideologies and structures that enable misconduct in trusted institutions.


On the Delve podcast, Professor Gordon defines organizational misconduct as “any kind of behavior that violates some standard of ethical norm.” Sometimes, organizational misconduct may be legally feasible despite remaining ethically immoral. For example, it may be legal for police officers to use excessive force when arresting individuals. However, this behavior remains ethically concerning when considering racial profiling alongside the physical and mental trauma of being forcefully subdued by the police. Similarly, while paying low wages to workers is legal, if the wages do not lead to a good quality of life, it becomes an ethical issue. Despite increasing awareness regarding organizational misconduct, it continues to be prevalent globally. What factors enable and encourage a culture of ethical violations?

Sarah Gordon is an Assistant Professor in Organizational Behavior at the Desautels Faculty of Management. She examined groups of police officers in the Chicago Police Department, all of whom engaged in severe misconduct. She wanted to identify the social and power structures that enable this kind of unethical behavior.

She found that social cohesion and structural inequality were important factors. Social cohesion refers to “how closely tied are the [members of a misconducting group] to each other,” she explained. Structural inequality refers to whether all members of a group are equally involved in misconduct, or if some individuals are more embroiled in it than others. As these characteristics increase, so does the group’s survival and longevity – but only up to a certain point. After a midpoint, social cohesion and structural inequality become a liability. Structural misconduct can eventually push some members to the periphery, who may extricate themselves from the network of misconduct, putting the group’s safety in jeopardy.

So, how can organizations curb networks of misconduct? Though transparency seems like the logical solution, it also has its pitfalls. In an organization like the Chicago Police Department, where misconduct is widely spread and overlooked, transparency can solidify misconduct as the cultural norm, and further encourage members to engage in ethical violations. Professor Gordon suggests that leaders and managers who have access to employee relations data should examine networks of possible misconduct, rather than scapegoating certain individuals to save public face. Therefore, rather than firing a single police officer for their misconduct, the focus should be on networks of misconduct. By focusing on networks and groups of misconduct, leaders can ascertain the depth and breadth of organizational misconduct in their respective environments. Over time, this understanding can lead to positive change.

For more insights into organizational misconduct, its relationship to deviance, transparency, and corruption, and how it can be monitored and improved over time, listen to the Delve podcast episode with Professor Sarah Gordon. You can find further information on organizational misconduct in Professor Gordon’s article, co-written alongside her colleagues.

This episode of the Delve podcast is produced by Delve and Robyn Fadden. Original music by Saku Mantere. This article is written by Mahin Siddiki.

Delve is the official thought leadership platform of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Subscribe to the Delve podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple podcasts and Spotify, and follow Delve on LinkedInFacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube.

Sarah Gordon
Assistant Professor, Organizational Behavior