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Neither bad apple nor bad barrel: how the societal context impacts unethical behavior in organizations

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Abstract

Every time another corporate scandal captures media headlines, the ‘bad apple vs. bad barrel’ discussion starts anew. Yet this debate overlooks the influence of the broader societal context on organizational behavior. In this article, we argue that misbehaviors of organizations (the ‘barrels’) and their members (the ‘apples’) cannot be addressed properly without a clear understanding of their broader context (the ‘larder’). Whereas previously, a strong societal framework dampened the practical application of the Homo economicus concept (business actors as perfectly rational and egocentric utility-maximizing agents without any moral concern), specialization, individualization and globalization led to a business world disembedded from broader societal norms. This emancipated business world promotes a literal interpretation of Homo economicus among business organizations and their members. Consequently, we argue that the first step toward ‘healthier’ apples and barrels is to sanitize the larder, that is, adapt the framework in which organizations and their members evolve.

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