Bad Apples in Organisations: Who They Are, What They Do, and Techniques to Detect Them

Guides & Reports Carl-Johan Holmberg

Recruiting Lab Notes (3) (1)

In the world of work, there are people who engage in counterproductive work behaviours that can seriously damage organisations and employees. In this article, you will learn what types of behaviours you should watch out for. You will also get tips on how to design the recruitment process to reduce the risk of hiring the wrong individuals. 

Key Points:

  • Behaviours such as theft, sexual harassment and bullying can cause serious harm.

  • Harmful behaviours in the workplace can be attributed to various factors, including individual differences and perceived work environment.

  • Integrity tests and background checks are examples of methods that can be used in the recruitment process to protect the organisation and its employees.

The Bad Apples🍎 

If you have not worked with one yourself, you have probably read about them in the newspaper — the manager who sexually harasses coworkers, the accountant who embezzles company funds, or the executive involved in fraud and corruption. Such work-related behaviours that could harm the organisation and its members are usually referred to as counterproductive work behaviour (CWB).1

Researchers tend to distinguish between CWB targeted towards individuals (interpersonal deviance) and behaviours targeted towards the organisation itself (organisational deviance).2 Interpersonal deviance includes behaviours such as spreading rumours, harassing and bullying. Organisational deviance includes behaviours such as stealing, being absent from work without valid reasons and misusing discount privileges.3

Behaviours such as those mentioned above can have devastating consequences for both employees and the organisation, including increased mental illness, legal proceedings, reduced productivity, increased insurance costs and reputation damage.4,5

Who Are They? Relationships between CWB and The Big Five

Who is likely to engage in the aforementioned behaviours? One way to examine differences between individuals is to look at their personalities. Personality is usually defined as an individual's consistent set of traits, behaviours, and emotions.6 Personality differences between individuals contribute to the explanation of why one individual behaves differently from another individual in a comparable situation.7

The prevailing paradigm in personality research is the five-factor model (FFM).8,9 According to the FFM, human personality can be divided into five broad dimensions (also known as the Big Five): Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience, and Extraversion.10

Two of these dimensions appear to be particularly important in explaining variance in CWB: Agreeableness and Conscientiousness: 


Individuals who are high in Agreeableness tend to be generous, forgiving and willing to cooperate.11,12 Meta-analytic findings have shown that Agreeableness is strongly negatively related to CWB, especially interpersonal deviance.2 In other words, people who are low in Agreeableness tend to be likelier than others to engage in behaviours that can cause harm to other employees.


Individuals who are high in Conscientiousness tend to be hardworking, punctual and dutiful.11,12 Meta-analytic findings have shown that Conscientiousness is strongly negatively related to CWB, especially organisational deviance.2 In other words, people who are low in Conscientiousness tend to be likelier than others to engage in behaviours that can cause harm to the organisation itself.

Perceptions of the Work Environment⚖️

Individual differences, such as personality traits, are not the only predictors of CWB. Meta-analytic findings have shown negative correlations of medium magnitude between CWB and perceived organisational justice. Here, organisational justice refers to the extent to which an employee feels respected and believes that the decision-making processes are fair.13 When perceived respect and fairness are low, employees are more likely to engage in CWB.

Having a hostile attitude towards the organisation also predicts CWB.2 Investigations on interaction effects between hostility, perceived injustice and CWB have shown that hostility mediates the relationship between the other two variables.14 This suggests that it might be the case that when employees perceive organisational injustice, this elicits negative emotions such as hostility, which in turn results in CWB.

What Organisations Can Do🔎  

To protect both your employees and your organisation, there are various things you can do during the recruitment process to reduce the risk of hiring someone who will display CWB:

Job/Risk Analyses

The design of a recruitment process usually starts with a job analysis. A job analysis is a process of defining the tasks and activities related to a particular job position and determining what skills are needed in order to perform that specific job.15 For example, for a software developer position, the skills required may be a combination of expertise in a programming language as well as curiosity and communication skills.

The job analysis tends to focus on skills required to perform the tasks, often ignoring aspects related to CWB. It may therefore be wise to also carry out a risk analysis of the positions within the organisation. Some positions might give access to IT systems, money transactions, secret information, etcetera, which could be particularly attractive for individuals who intend to use their professional role to enable criminal activity.

By conducting a risk analysis, you can identify what else you need to find out about the job applicants in the recruitment process beyond the skills required to perform the work.

Integrity Tests

Integrity tests were first developed to detect dishonesty in job applicants without having to use polygraph tests, and are now commonly used to predict CWB.16 There are different types of integrity tests. A distinction is often made between overt integrity tests and personality-based integrity tests. Overt tests ask respondents directly about integrity-related attitudes and past dishonest behaviours, while personality-based tests measure a broader range of constructs thought to be precursors of CWB.17 Both test variants have shown strong relationships with CWB.18

Criminal Record Checks

Criminal record checks can help ensure a safe working environment by identifying individuals with a history of dangerous behaviour. The rationale behind criminal background checks is that convicted individuals are more likely than others to commit crimes. For example, a report from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that 83% of state prisoners were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release.19

Reference Checks

Reference checking is a near-universal practice in the recruitment process.20 When employers conduct a criminal background check, only those crimes for which a job applicant has been charged and convicted will be disclosed. This means that a job applicant may have engaged in CWB at a previous employer without it appearing in any public records. Therefore, reference checks can be used in order to retrieve such information from previous employers. 

Designing the Reference Checking Process to Detect CWB 💡

Unfortunately, despite its popularity among practitioners, reference checking is under-researched.20 Based on the few scientific papers that have been published in recent years, there are some findings that can be helpful when designing the reference-checking process:

Specifically Inquire About CWB

When referees are asked open-ended questions about job applicant’s areas of improvement, they rarely provide information about CWB.21,22 Therefore, it might be more useful to specifically inquire about CWB in the reference-checking procedure, rather than asking vague open-ended questions about the job applicant’s weaknesses.

Inform Referees That Your Organisation is Unwilling to Sacrifice Civility for Top Performance

A recent study found that referees placed greater weight on their colleague’s CWB in relation to willingness to recommend when signals were sent that the hiring organisation was unwilling to sacrifice civility for top performance.23 Thus, by informing the referees that your organisation is unwilling to let high performance compensate for CWB, the referees might pay more attention to CWB during the reference check. 

Implement Procedures to Detect Fraud

People who have been caught engaging in CWB have sometimes used fake references (e.g., stating that a referee is a former manager and then providing a phone number to a completely different person).24 In order to detect such behaviours, the digital reference checking tool Refapp asks the referees to verify their identity. Refapp also provides fraud detection based on matching IP addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

Hope you found the content interesting! For more Recruiting Lab Notes and other interesting guides and reports, visit our blog 👋🏼 

Large-Scale Confusion The Prejudiced Pursuit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (5)



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18 Wing-Man Lau, R., Chan, D. K. S., Sun, F., & Cheng, G. H. L. (2023). Predictive validity of integrity tests for workplace deviance across industries and countries in the past 50 years: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 17, 1-24.

19 The U.S. Department of Justice. (2018). 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014).

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