How “The Star Syndrome” Corrupts The Workplace And Institutions


A bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel. It happens all the time…especially when the bad apple seems like the shiniest one of all.

In Oakland, the third police chief in less than two weeks has resigned, in all likelihood because, like his predecessors, he was implicated in the department-wide sex and misconduct scandals. Now the city has given up on having its police led by police officers, and the mayor will be in charge, at least for a while. How does a whole police department get that bad? Unethical cultures spread from unethical members of the culture that are not immediately weeded out, or at least shunned.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review explains the process.

“Our recent research identifies a common phenomenon that might help dampen unethical behavior before it even needs reporting: Employees who engage in unethical conduct are more likely to be socially rejected by their peers. By ignoring the unethical employee — leaving the room when they enter, excluding them from conversations — coworkers have the power to signal that someone’s unethical behaviors are not acceptable and should be corrected.

That is, unless the unethical employee in question has the reputation of being a high performer. In spite of the tendency to socially reject those who are unethical, we uncovered a double standard based on a person’s contributions to the bottom line. Specifically, we show that unethical high-performing employees are less likely to be socially rejected by their peers, which implies that unethical behavior can be tolerated. This is not the case for unethical low-performing employees.”

This is the Star Syndrome or The Kings Pass, one of the most insidious of all the rationalizations on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization list:

“This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head.  In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust. Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of others…”

The Harvard researchers add an alarming note suggesting that even ethical organizations may contain the potential bad apples of their own future demise:

“This is the case even in organizations that on the whole are considered highly ethical. In our third study, we took into account the organization’s ethical environment and still found the same pattern of results. Irrespective of the extent to which the organization prioritizes ethics, unethical high-performing employees still had better working relationships with their peers and were less socially rejected than their unethical low-performing counterparts. There’s something about being a high performer that appears to mask concerns related to immorality.”

The article concludes…

“…Moving forward, managers should push employees to consider long-term, rather than short-term, financial success. By adopting a long-term mindset, employees might be less likely to ignore a high-performing employee’s misdeeds. It goes without saying that employees should be rewarded for correcting ethical issues head-on, without fear of retaliation. Of course, this would require a commitment among higher-level managers to not overlooking misconduct in an effort to meet the numbers. An organizational commitment to long-term, rather than short-term, performance could be the difference between stability and scandal.”

What a Pollyanna-ish pay-off.  Why yes, wouldn’t it be nice if managers (and in non-business settings, executives and elected officials), made the long-term well-being of their organizations and their duties to society their top priorities rather than their own immediate power, success, popularity, and wealth.

With rare exceptions, though, they don’t though, and they won’t, until the public insists on it. That means shunning not just unethical employees, but the leadership that allows the bad apples to stay in the barrel.

And I would be remiss in not making this urgent connection to the upcoming national election. Which leaders are most likely to overlook unethical conduct among subordinates and managers, allowing them to stay in the metaphorical barrel, ultimately leading to an unethical and trustworthy organizational culture?

The answer is those leaders who are self-evidently bad apples that were allowed to stay in the barrel themselves.

10 thoughts on “How “The Star Syndrome” Corrupts The Workplace And Institutions

  1. It took Harvard researchers to realize high performers and unethical employees tend to be the same people? Even though they couldn’t articulate it? How the hell do they think people become high performers?

    And look past the end of the quarter in American publicly traded companies? Hah. That’s a good one. Laugh of the Day.

    • Unethical and High Performing are distinct criteria. You can have individual which are one but not the other. It’s just that people who are both tend to get away with their lack of ethics.

        • Then there’s the concusion of the esteemed Harvard (or was it MIT?) researcher, Leo Durocher: “Nice guys finish last.” Which, if you dress it up could be written as “People who observe the Golden Rule generally fall behind those who choose not to in terms of organizational recognition.”

  2. I see it in my lowly, humdrum job. Managers get away with behavior that would never be tolerated from an employee; and the ‘good/well-liked/proficient employees get away with behavior that is not tolerated from other employees.

    I guess I’m baffled that there are actually people who don’t already know this….?


  3. I’ve had experience with this. As a health care provider I reported a surgeon who was displaying very disruptive behavior in the Operating Room, as well as bragging about his “unethical” billing practices. When i did report it to an Administrator I was told that I, being NURSE could not report a PHYSICIAN. Two months later after 10 years of employment I was sacked because i was not team player. He remains being disruptive but producing a lot of income for the facility.

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