The current usage of a ‘few bad apples’ bothers me. A few bad apples spoil the barrel. If you put a rotting apple in with three dozen good one, every adjacent apple will be rotting withing days.

‘A few bad apples’ does NOT mean ‘we have a good barrel but, oh well, sometime bad things happen’. ‘A few bad apples’ means ‘Our entire organism is rotting from the inside out, triggered by the actions of a few and perpetuated by the natural process of the whole.’

When you say ‘we had a few bad apples’ you next words had BETTER be ‘we excised them quickly and permanently, and checked the remaining one to make sure they’re still good.’
by Pepper Bismol (@Gurl_getreal)

Unethical self-promoters are bad apples.

These bad apples spoil and ruin it for everyone else, especially when they get in positions of power and authority i.e. CEOs and other key C-suite roles, government ministers, politicians, lobbyists, political donors, wellness gurus, religious leaders, journalists and news anchors peddling propaganda as news, social media and TV celebrities, etc. But they are everywhere and exist in every profession, including sales.

Their selfish, self-centred, corrupt decisions and actions infest the many who follow them or get caught up in their scams and the consequences are often always dire.

Just think Enron and Arthur Anderson Consulting, or the 2008 GFC lead by Lehman Brothers, or the diesel car scandal by Volkswagen, or celebrities like Lance Armstrong and Harvey Weinstein, in Australia the HIH Insurance collapse, or Alan Bond and Christopher Skaife, and more recently the Australian Banking Royal Commission and Aged Care & Disabilities Commissions, amongst others. The list goes on.

So how do these dubious people get away with this?

Well, besides being master manipulators and slick communicators in most cases, other people let them get away with their actions. Many simply believe the lies, spin and too-good-to-be-true promises and don’t do or don’t know how to do their due diligence and then get scammed. Unethical Self-Promoters prey on the gullible and the vulnerable mostly.

Unethical self-promoters also rely on the fear-to-take-action or play-it-safe mindset in others. There are those who do know better but are simply too afraid to call out these charlatans because of what might happen to them personally, professionally, and financially. Being a whistleblower requires courage which many don’t exercise, so instead they stay quiet or quietly leave.  

Others are reverentially compliant using their respect for status, hierarchy, leadership & seniority as an excuse not to speak up and therefore accept this corruption as business as usual; while others are simply amoral and opportunistic seeing a way to make some quick easy money justifying their decisions by saying that the boss has sanctioned it so it must be OK.

Companies, organisations, political parties, governments, communities, and nations with weak ethics cultures and no integrity or moral framework are the very organisations, parties, governments and communities that allow these bad apples to flourish and reek their havoc on us – their rot leaks into all aspects of our lives and before we know it, corruption becomes our standard operating procedure with once good people doing bad things because ‘everyone does it’.

The good news

The good news is that these unethical self-promoters and the deceit and corruption they spread are not appreciated, tolerated, or supported by the vast majority of people. I recently completed the Australia Talks online survey which was built off the back of an initial survey asking over 60,000 Australians 600 questions about all sorts of things including corruption, the wealth gap, gender equality, trust, etc. Here are the survey findings relevant to our topic:

  • Lying Politicians: 94% of Australians think lying politicians should resign. This is one thing all voting groups can agree on, with high levels of support across parties.
  • Federal Corruption Watchdog: nearly 9 in 10 people say Australia needs a federal corruption watchdog. There are strong majorities among all voters in favour of a corruption commission to watch over federal politics.
  • Misinformation: 94% of Australians consider misinformation a problem for Australia. Misinformation is the number one issue selected by Australians as a problem for the country, beating other major issues such as climate change and having enough money for retirement.
  • Who to trust: 79% of Australians think it’s harder to know who to trust these days. Voters of all stripes tend to think it’s becoming more challenging to decide which sources of information are trustworthy.

Sadly, where there is corruption you will always find bad apples – unethical self-promoters – at the helm. However, recognising unethical self-promoters and acknowledging, even complaining about, their dreadful impact on our relationships, businesses, governments and society isn’t enough.

What can we do?

As Lily Tomlin said “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”


  • Ask a lot more questions about why and how decisions are being made – especially when they are being made on our behalf without any consultation
  • Look for the evidence and check if people are saying and doing things for fact or effect
  • Take time to think about and make informed decisions
  • Make sure we are not pressured into making hasty decisions, especially without the facts
  • Trust our gut instinct and walk away if the person and/or what they are asking us to do feels wrong
  • Run regular ethics and civics classes in schools, universities, businesses, organisations, and communities to help raise our collective awareness about good governance, ethical business and community practices and standards, especially as things shift and change like with the emergence of AI
  • Check what behaviours and actions our business cultures and practices really encourage
  • Improve our recruitment standards and reset performance to include how we treat people and deliver on good governance
  • Reset the paradigm about what good leadership really looks like i.e. Servant leadership
  • Speak up and call out the unethical, immoral, and illegal behaviour and conduct of these bad apples – directly, if safe to do so or go to the relevant authority or a trusted person to raise your concerns then follow up and make sure action is taken – As the famous quote atributed to Edmund Burkesays: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
  • Put in place a federal integrity commission that does hold our politicians and public servants to account – why not put in place an integrity commission inside our own organisations as well
  • And use the 19 behavioural characteristics checklist of unethical self-promoters to help us to warn others about them and identify them before they get us (see list below)

We need to educate our children, teenagers and families, our teams, clients and suppliers, and the public at large so they can distinguish between ethical and unethical behaviours and conduct so they can be more discerning and make wiser decisions about who to work for, buy from, sell to, vote for, listen to, and so on.

We all need to step up and keep ourselves informed about what is happening in the world around us.

We all need to remove the bad apples and watch who we let near our minds, our wallets, and our votes.

Background Research & Unethical Self-promoter checklist:

Back in 1988, I was introduced to a body of research* that focused specifically on the concept of self-promotion, prospecting, and new business development, and the learned behaviours and attitudes that give rise to the fear of self-promotion and sales call reluctance. This body of research was an illuminating, eye-opening, life changing experience for me in many ways – it was a key catalyst that helped kick-start the work I do today. Since then I’ve had the privilege of introducing tens of thousands of people to this research that includes training in ethical self-promotion and prospecting strategies, and how to overcome any fears and hesitations they may experience in this area.

One of the key elements of this research that fascinated me were the findings on Natural Self-Promoters and in particular, the concepts of ethical and unethical self-promotion.

Ethical self-promotion is based on the realistic understanding that success in any contact-dependent career requires both effective performance and effective self-promotion. There is a third element that helps distinguish ethical self-promoters from their charlatan unethical self-promoting cousins – a genuine respect for the needs of others.

Unethical self-promoters are an extremely dangerous group of people. Chances are all of us, at some stage in our lives, have come across at least one unethical self-promoter who has attempted or succeeded in taking advantage of us. These master manipulators can be a bit tricky to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for and, sadly, they are on the rise infecting all walks of life.

While unethical self-promoters have always been in our midst, it seems that with the advent of social media and the myriad of ways we can easily engage with others, unethical self-promoters are out and about in huge numbers. Unfortunately, a number of them are running companies, public institutions, states, and countries, while others are running quasi-religious congregations, influencer communities and self-help, wellness, new age groups that are tricking people into giving up their time and hard-earned money for nothing more than hype, spin, unrealistic promises, or even dangerous health advice. Cults couldn’t exist if it weren’t for unethical self-promoters looking for gullible followers.

What these master manipulators want is our money and good will because this helps them enrich themselves. They care nothing for our feelings, wellbeing or long term benefits; despite their overt attempts to appear psychologically strong and caring, they are just manipulators, grifters, and shills who are very, very dangerous, especially when they get into positions of power and have control over a corporation or nation’s future.

These unethical self-promoters, can often be some of the best communicators around, coming up with simplistic messages to complex problems that sound plausible but are always wrong. Spinning false messages and manipulating facts, images and the media, they brainwash people into believing that only they have the answers we are seeking and all we have to do give them our money, attention, votes, or devotion for our salvation. They rely on people not checking facts, they play on our fears and our desires for safety, security, fortune, or fame. They often prey on the uneducated, desperate and/or vulnerable, but even those with education can be fooled. Just think about those who have fallen down the conspiracy theory rabbit holes.

Unethical self-promoters communicate with high sounding vagueness common to many politicians. They identify the need for unshakable commitment to moral decency without actually embodying these qualities themselves – just think of any cult leader or tele-evangelist who tells you how to live your life or manage your career without doing it themselves as they swan around in their luxury mansions and private jets you paid for doing everything they tell their followers to abstain from.

Greed, hypocrisy, lies, manipulation and cruelty are at the centre of unethical self-promoters’ stone cold hearts.

Unfortunately, most of us spot unethical self-promoters when it’s too late.

However, we can protect ourselves because most unethical self-promoters repeat certain behaviours which makes them predictable. Here is a checklist you can use so you can spot them before they spot you.

Unethical self-promoters checklist

  1. Compulsive name dropper
  2. Is inappropriately calm and poised – even when caught in a lie
  3. Explains being caught in a lie as a harmless misunderstanding
  4. Engages in melodramatic use of righteous indignation to over-assert character, credibility, values, and integrity
  5. Strategically uses actual or implied intimidation
  6. Unable to show or sustain genuine emotion
  7. Enjoys few long-term or deep-seated relationships
  8. Uses bizarre reasoning and self-delusion to justify unethical behaviours
  9. Has a concealed history of legal problems and financial misunderstandings
  10. Deals with tough or shady ethical issues by relativising them
  11. Talks long term, but thinks and acts short-term
  12. Uses simplistic, manipulative techniques to gain rapport and advantage over others
  13. Uses verbal ambiguity as a manipulative technique
  14. Tailors behaviour to appear psychologically strong, open, caring and resilient
  15. Has a tainted view of the motive of others
  16. Has expert knowledge of the tools and techniques of other manipulators
  17. Seems unmoved by threats of being exposed
  18. Claims expertise in an unrealistic, impossible number of fields
  19. Always looking for loopholes or advantages for self

If you feel uncomfortable around someone, if what they say sounds too good to be true, trust your instincts as you may be in the midst of an unethical self-promoter who is looking for VICTIMS not a viable prospect or a genuine contact.

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