Is there an indirect or polite way to say "A rotten potato spoils the whole bag" ?

I looked up online but didn't found a good one.


I want to use it in a situation as below:

Suppose you notice someone in your team acting as a "rotten potato". As a leader you gathered the team to behave nicely and be aware of such potato but in a indirect way so that everyone including the "rotten potato" will be aware of and do not take it badly.

  • 3
    Isn't it a rotten apple that spoils the barrel?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 15:02
  • 6
    Please supply a sentence where you would use this phrase. Are you looking for an idiom, a single word, or a proverb? Should it be derogatory, insulting, or a mild reproach. We need more info please :) Would the version I posted in a comment, be appropriate? Why? Why not?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 15:07
  • 2
    That "duplicate" is not a duplicate—the underlying meaning is different (one person's hard work can be destroyed by a single slip of that person, vs many individuals can be debased by exposure to another bad individual) and the duplicate isn't looking for a "polite" alternative. A little more context would make the question better, but it's been less than 1 hour since the question was first posted, so it also seems premature to close for lack thereof.
    – 1006a
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 16:04
  • 1
    When you edit this question to include an example context, please also include an explanation of why you feel the expression is direct and impolite, and let us know what keywords you used in your online search.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 17:04
  • 1
    An example sentence is needed! For usage related to people, a politer version might be that "their face didn't fit".
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 23:24

2 Answers 2


NOTE: The original question asked for a

"Soft version or alternative for 'A rotten potato spoils the whole bag.'"

After I posted an idiomatic English alternative, a moderator edited the question and left a comment saying,

"I don't understand how changing potatoes to apples makes this politer."

Obviously, it does not. This was my answer to the original question with a new EDIT at the end to better address the update made to the question by gtiwari333:

The common English idiom is

"a rotten apple spoils the barrel."

Proverb. Example: "A bad person influences everyone he or she comes into contact with, making them bad too. Helen is the rotten apple that spoils the barrel in our office. Everyone sees her come in late to work and take long coffee breaks, and they think, "'Why can't I do the same?'"

"One rotten (or bad) apple spoils the barrel."

"A single bad influence can ruin what would otherwise remain good."

More thoughtfully,

"Or take the one about 'a few bad apples,' the reflexive defense whenever misconduct surfaces in the midst of some organization, from Enron to Abu Ghraib to Haditha to the mortgage meltdown. It's an ancient bit of counsel, whether it's said of bad apples or rotten ones, or of bushels, barrels, baskets or bins. Benjamin Franklin had it as 'the rotten apple spoils his companion,' which goes back to Shakespeare's time."

Historically, this blog claims

The saying hails from John Northebrooke in his book entitled, “A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing (etc.) Are Reproved” published in 1577. The exact passage was:

A penny naughtily gotten, sayth Chysostoms, is like a rotten apple laid among sounde apples, which will rot all the rest.

Long before John Northebrooke, however, there was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400). In his “Canterbury Tales” readers come across the following passage in unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.”

Uppon a proverbe that seith this same worde: “Better ys rotten appulle out of an hurde Than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.” And ryght so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This passage loosely translates as this:

About an old proverb, the words that say: “A rotten apple‘s better thrown away Before it spoils the barrel.” That is true When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

EDIT: In response to your update, perhaps you could gather your team together and talk about how the attitudes and actions of each team member affect everyone else on the team, pointing out that when one team member has a negative attitude or bad work habits, others tend to become discouraged and the whole team suffers.

You might point out that none of us wants to be the proverbial bad apple or rotten potato that spoils the whole bag, so each of us needs to make a concerted effort to be more positive, more collegial, and more productive.

If this doesn't work, you may need to speak with the difficult person privately. Listen compassionately and offer kind suggestions for how to improve their interactions and performance in the workplace. Perhaps the person is dealing with problems outside of work, with family or with health issues. Together, you can write down the areas in which improvement is needed. Then both of you can sign, date and keep a copy of the list so that you have documentation of the discussion and can review it together again on a specific date, perhaps the following month. Participating in the review and knowing when the list will be re-visited are important motivators for improvement.

  • 1
    I think that this is more idiomatic, but I'm not sure it's "softer" or "more polite." (Then again, maybe it is, simply because it's more idiomatic.)
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 15:37
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    I don't understand how changing potatoes to apples makes this politer.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 17:03
  • 1
    Mari-Lou, you're right (of course). I over-reacted to feeling ambushed. I'm delighted that the OP returned to update his question and give it more context, and I have added an edit to the end of my answer that hopefully will be useful to him. Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 15:57

The expression

a chain is as strong as its weakest link


a chain is only as strong as its weakest link

may be suitable.

If a chain is used to lift a heavy object then it may break if one of its links is not strong enough. The weak link will be the one to break. So if a chain has mostly strong links which could support several tons weight, but one of the links can only support one ton, then the chain will break if the weight is more than one ton.

This is a softer idiom that a rotten potato, as a rotten potato cannot be made good but must be removed. A weak link is still good, but not good enough, and the weakness of the weak link will cause the chain to break. A weak link can be strengthened.

Another possibility is

if one falls we all fall.

  • 1
    "united we stand, divided we fall"
    – Alaska Man
    Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 15:56

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