Why They Do It: Inside The Mind of the White-Collar Criminal


If you have ever wondered why some of the world's most successful leaders fall to corporate crime," Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal " may offer some perspective. Combining insight from personal letters written from disgraced leaders and research from various disciplines, this book explores the confusing and conflicting world of the "moral gray point", the internal shift that turns an esteemed leader into a "rotten apple".

Why They Do It: Inside The Mind of the White-Collar Criminal

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Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal asks a very simple question: Why do they do it? Why do business leaders who seemingly have the world at their feet throw it all away? Why would they trade their freedom, their reputation and their entire legacy for something so fleeting, like a few extra zeroes in the bank account? As the book explores, white-collar crime involves more than a simple “rotten apple.” The book explores the psychology, social issues, ethics and law as it applies to white-collar crime. The book asks why it still exists despite repeated attempts to squash it for good.

What is “Why They Do It” About?

“Once I saw that nothing was happening, my standards became lower.”
– – Scott London, former KPMG partner arrested for insider trading and sentenced to 14 months in prison

What makes a financially secure and extremely successful individual decide to get involved in fraud, insider training, theft or any other number of crimes that involve deceit? The simple answer that this is just a instance of a “rotten apple” doesn’t fully address the issue. If it was just that, then regulation and the threat of harsh penalties should stop white-collar criminals. It doesn’t. Equally unhelpful is chalking everything up to the belief that “all business people are greedy.” There are plenty of good business people who wouldn’t even consider doing anything wrong to advance their careers.

There has to be a point where a seemingly “good person” goes “rotten”. There has to be some initial set of factors that moves our moral compass just enough to allow criminal acts in.

The book uses letters written by disgraced leaders themselves and adds insights from law, ethics and biology to begin to understand this potentially “morally gray point” in a leader’s journey. This approach reinforces the idea that white-collar crime is not now and has never been a clear-cut issue. There are morally gray areas throughout corporate crime, including whether executives are even charged (historically, they haven’t been), how they are punished (jail, probation, or nothing), and what causes them to commit a criminal act (including legal defenses such as “lack of self-control.”) Finally comes the question of how they rationalize the crime to themselves. Why They Do It emphasizes that to stop white-collar crime, it’s first necessary to understand the psychological, social and potentially genetic factors that cause someone to commit a white-collar crime in the first place. Otherwise, the same cycle of Enrons, housing bubbles, Ponzi schemes and related crimes will continue happening over and over again.

Why They Do It  is the work of Eugene Soltes, an associate professor at Harvard Business School of Business Administration and a researcher on corporate crime.

What Was Best About “Why They Do It?”

Why They Do It is a thoroughly engaging and intriguing book from beginning to end because it takes business ethics from the lifeless world of business case studies (which is how ethics is traditionally taught) into reality. This is important to remember in an era where business scandals are reported on daily like sports scores. Soltes’ book reminds the reader that ethics isn’t a dry or boring subject. It’s something everyone must consider because the moral gray point is a problem for everyone, not just C-suite leaders.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?

One aspect of the “why do good business leaders turn rotten?” question that might warrant more attention is diversity. While this is touched on in the book, more emphasis on the social and cultural dynamics that happen when a member of a group traditionally underrepresented (i.e. women or members of minority groups) in leadership falls. As leadership strives to become more diverse, this is an area that may become more of a concern.

Why Read “Why They Do It?”

Why They Do It is like the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely except it tackles the nuance and implications of corporate crime. Because of its broad appeal, it should be required reading for every person involved in business, not just executives because it addresses topics everyone deals with: honesty, trust and power. The book doesn’t focus on the spectacle or outrage of white-collar crime (although it discusses these topics.) Instead, it focuses on the one burning question that everyone has when they read about a disgraced leader: why? By exploring this one question, Soltes hopes to give readers (no matter what role they play in a business) a chance to evaluate their own morals on a deeper level now rather than later when it might be too late.

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Charles Franklin Charles Franklin is a Book Reviewer for Small Business Trends. He has a background as a professional reviewer, and is also a content provider and customer relations professional.

3 Reactions
  1. As the Director of the first ministry in the U.S. created to support individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues, and as someone who served time in a Federal prison for a white-collar crime I committed when I was a lawyer, I can state unequivocally that Professor Soltes’s methodology and his conclusions are “pure rubbish.” Why They Do It, and the press releases and media attention surrounding it, are shamelessly exploitive and are designed solely to sell books; they inflame bigotry and hatred and paint people with a broad brush designed to promote stigma, shunning and Schadenfreude (unfortunately, themes for our time it seems).

    I am sure if we re-interviewed his subjects, most or all would say they had been duped into letting down their guards in sharing intensely personal details of their lives and feelings on the promise and belief that Soltes’s book would be fair and balanced. If indeed he disclosed to them that he was writing a book at all?

    We have worked with hundreds of men, women and families involved in and suffering from these matters, and most are not the subjects of the sensationalized headlines that Soltes claims to have interviewed. In fact, the overwhelming majority are ordinary people, professionals who live down the street, whose children play with yours, who simply got in over their heads due to desperation, addiction, compulsion or mental illness. Most didn’t have the ego strength to simply talk to their spouses and admit that life was not going the way they had hoped and dreamed, until they had stepped over the line and it was too late.

    Contrary to Soltes’s core thesis statement, most have been mired in shame, guilt and remorse even before they were caught. It is terrifying and exhausting to spend their lives looking over their shoulders knowing that they’ve done something that far wrong. Whether they aware of it or not, almost all go through some kind of transformation from a material life to a more spiritual one. What other choice do they (we) have?

    Although I probably have “interviewed” 4 or 5 times as many people accused or convicted of white-collar crimes and their families, I’m not arrogant enough to assert that I understand “why” anyone did or does anything. But then again, I didn’t write a book claiming I do. Note the clever, and frightening, [person change in] the title of the Professor’s book: why THEY do it: inside the mind of THE white-collar criminal! Aren’t we a society that has fought against, and protected people from, this sort of propaganda that aggregates and assigns characteristics to an entire class of people in order to marginalize them and promote fear of them?

    Our society has evolved enough that mass incarceration and related topics are now dinner-table conversation; they are finally part of the national debate. I am glad that we give many violent criminals a second chance, and indeed all of God’s children deserves our empathy, compassion and kindness. But white-collar criminals have little such chance, largely because of the kind of book written by Professor Soltes.

    We can do better.

    Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
    Founder/Director, Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc., Greenwich CT & Nationwide, prisonist.org

  2. Charles, this sounds like a book I’ll have to add to my must-read list! I’m sure understanding the reasons can help companies in proactively deterring their own employees from committing these actions.

  3. Interesting. It is important to know these if you were to manage people better.