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.