The State of Mind of a White Collar Criminal

As a chief compliance officer, it is important to consider the mindset of a criminal. Not to complete tasks and accomplish your objectives. Instead, it is important to understand the criminal mind, what makes them tick and why they engage in criminal behavior.

More specifically, when putting together a compliance program, a CCO should consider why an employee would steal, commit bribery or engage in other misconduct. I am not saying that a compliance program should assume that all of a company’s employees might or will engage in misconduct but it is worth considering how an employee decides to commit misconduct, and the ways in which they eventually commit to carrying out a criminal scheme.

There have been plenty of books, television shows, interviews and studies focused on white collar criminals. From my perspective, there is one telltale characteristic that cuts across most white collar criminals – a lack of empathy. In other words, a white collar criminal appears to have no ability to consider or even feel any empathy for a victim of his misconduct. If an employee starts to steal from a company, the employee is unlikely to feel any empathy for the company or any of its employees caused by his or her misconduct. Even in more specific cases where an executive steals from a pension fund, ruins numerous retirement funds or savings of innocent victims, the executive is unlikely to feel any empathy for the people who may have lost their savings or their retirement.

While in our day-to-day interactions with friends, family members and associates, we may be able to identify someone who may lack the ability to feel empathy, it is hard to apply this as a screen to managers and employees at a company. On the other hand, if any employee displays a significant lack of empathy, there may be cause for concern.

A second significant characteristic of a white collar criminal is the lack of remorse. A white collar criminal can usually mouth the words, and may even sound credible, but if you take the time to study the person, his or her behaviors over a period of time, the words will eventually sound empty.

We all know when our children, for example, do not really express remorse, and this same antenna can be used when dealing with managers and employees. It is fairly easy to spot when someone apologizes in a disingenuous manner, especially if they use the phrase, “I am sorry that you feel that way ….”

In my experience, there is an additional characteristic of a white collar criminal – the ability to rationalize his or her conduct. An employee stole close to a million dollars from a company. When asked about it, she became indignant because the company had “mistreated” her for years, and “taken her for granted.” By characterizing themselves as victims, these criminals are able to escape any feeling of remorse or even doubt about their conduct. They feel righteous about what they did and will only acknowledge some kind of responsibility when they face internal discipline and/or prosecution.

What does all of this man for the CCO? There are managers and employees who cannot regulate their conduct and will look for opportunities to circumvent rules and “game” the system. CCOs cannot persuade these bad actors to turn over a new leaf – they are unlikely to be persuaded or influenced.

As a result, CCOs have to commit to a different strategy – create an ethical culture where managers and employees will report misconduct. Of course, this is no guarantee for success, but creating a culture of compliance where managers and employees believe in the company’s mission and want to protect the company is the most effective strategy choice.

CCOs face unique challenges when attempting to regulate employee misconduct. No one is perfect and CCOs have to recognize that. Just by saying and instilling a culture of “do the right thing,” there is no guarantee that everyone in a company will follow that motto.

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3 Responses

  1. Steven says:

    Managed systems determine performance more than individuals. I am not a legal professional, but have experience in quality management. The key is to develop auditable/verifiable processes. White collar criminals, perhaps more so than street criminals, do not think they will be caught. Often this is because they see weaknesses in the systems and exploit them. I would submit that many white collar crimes involved complicity or negligence by co-workers. Corrupt individuals are easy to detect when there are different checks/gate keepers of their behaviors. Most corruption is an abuse of power where rules are disregarded or side-stepped. In this respect, COOs are actually often aligned with the corruption rather than actively trying to stop it.

  2. Lisa Lawler says:

    As a long time advocate and mentor for white collar wives and families, I have had the opportunity to get up close and personal and collect data on over 75 white collar criminals regarding their personas and especially, their behaviors in the aftermath of their crimes. I respectfully disagree with Steven’s post that these persons are easily detected. They are not. I am currently working on a lecture titled “Thieves Among Us” that profiles the average white collar criminal. The following is an excerpt:
    Although it is unfair to paint all white collar criminals with a broad brush, the similarities between them is astounding and as such, a profile can indeed be drawn. Unfortunately, this profile provides no warning signs as first and foremost, although wolves in sheep’s clothing, white collar criminals are usually in good standing with their employers, co-workers, communities and family members. This is what makes detection nearly impossible. However, just beneath this illusive facade lurks a covert bravado and duality that affords them the capability to rob blind, individuals, corporations and even countries. This is in contrast to the CEO who throws his weight around because he is insecure and has deep rooted fears about his place in the world. Those personalities are usually bullies with low self worth and not inclined to criminal behavior because they are cowardly. White collar criminals are cunning and usually seen as good guys. While they are by no means “Ted Bundys”, it is chilling that they cannot be easily detected due to their extremely charming traits. As for remorse, it only occurs when and because they are caught. White collar criminals rarely, if ever, stop their criminal behavior of their own accord as their inflated sense of entitlement urges them on. It appears to be compulsive. There is good and bad in all people but white collar criminals are a breed all their own. Although I am not a clinician, it has not been difficult to connect personality traits within my “control group” that are similar across the board. The majority appear to suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder with varying degrees of sociopathic tendencies. Their ability to compartmentalize and co-mingle their criminal behavior with their personal and professional interactions is astonishing. This is what makes them so dangerous and why their crimes are so egregious. Is it possible to rehabilitate a white collar criminal? Hard to say as how could we tell? They are master manipulators who in some cases evoke our sympathy, (this is their trick), but mostly make us question who they really are. Deterrence in the form of company compliance programs/expectations are ineffective and a waste of time on these individuals. Remember, the rules do not apply to white collar criminals. While most people are innately self-controlled, those that would perform illegally are without conscious and will easily walk through any controls. To penetrate the workings of a narcissist is no easy task. The only chance of deterrence is to confront them with overt cautionary tales of capture and loss of free will, standing in ones community and most heartbreaking of all, loss of family. Scared straight tactics have always been a last resort deterrent but an effective one. It is not the 99.9% of compliant employees a corporation must worry about but the 1% of lone actors that can bring down the entire house. In addition to my advocacy work on behalf of white collar wives and families I have developed a lecture series on ethics in the workplace and urge all who are serious about compliance and risk to contact me for a compelling hour of “Truth and Consequences: Easy Money Isn’t Easy” from a new voice with a new perspective on enforcement. As a former white collar wife I know all too well the massive debris path white collar crime leaves behind. Until the whole of society stops measuring success in terms of financial status and our proclivity for more abates, the terrible epidemic of white collar crime will continue to become more widespread. Please contact me at lawlerlisa1@gmail.com for more information or visit The White Collar Wives Club blog. Thank you for the platform.

  1. May 18, 2017

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