Everything we elect to do or not do produces an outcome. Deciding to use a particular piece of technology in your office most likely came from being aware of efficiency, productivity, and patient acceptance. Perhaps your colleague has the same technology in their office that they can't stop talking about.
You decide to stop by the practice to see what all the talk is about. After all, you'd never incorporate technology that provides false outcomes, right? Before you decide to use it in your practice, you ask the who-what-where-when-why questions. You talk to your staff, your accountant, your spouse, and 14 other colleagues. You take a test drive, fall in love, and ta-da! Subconsciously, you used rationalization for each step of your due diligence.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, rationalization is creating a reason, explanation, or excuse for an action or behavior.(1) On the other hand, lack of awareness, lack of intuition, lack of rationalization, and lack of reasoning are all contributing ingredients of fraudulent behaviors.
Here I provide insight into an employee’s choice to embezzle. My interview subject is anonymous, but a real person. Changing the name and location of this offense provides respect for the privacy of those affected by this crime. I do not discuss how much was stolen or the procedural steps used, but explore the psychological factors behind why the employee stole from her employer.
Taking the wrong path
Jerry, a 43-year-old wife and parent of two, shares her thoughts and actions that culminated in her heart as she decided to commit fraud. Jerry shares with me that the attempt to steal money from the office began years before she took the doctor's money. Years prior, her life was less complicated, yet financially challenged. She often thought that she could easily steal and the doctor would never know because “he never checked anything.” As a teenager, Jerry faced feelings of guilt, remorse, and disappointment with her decision to steal $50 from her next-door neighbor. “This feeling held me back several years from stealing until I finally just did it.”
Jerry needed the $50 to attend her senior year bus trip with her classmates. She rationalized that she stole the money from her neighbor as a means to participate and not be singled out from the rest of the kids in her class. Her parents were going through a divorce and they did not have the money for the trip. Time passed and “the feeling of stealing from the neighbor wasn’t nearly as painful.” Jerry assumed that if she stole the money from her employer, the feeling would also go away with time. After this realization, she began to rationalize why she needed the money. And so it began.
Jerry explains that she and her husband needed money to make much-needed repairs to their home. Each year, another financial obligation would keep their home from getting repairs. Jerry was the business administrator and office manager for a busy pediatric practice in upstate New York. One of her many responsibilities included reporting production, collection, and overhead numbers during team meetings.
Employees received bonuses if they achieved their set goals. Every month, the office met their goals, until the associate doctor went on maternity leave. The production gap left the office short of obtaining their goals, and Jerry found a way to eliminate this deficit. “It was a win-win for everyone; we all stayed positive and received our bonus.” Jerry convinced herself over time that overcharging patients during the associate's maternity leave was OK because “we all worked twice as hard without the associate being there.”
Opportunity and motivation
According to Murphy and Dacin, the psychological pathways to fraud reveal how individuals process thoughts that lead them to an illegal or highly unethical choice.(2) The psychological pathway begins with the opportunity and motivation. Jerry was fully aware that her decision to steal was wrong, and she proves this by telling us that "her heart told her so."
As time went on, she accepted the fact that her intuition convinced her that stealing would be acceptable. She knew the benefits of stealing would help everyone in the office and outweigh the cost of committing fraud. After all, she wanted that kitchen remodel and was determined to get it. Jerry’s reasoning behind her theft removed the negative impact she would have had if she had acted without a cause.
The associate doctor returned to work. She settled back into her position and learned how well the team performed while she was away. Congratulating the team for their success, she asked, “How did you manage, and what did you all do differently during my absence?” Surprised to learn of their success, she studied the reports of production per provider. She notices a pattern and casually began to converse with the senior doctor regarding the newly found procedures. Procedures in the reports supported the beginning of their discovery that the reports were not right.
Jerry noticed the doctors reviewing the reports and panic settled in. How would she back out or reduce her actions? Would she confess? Would she stop stealing? Or would she continue the pattern so the reports would consistent without showing a sharp decline? Jerry sustained her actions and assumed the doctors did not understand how to read the reports. S
he used her rationalization to reduce the negative impact by initiating a community-donated dental day for the office. All procedures provided this day were free to those in need. Striving desperately to show her moral values to the doctors by giving back to the community, Jerry’s act of kindness initiated red flags to both doctors. The psychological red flags helped the doctors confirm their questioning, and eventually, fraud was uncovered.
Statistics reported by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners in its 2016 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse reveals that businesses with fewer than 100 employees report that 5.4% of fraud discovered happened by reviewing documents. Asset misappropriation (a billing scheme, in this case) resulted in 22.2% of cases surveyed.
The mindset of an individual
One could argue that if the person could identify the first time they rationalized stealing, and given the skills to overcome these thoughts, they could stop the behavior. Individuals should be equipped with a set of moral foundations that can be learned from their workplace, meaning a strong mission statement about the company and the employees that are working there. Instilling this mission provides a foundation of morals and ethical behaviors expected from employees.
Referring to the company’s mission could deter fraud. What if Jerry could have referred to her office mission statement? Would she have proceeded with stealing? Would this have made a difference between proper conduct or a mistake she would regret forever? Understanding a clear set of boundaries regarding what she would or would not do in efforts to achieve her success would have told us that Jerry had firm values in place.
Jerry explained that she was aware of her behavior, and undertaking her impact-driven procedures to steal happened with a thought process. Her decision not to refrain from stealing superseded any feelings at heart and immediately began justification and rationalization of her actions. The choice to steal produced an unfavorable outcome for Jerry as her confession lead to her conviction.
Provide your team with resources to grow personally and professionally with your company. As a leader, you have invited employees into your work life. Surround yourself with an understanding of how leadership can influence and direct employees. Invest in your leadership skills and be passionate about leading people. Understand that implementing resources, protocols, and internal controls does not mean that your business is free from becoming a victim of fraud; however, understand that by adding layers of protection to your business will likely deter potential fraud from happening.
1. Cambridge Dictionary. (2017). Rationalize. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from cambridge.org: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/rationalize
2. Murphy, P. R., & Dacin, M. T. (2011, Spring). Psychological Pathways to Fraud: Understanding and Preventing Fraud in Organizations. Journal of Business Ethics.