How to Recognize the Really Bad Self-Rationalization

Hardly a day goes by without some new revelation of a person in power abusing their position. Workers have always closely watched how their employers deal with corporate compliance, whether the misconduct is financial, sexual, or simply negligent. More often than not, someone comes away disappointed, in large part, new research suggests, because companies still don't understand what's happening.

Todd Haugh, a professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University, has released studies identifying ways in which compliance cases often go over the heads of management. In one key paper, he identifies eight types of rationalization white-collar wrongdoers use to give themselves permission to overstep. Keep an eye out for these excuses in your colleagues (or yourself) — they almost certainly signal the need for an intervention.

  • "I had to do it. It wasn't my fault."
  • "No one really got hurt."
  • "Who's really the victim here?"
  • "What's your agenda for accusing me?"
  • "I just did it to save the company."
  • "Okay, but look at all the good I've done."
  • "Look, I may have done it, but I earned it."
  • "You think I'm bad? Look at yourselves!"

When malfeasance finally comes to light, there are often calls to punish swiftly and definitively. That's appropriate in certain cases, but making an example of one culprit may not create the sweeping cultural changes necessary to root out a problem. As with any habit, small, consistent, and ingrained "nudges" have a better chance of sticking. Haugh suggests including written reminders about ethics and policy in expense reporting software, or implementing checklist procedures before transferring funds.

Of course, there's a line between "nudging" and straight-up micromanagement. But if someone you work with can't self-regulate, it's important to know how to catch them in the act.