man in suit; photo via unsplash

White-Collar Criminals Are Just Like the Rest of Us

March 2, 2021

Last week, CU Denver Business School hosted a webinar by Harvard Business professor Eugene Soltes, author of Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal. To answer the question posed by Soltes’ book—because they can.

book cover and author photo
Eugene Soltes recently discussed white-collar crime at a webinar sponsored by the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative.

Acceptable Norms in the Business World

“Corporate deviance has been historically overlooked by criminologists because it was not actually considered criminal in most instances,” Soltes writes. His book explains that it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, when an academic coined the term “white-collar crime,” that sociologists, legal experts, and criminologists began to acknowledge corporate misconduct.

Soltes investigated more than 50 former executives by interviewing them over seven years. While the popular conception of corporate criminals may be that they’re calculating sociopaths or greedy narcissists, Soltes found that they are surprisingly like the rest of us. They are navigating life using their gut instincts. In the business world, however, acceptable norms differ from those of broader society.

Gray Area Between Ethics and Criminal Conduct

Soltes’ webinar—sponsored by the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative (DFEI) Collegiate Programs at CU Denver Business School and Colorado Law, CU Anschutz Center for Bioethics and Humanities, and CU Denver School of Public Affairs—discussed how corporate criminals often operate in a gray area where their crimes are difficult to prosecute. Technically, they may not be breaking the law; ethically, they may be guilty of misconduct.

DFEI Collegiate Program Director Ira Selkowitz, JD, Senior Instructor in the Business School, explained how Soltes’ presentation benefitted students: “The points he raises provide a new perspective that complements the usual focus on corporate governance to mitigate the risk of ethical breach. Tying this discussion into the ethical principles of our Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative Collegiate Program provided an invaluable real-world connection.” 

The Value of Asking for Advice

With more than 700 attendees, the webinar illustrated that students, faculty, and employees in many fields are interested in corporate codes of conduct. Soltes stressed that ethics compliance is often taught in business school, law school, and psychology programs, but that these ethics lessons are often compartmentalized and finite. “The challenge is in day-to-day life,” Soltes said. “In the real world, everyone is operating in the in-between, in the gray zone.”

“The program was very valuable for students because they learned that the ‘Why They Do It’ question does not have a simple answer,” Selkowitz said. “There are many variables ranging from company norms and culture to the need for humility that affect decision-making in an organization.” Ultimately, Soltes advised students planning to work in the corporate world to have humility. “Ask for advice from others. We all need a sounding board,” he said.