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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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29. Ethics on the slide leads to slip-ups:
escalating commitment and the induction mechanism
‘For a long time it was just small sums.’ These are the words of one of eight municipal
collection clerks caught embezzling millions from the city parking meters. It began with
taking the money that fell into the shaft of the parking meter when the moneybox was
full and pocketing it for themselves. When the oficials noticed how easy that was, they
did it more often, until one of the oficials wondered, ‘Why don’t we take whole boxes?’
Since the lock could be forced with a small pull, that was easy. The frequency with which
the boxes were stolen soon increased. Despite the oficials feeling that things were getting
out of hand and that it would be better to stop, they continued, because ‘the extras were
really rather nice’. What began with pinching the overlow cash grew into a whole system for
stealing the moneyboxes and sharing the spoils among the collection clerks. According to
the municipality’s calculations, the collection clerks were earning 8,000 euros per person per
week before they were caught.
It is a common pattern: serious lapses begin with small slips.The greatest criminal starts out as
a petty thief. Large-scale accounting fraud often begins with a triling slip of the pen. Through
practical research, Lawrence Sherman has deined six stages in the process of corruption of a
police oficer. It begins with (1) accepting small favors, such as free drinks and meals, followed
by (2) intentionally ignoring shop closing times and illegal parking, (3) accepting money from
driving offenders, (4) regularly accepting payment from casinos for tolerating abuses or even
offering protection, (5) being bribed by prostitutes, brothel owners, and drug dealers, and
inally (6) direct involvement in drug dealing.
There are at least two mechanisms which explain how people are sucked into such a downward
spiral. The irst mechanism is ‘escalating commitment’: the feeling that there is no way back
and one must go on. Once on the slide it is dificult to stop, let alone get back to the starting
point. This was seen, for example, with stockbrokers (the rogue traders) who ran into trouble,
such as Nick Leeson, Jérôme Kerviel, and Kweku Adoboli. Small losses are compensated for
by taking greater risks, and if this leads to still greater losses, even greater risks are taken,
and so it goes on. The example of Bernard Bradstreet, former head of a computer company,
29. Ethics on the slide leads to slip-ups: escalating commitment and the induction mechanism