The Six Most Common Rationalizations Employees Give for Noncompliance

When businesses develop comprehensive compliance programs, they often do so in the expectation that the programs will discourage or prevent employee wrongdoing. However, the majority of employee misconduct is not the result of ignorance of company policy and procedure.

When businesses develop comprehensive compliance programs, they often do so in the expectation that the programs will discourage or prevent employee wrongdoing. However, the majority of employee misconduct is not the result of ignorance of company policy and procedure.

Often, a worker will arrive at an unethical decision after a seemingly rational justification process. For businesses to really tackle employee noncompliance, they must understand the rationale behind their team members’ propensity to do wrong. The following are the most common rationalizations employees give for not adhering to the rules.

Shirking Responsibility

This is perhaps the most common excuse. Employees will do the wrong thing on the pretext that compliance was not their responsibility but that of a colleague. Organizations where departments work in silos are particularly vulnerable to this. The departments see themselves as distinct entities instead of dependent components within a larger body.

When employees in such inward-looking departments receive obviously noncompliant work for processing from another department, they’ll proceed as usual instead of blowing the whistle.

Denying Harm

In many instances, the repercussions of noncompliance aren’t always evident immediately. In this case, the employee will attempt to justify a wrongful action by pointing to the absence of clear harm to anyone.

Think about a liquor store employee who disregards the result of an automatic age checker (such as Minor Decliner) and proceeds to sell alcohol to a minor. Even if no eventual harm is done to the underage purchaser, and no one detects the error, this does not make the sale legal.

Blaming the Victim

An employee could argue that they broke the law or failed to follow regulations because the victim of their noncompliance deserved it.

For instance, a supermarket assistant could get into an altercation with a customer that eventually deteriorates into a physical fight. The attendant may claim that they had no obligation to remain calm and refrain from physical assault because the customer was provocative and irrational.

Faulting the Faultfinders

When caught doing wrong, workers will sometimes attempt to shift the conversation away from their own conduct and toward the motives of the faultfinders. The faultfinders, in this case, could be colleagues, managers, auditors, regulators, government agencies and prosecutors.

The problem employee may launch a personal attack on these parties, accusing them of hypocrisy, and question why they were singled out when there are other people doing the same thing.

Of course, any claims by the offender that other workers are breaking the law too should be treated as a valuable tip and must be investigated to its logical conclusion. This should not be a reason for them to get away scot-free though.

Appealing to a Higher Goal

In this instance, the individual will claim that their failure to adhere to the laid down procedures was necessary in order to advance a higher goal. For business, this higher goal is almost always greater profit.

According to the employee, their actions though wrong led to customer retention, a closed sale, better shareholder return or protection from regulatory censure. Given the pressure for profit, CEOs are subjected to by shareholders, it’s easy to buy into this train of thought. Yet, such short-term gain often comes with long-term pain.

Pointing to Past Positive Contribution

Superstar employees may want their negative actions weighed against their long list of positive accomplishments for the organization. This helps them minimize their sense of guilt. Senior executives deeply involved in philanthropy can use their good deeds to excuse their wayward behavior.

Companies seek to make their compliance policies and procedures bulletproof. Unfortunately, no compliance program is comprehensive enough to guarantee that staff will not do wrong or the regulator won’t step in.

A classic example is Volkswagen AG, one of the world’s largest and oldest car manufacturers. The company’s compliance controls didn’t prevent their workers from circumventing emissions tests by installing compromised software. By understanding employee rationalization behind their lawbreaking, companies can focus on employee behavior which is the most effective way to make sure compliance programs work.

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