We were trying to make a decision and someone said, "that's the straw that broke the camel's back."
It makes one wonder whether there ever really was the straw that broke a camel's back? One little piece and snap? We all know what it means, that moment when weight overcomes the strength of resistance.
There must be many moments in our lives where there is a tipping point, a moment, where a decision is made based on the weight of an argument, or life situation. What must it be like to make that decision to do something dishonest? Certainly, there are pressures and opportunities which place people in that situation every single day.
It must be a combination of things which pushes people over the edge to do something that they know is wrong. First, there must be on some level a risk analysis; comparing the rewards of an act against the likelihood of being caught and its related consequences. This must be a rational decision-making proposition. Some studies have suggested it is an employee's belief that he will be caught if he steals that deters theft activity. This certainly makes sense when one observes how criminals commit their crimes.
Generally, the criminal selects a location where the odds of apprehension seem minimal. To commit a crime in front of a police officer would invite being caught and an otherwise fine day is ruined. In situations where cameras monitor intersections for red light violations, the number of accidents and tickets diminish as the public recognizes the risk of ignoring the traffic control devices. In a recent study by the Data Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety program, criminals were found to be five times more likely to have a traffic accident than the public in general. It seems reasonable there is some inherent recklessness pushing people to extremes.
There is amongst criminals a risk-taking behavior not found in the general population. If one was to examine arrest statistics going back to the 1800s, there is a spike for those between the ages of 16 to mid 20s with a dramatic drop-off of arrests after the age of 30. So part of this risk-taking behavior must be associated with the immaturity of the individual and his/her perception of living life in the moment without a long-term view of it. Some of the decisions to act dishonestly probably can be written off as youthful impulsiveness. Acting without thinking or not considering the long-term consequences of the act could explain wrongdoing for the young. This is probably especially true when an opportunity presents itself and an instant decision must be made to commit the crime or not. For example, taking money from a wallet momentarily left unattended. In such a situation, there is only a limited amount of time the opportunity is going to be available so there must be an instantaneous decision to steal the money.
Impulsiveness still cannot be the answer to the entire decision to commit the act. There must be a process of rationalization in place prior to the act that justifies the action to the individual. Everyone, criminals included, rationalize their behaviors doing only those things that can be justified in terms of risk and protection of the individual's self-image.
Most of us speed at one time or another. If the speed limit is 65 mph, traffic generally moves about 10 miles an hour faster. Most people can justify going 10 miles an hour over the speed limit because police officers typically do not issue citations for driving less than 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. However, driving faster than 10 miles an hour over the limit increases the risk of a traffic ticket because the vehicle is moving faster than surrounding cars. So while a driver can rationalize speeding, there generally is a limit to how fast he will go before the risk of a ticket outweighs the reward of an early arrival.
Criminals rationalize their actions doing only what they can justify. Not every employee steals money. Some can only justify the theft of merchandise which is often viewed as less serious than stealing cash. Those who can justify stealing cash are also likely have stolen merchandise because of its perceived lesser value.
The dishonest employee must have considered stealing at some point in his life and justified his actions which allowed him to feel comfortable doing so. In the absence of rationalization, an individual finds himself in what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance." This is effectively a feeling of disquiet as the good and bad angel argue over a possible course of action. The dishonest employee’s previous consideration has already rationalized and justified stealing, so when an opportunity presents itself, he is free to act without debate. For him now, it is merely an assessment of the risk of being caught without the intellectual debate over right and wrong.
One of the greatest contributors to employee theft is the associate’s attitude toward the organization. It is much easier to rationalize a theft when the employee believes he has been mistreated by the company. Some studies place this attitude as the most common denominator among employees who steal. Then, the economic realities come into play and the stress of bills reduces the associate’s options to pay bills. Anger toward his situation, loss of control economically and a general frustration toward the organization and a theft is easily justified.
In our experience those who have thought about committing a crime are merely a breath away from doing so. The thought process an individual goes through when considering a crime prepares a justification, either real or perceived. Once the justification has been reached, the individual merely has to have a low-risk opportunity to cross the line. That is the straw that broke the camel's back, but it could not have done so were it not for the bales that preceded it.
There is also some element of power going into the individual's decision making. Social control begins to lose its effectiveness as the individual’s power over a situation grows. Look at senior executives who have spent $85,000 on an area rug or $30,000 on a toilet. Power is an interesting phenomenon. It does not necessarily corrupt, but it allows ones natural tendencies to blossom.
Regardless, the person now has what he considers absolute power and the illusion no one can touch him. Effectively, the rules and supervision that control behavior are relaxed allowing the person a sense he is master of all enabling him to become more assertive to his desires.
Interviewers can establish and maintain rapport by offering rationalizations which conform to the associate’s thought processes leading to the theft. This effectively helps justify the actions and supports the individual’s self- image of himself as a good person overcome by life circumstances.
The straw that broke the camel’s back is only able to do so because of all the bales placed previously. So for the dishonest employee it is impulsiveness, recklessness, rationalization and a sense of minimal risk tipping the decision toward dishonesty.