Low Self-Control, Organizational Theory, and Corporate Crime

Article excerpt

The development of Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime (1990; see also Hirschi & Gottfredson 1987, 2000) has provoked lively debate about the merits of the theory as applied to organizational crime (Steffensmeier 1989; Reed & Yeager 1996; Herbert et al. 1998). While the debate is provocative, the empirical evidence brought to bear is an insufficient test of competing theoretical claims. Using data drawn from a factorial survey administered to a group of corporate managers and managers-in-training, we subject Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory of crime and an integrated organizational theory to a theoretical competition. The results show that corporate offending propensity and behavioral indicators of low self-control are unrelated, a result inconsistent with the general theory. Instead, variables consistent with an integrated materialistic and cultural organizational theory predict managers' offending intentions. For instance, offending is inhibited when a firm has a working compliance program and when managers perceive the illegal act as highly immoral. Conversely, managers are more apt to offend when ordered to do so by a supervisor, or to gain financial or market position vis-à-vis competitors. The implications for general and organizational theories of corporate offending are discussed.

Whether it is feasible and constructive to develop a general theory of crime is a particularly salient issue for scholars who study organizational crime. Sutherland's (1949) seminal work advanced a general theory of differential association to explain the offending patterns of corporations and other white-collar offenders. Yet most who have followed him claim that corporate acts and actors are dissimilar enough from traditional street crimes and criminals that typological approaches will, at least initially, yield better theory and comprehension of the phenomenon (Clinard & Quinney 1967, 1973; Clinard & Yeager 1980; Vaughan 1983; but see Braithwaite 1989).1 This position was recently challenged, however, by the theory of crime developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, which proposes that crime and other risk-taking behaviors can be linked to a stable individual level trait-low self-control (1990; see also Hirschi & Gottfredson 1987, 1993, 1994).

Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory asserts that "people who lack self-control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal, and they will tend therefore to engage in crime and analogous acts" (Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990:90). This statement implies that low self-control is a trait shared by all criminals, regardless of the type of offending in which they engage. Indeed, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:190) believe that persons with low self-control will engage in crime whenever they can and without specialization: "[T]he evidence seems reasonably clear that offenders seem to do just about everything they can do; they do not specialize in any particular crime or type of crime." Thus, since the underlying propensity toward crime can be explained by low-self control, there is no need for specialized theories, including those developed to account for occupational or corporate crime.

In contrast to the pure microfocus of Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory, corporate crime scholars theorize about the criminogenic aspects of the organization and its environment (Coleman 1987; Erman & Rabe 1997; Geis 1967; Finney & Lesieur 1982; Simpson 1986; Brathwaite & Fisse 1990; Reiss & Tonry 1993; Shover & Bryant 1993; Reed & Yeager 1996; Vaughan 1992). Although a number of causal mechanisms are thought to predict corporate crime offending, the main thrust of the argument prioritizes organizational influences on managerial decision making (Yeager & Reed 1998). For instance, firms that set unreasonable goals and then punish managers who fail create a climate of pressure and fear among employees, leading to "innovative" solutions when objectives are not met (Clinard 1983; Reed & Yeager 1996). …