The term white collar crime is typically used to refer to non-violent financial crimes committed by persons in business contexts. Standard examples include embezzlement and insider trading. The term “white collar” is a reference to the colour of the dress shirts traditionally worn by business professionals in the Western world.
White collar crime is relevant to the study of business ethics in several ways. For one thing, white collar crimes are generally behaviours that have been outlawed, but that once would have been thought of as ‘merely’ unethical. Insider trading, for instance, has always been unethical (since it involves taking unfair advantage of information gained by corporate insiders, for personal profit) but only became illegal in the United States in the 1930s. Another connection between ethics and white collar crime lies in the fact that certain behaviours might be either merely unethical or constitute white collar crimes depending on their scale: to take office supplies home for personal use might be thought of by some as merely unethical, whereas to take cash from a petty cash box would be considered theft of the white-collar type. Finally, it may be that employment contexts where unethical behaviour is common may be a breeding ground for white collar crime: where disregard for one type of rule becomes common, disregard for other types of rules may follow.
Critics have pointed out that while a moral distinction is often made between violent crime, on one had, and “mere” white collar crime on the other, this distinction is itself morally problematic. It has often been pointed out that a white collar criminal can steal a million dollars much more easily than a thug with a gun can rob a bank, but may do just as much harm while nonetheless being punished much less severely. White-collar criminals who get caught are often punished differently, too, by being ordered to pay restitution, or serving a short jail sentence in a minimum-security facility. Reference to white collar crime may also be a way of implicitly making problematic class distinctions, since white collar crimes are more likely to be committed by professionals of high social status, whereas violent crimes are more likely to be committed by lower-status individuals.
See also in CEBE:
- Federal Bureau of Investigations, “White Collar Crime.”
- Heath, Joseph. “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective”. Journal of Business Ethics, 2008.
- Stuart Green, Lying, Cheating, and Stealing: A Moral Theory of White-Collar Crime, 2007.