|Do Dentists Embezzle? |
By David Harris
I think everyone reading this newsletter is aware of the shockingly high probability of a dentist being embezzled in his or her career. Published statistics put that probability at three in five dentists, but because some embezzlement goes unreported and some is never detected, the true probability is likely about 80%.
It is tempting to attribute this pandemic to the necessity to have employees, with those employees being generally less educated and having a less developed sense of ethics than the dentist. By this logic, while it is quite possible to be victimized by staff, it is unimaginable that another member of the dental fraternity would steal.
This reasoning is doubly flawed. First, the overwhelming majority of dental team members share the altruism and integrity that most dentists bring to their profession, and the embezzlement statistics are a result of the actions of a very small proportion of dental staff. And second, one dentist stealing from another in a group practice context is something that we encounter with some regularity. We usually have four or five active investigations of this type in progress. While this is a small proportion of our total investigations, we need to bear in mind that the number of multi-dentist practices where this “fratricide” can happen is relatively small also.
What I want to establish is that the causes of embezzlement are not as simple as modest economic circumstances and underdeveloped ethics. Most of our dentist-embezzlers are already reasonably well off, and it is clear to me that they understand the ethical transgressions they are making.
So why do they do it?
Sometimes the embezzlers feel that the dentist they are victimizing has somehow wronged them in the past, and they are (using a very twisted concept of fairness) attempting to right this historical wrong. In other situations, I believe they get some kind of biochemical thrill from successfully stealing (analogous, I guess, to the celebrity shoplifters we sometimes read about in the news who steal a $10 item from a store while earning millions of dollars). And the dental education and licensing processes are probably far better at weeding out the undexterous and unintelligent than the sociopaths.
If you are not in a group practice, at this point, you are probably questioning the relevance of this discussion to you. It’s actually pretty direct. Embezzlers who happen to be dentists are bestowed a huge advantage by their victims. Because their actions are “inconceivable” (and I’m now quoting many of the victims), the perpetrator receives far less skepticism from the victim than he or she should.
Regardless of your practice situation, an easy way to make yourself vulnerable is to decide that it is inconceivable that a certain person will steal from you. Unfortunately, we have seen far too many of these “inconceivables.” In addition to the classic cases of the trusted long-term employee, we have also seen embezzlement committed by siblings of the dentist, children, and even spouses.
I’m not suggesting an ongoing hunt for embezzlers the way Sen. McCarthy once hunted for communists; simply that deciding that anyone is “above suspicion” is exactly the enabler that they need, if they are so inclined. We just can’t completely rule out the possibility of someone being a thief. Whether you practice solo or in a group, some amount of skepticism is a healthy thing.
me a few months back), you too can improve your skills. He is becoming more competitive not by improving his basic strategies (which are already pretty good) but instead by becoming more observant of my moves and better able to discern the strategy that underlies them.
embezzlers displayed some type of behavior indicative of embezzlement.
suggestions are bad ideas; rather that, in the unequal battle between embezzler and victim, they are simply unlikely to be successful.
you identify employee behavior that indicates risk of embezzlement. Your score gives you an indication of your vulnerability. You can access the questionnaire here.
Something I often get asked is whether more embezzlement takes place when the economy is in trouble. The answer isn’t a totally simple one, but it does show something interesting about embezzlers, so it is one that I am always happy to address.
An economic downturn puts some people in a financial bind; spouses may lose their jobs, investments devalue, and falling housing prices cause homes to be “underwater” or can even make it difficult to obtain mortgage financing. All of these things exert sufficient financial pressure to cause a small minority of the population to steal.
We refer to this group as “Needy” thieves, and economic conditions certainly increase their numbers. However, we shouldn’t forget that there is another cohort, which we label as “Greedy”. Unlike the Needy, these people aren’t stealing to survive — they are stealing to purchase luxury items that they feel that they “deserve” but can’t afford on the salary you pay them. We’ve watched these people purchase everything from $150,000 automobiles to boats to lavishing expensive gifts on their friends.
Members of this group believe that society (and in particular their employer) underappreciate their talents and value. Stealing is their way of addressing this perceived inequity and tacitly demonstrating how smart they are.
I’ll mention two things about this group — they seem to be much larger than the Needy — approximately 80% of the embezzlement we find involves Greedy thieves. Second, the “lifestyle gap” that they perceive widens in a booming economy — they see others “getting ahead” faster than they are, and this motivates them to embezzle.
So, contrary to what you may have thought, we see more embezzlement in a recovering economy than one in a downturn, but it involves a different group of embezzlers.