Thursday, September 27, 2012


Being an accounting student, I am very familiar with opportunism in the workplace, and more specifically looking at areas where opportunism may exist too easily within an office.  Instituting controls and testing controls that prevent the possibility of fraud or material mistakes from occurring is a crucial part of the job of an accountant.  Fraud is an example of opportunistic behavior, albeit a very extreme one.  While the occurrence of fraud is much rarer than most people believe, when it occurs it can be absolutely devastating to an organization.

However, with that said, there are many companies that simply cannot afford all of the necessary control measures to ensure that fraudulent behavior cannot take place.  This presents a situation for an opportunistic individual to act in his or her own favor by committing fraud if he or she feels that the act can be perpetrated without getting caught.  Fraud investigators are taught that in order for fraud to occur the three components of the Fraud Triangle must be present. One of the components, along with motivation and rationalization, is opportunity.  People commit fraudulent acts because they are acting opportunistically in their own favor.

This past summer, I worked at an accounting firm and one of the engagements I was assigned to was determining how much money an employee had stolen from a company fraudulently, and how the employee was able to keep his act going, undetected, for so long.  The company was not very big and as a result did not have the financial resources that would allow them to put in place all of the necessary controls for preventing fraud.  An opportunistic employee took advantage of these lack of controls, certainly to a much more extreme level than commonly found, and acted very beneficially in his favor with no regard for the well-being of the company.

While this was an example of one person acting very opportunistically, there were also many engagements we worked on where it was clear that people were in situations where was opportunism was readily available but they chose not to behave that way for what could have been a number of reasons, whether it be strong moral compass, loyalty to their employer, and so on.  These companies lacked many of the appropriate controls for preventing, due to lack of financial resources, manpower, or various other resources, yet the employees did not act opportunistically and exploit the weaknesses of their own company.  Some of the employees even knew where the company was most at risk as they highlighted in our discussion yet still chose to not act opportunistically.

I think most of the reasons why people would not act opportunistically ultimately amount to the same thing: doing the right thing.  There are situations where acting opportunistically is the right thing to do and in those cases people generally take advantage of the opportunity, but if people feel uncomfortable about the opportunity that is presented, that is when they hold off.


  1. Great post - a value add to me. I had not heard of the fraud triangle before. I also appreciate your discussion of control systems, which clearly serves as a counter force to opportunistic behavior. But doesn't personal responsibility matter too and, if so, how does it enter into the mix? Part of the reason for this post is to begin to ask that question.

    Did you take BUS 101? A big part of that course is supposed to be making students aware of what professional responsibility means. If you did take it you would have been part of an early cohort. I think the course has changed evolved since. I used to talk with the principals but no longer do. I do wonder about the effectiveness of that course and the entire undergraduate program in teaching business ethics.

  2. I never took BUS 101 but I am very familiar with professional responsibility as it has been discussed throughout many of the courses I have taken. I definitely agree with you in that professional responsibility does matter and it was an oversight on my part not to discuss it further. I think the business program does a solid job teaching business ethics as I have taken many classes that discussed cases involving poor business ethics, as well as proper ethics, throughout my time here. With that said, I do think a required course that focuses strictly on business ethics, responsibilities, and customs would be a solid addition to the business curriculum.