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When professionals become victims: the ethical implications of self-perceived victimhood.

Many professions have recently come under attack as the result of a variety of well-published scandals involving unethical or unprofessional behavior. Brokerage firms have been accused of trading stocks using insider information; bond traders of manipulating the U.S. Treasury Bond offerings; doctors of ignoring malpractice within their profession and inflating health care costs with unnecessary surgery and diagnostic tests; bankers of causing the economy's woes because they make too many bad loans or, alternatively, too few loans; and lawyers continue to be blamed for almost everything. Society grants professions considerable autonomy; because professionals have specialized knowledge, they are judged most fit to set appropriate standards of conduct and control their own behavior. This unwritten "social contract" imposes special responsibilities on the profession to keep the public's interest foremost in their priorities. Among other things, professions must thoroughly and fairly investigate all complaints about the behavior of their members. Society expects professions to enforce their own standards. If there are problems within the profession's domain, society expects that the profession will take whatever corrective actions are needed, or recommend corrective actions for situations that are outside the profession's control. Society expects this "problem-solving" mode even when the profession believes that criticism of its actions is unfair. Such a mature response to criticism is a hallmark of professionalism: it requires a "professional assessment" of the situation and development of constructive solutions. To meet ethical standards, professionals must act responsibly in the public interest and proactively address problems within their area of professional expertise.

However, somewhat alarmingly, professionals often do not acknowledge the possibility of professional error but instead see themselves or their profession as victims when confronted by allegations of negligence, incompetence, or unethical behavior. As Joseph Epstein states
 Victims have never been in short
 supply in the world, but the rush to
 identify oneself as a victim is a rather
 new feature of modern life. Why
 this is so isn't very complicated: to
 position oneself as a victim is to position
 oneself for sympathy, special
 treatment, even victory (New York
 Times Magazine, July, 2, 1989).

This paper examines the implications of professionals perceiving themselves or their profession as victims. Whether or not professionals use the term "victim" or "victimized" is not important; we are interested in whether or not they feel that their profession has been unfairly criticized. In this paper we briefly review the social psychology literature to determine the nature of victimhood. We then suggest that professionals who perceive themselves as victims of unfair public criticism may exhibit many of the same behaviors observed in studies of victims of crimes or natural disasters. While these behaviors may be a natural part of the coping and healing processes for real victims, we believe that when such defense mechanisms (to any degree) are adopted by professionals, they interfere with the profession's ability to solve the underlying problems. Our model (shown in Figure 1) suggests that when confronted with a problem, professionals who perceive themselves as victims of public criticisms are likely to propose solutions to protect their profession and "educate the public," while those who see the public criticism as symptomatic of actual problems will be more likely to propose constructive solutions that involve proactive changes within their profession. We test this model empirically using a small sample from one profession, bank auditors.



As conceptualized in the victimization literature of social psychology, a victim is an individual (e.g., rape or crime victim) or a group of individuals (e.g., women, ethnic groups, disaster victims) which has been subjected to some uncontrollable, adverse event(s). In addition to suffering a loss of value, status, or resources, victims frequently sense a loss of control (Burgess & Holmstrom, 1979). Perceiving oneself as a victim results in beliefs about the uncontrollability of the future, and victims are often unable to deal rationally with future events that are not even related to the victimizing experience (Perloff, 1983; Peterson & Seligman, 1983). This study relies on the social psychology literature to provide insight into the behaviors that professionals might exhibit if they think their profession--and themselves by extension--to be victims of unfair public criticism. The degree to which one is victimized, of course, is related to the adversity of the experience. The responses of professionals who feel victimized may reflect some of the behaviors suggested below, even if the degree of their victimization seems relatively minor (or even invalid) when viewed objectively by an outsider.

Studies suggest that emotional reactions to undesirable life events are highly variable. Individuals or groups may respond with bitterness, anger, hostility, passivity, or withdrawal. Reactions to being a victim may be partially determined by the perceiver's causal interpretation of the victimizing event (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). One of the conditions that has consistently been used to characterize victimizing episodes is the uncontrollability over the onset and termination of the victimizing event (Peterson & Seligman, 1983). Uncontrollability of the victimizing event has obvious parallels with learned helplessness, the belief that future actions are futile, which may render victims apathetic, passive or withdrawn. Seligman (1975) suggests that people who have been subjected to uncontrollable or victimizing events exhibit defects in motivation and performance. Martinko & Gardner (1982) argue that learned helplessness can explain low quality, passivity and dissatisfaction found in organizations when workers are faced with uncontrollable events.

Individuals who use their status as victim to deny responsibility for their shortcomings in behavior are unlikely to take steps necessary to change this behavior (Wortman, 1983). Self-definition as a victim may lead to a self-sustained state of self-righteousness, self-pity and anger. Therefore, claiming victim status, even if unearned, may provide professional groups with a means of avoiding responsibility and rationalizing their actions, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the public. As a consequence, problems may not be thoroughly investigated and appropriate solutions to those problems may not be sought by the very experts (the professionals) whom society relies on for leadership in their areas of expertise.

The application of studies of individual victimization to an analysis of members of a profession involves several conceptual linkages. First, we are proposing that an individual's affiliation with a professional group will be strong enough for her/him to become defensive when that affiliate group is criticized. Second, we assert that some members of that affiliate profession, either alone or together, will perceive themselves as victims when they believe they are being criticized unfairly. Note that we are less concerned with the validity of the allegations than with professionals perceiving themselves as victims. Third, we postulate that, as self-perceived victims, these individuals, and perhaps the profession as a whole will display the response patterns (perhaps to a lesser extent) of victims of crimes or natural disasters as reported in the social psychology literature. Our theory is that individuals who perceive their reference group (their profession) to have been unfairly criticized and thus victimized, will not develop constructive solutions to the root problems that led to the public criticism.

Research Method

Our research was exploratory. We wanted to determine whether the above conceptual linkages could be observed in actual practice. Our conceptual structure shown in Figure 1 led to the following formal hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1:

A stronger perception of victimization will be associated with defensive solutions to the problems underlying the public's criticisms.

Hypothesis 2:

A professional assessment of the public's criticisms will be associated with constructive solutions to the problems underlying the public's criticism.

For our sample, we chose a group of professionals which had been under some attack in the media and who might have perceived themselves as victims: bank auditors. The current problems in the savings and loan industry, and the banking industry are often linked to inadequate or improper audits. Ernst & Young, one of the Big Six accounting firms in 1992, agreed to pay $400 million to settle all charges for inadequate savings and loan audits. Ernst & Young had been accountable for four of the most notorious thrift failures: the Lincoln Savings & Loan, Silverado Banking Savings & Loan, Vernon Savings & Loan, and Western Savings Association (Nye, 1993). Also in 1992, "Arthur Andersen agreed to pay up to $30 million to settle investors' suits arising from the Lincoln failure" (Barker, 1993). Virtually all of the big accounting firms have been caught up in the banking and S&L loan fiascoes. One possible manifestation of a perceived victim response was that some members of the accounting profession believed that lawsuits for audit failure were filed because of the "deep pockets" of accounting firms rather than actual professional error (Nye, 1993). Another manifestation of the victim response was the intense lobbying undertaken by the Big Six in the halls of Congress to limit accountants' liability under the federal securities laws (Weiss, 1993).

We surveyed bank auditors attending weeklong training sessions at our university. These courses were run under the auspices of the AICPA and satisfied the profession's requirement for continuing education. We believe that the sample represented the overall population of bank auditors. There were some internal bank auditors, but most were independent auditors working for CPA firms or government regulators. We prepared a survey questionnaire tailored to elicit responses from the auditors regarding their perceptions and opinions of the public criticism currently facing their profession as well as their proposed responses to public criticism. The survey was pretested by six faculty members knowledgeable about banking and auditing before being modified and administered to the bank auditors. Questionnaires were then administered to the auditors, who were asked to use a seven-point scale to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements about problems in bank auditing and possible solutions to those problems. Of the 70 program participants, 53 (76%) returned completed questionnaires.

Scale Development

Victimization: Five questionnaire items were chosen to represent victimization because they all convey a sense of frustration with the unfairness of public criticisms of bank auditors or a general disagreement with the premise of the criticism. In short, the victimization scale consists of items which indicate that auditors treat the criticism as the problem rather than as a symptom of an underlying problem.

The five items were as follows:

* In bank failures, auditors are made scapegoats if they fail to issue early warnings of financial distress.

* The public thinks bank auditors are supposed to root out fraud.

* Government deregulation of the banking industry has created many of the problems that auditors are held responsible for.

* There is a general belief by the public that an unqualified auditor's report guarantees firm solvency.

* Auditors are held accountable for issues over which they have no control.

Professional Assessment: Four questionnaire items were selected for the professional assessment scale because they appeared to be assessments of the underlying problems, rather than of the criticism itself.

The items constituting the professional assessment scale were as follows:

* Auditors' legal responsibilities for the prevention of audit failures have not been clearly defined.

* The S & L and banking system problems represent serious threats to the accounting industry.

* Market pressures have put an increasing strain on auditor independence.

* The public perceives that auditors have become less independent in recent years.

Defensive Solutions: We were unable to develop reliable multi-item scales to measure the defensive solutions. Instead, we used two single-variable scales.

* Protection for the Profession was represented by "Laws should be passed to limit the liability of auditors."

* Need to Educate the Public was represented by "The accounting profession needs to educate the public about the inherent limitations in performing an audit."

Constructive Solutions: We represented constructive solutions by two scales measuring what we termed "responsible solutions to the problems" and "better education within the profession." These constructive solutions correspond closely to recommendations made by public interest groups and critics of the accounting profession (Nye, 1993; Weiss, 1993).

The following three-item scale represented responsible solutions to the problems:

* Accounting firms need to reassert their independence from their clients.

* The best way to regain the public's confidence is for auditors to do a better job.

* Auditors' reports should acknowledge the inherent difficulties in evaluating a bank's assets and its overall financial condition.

A three-item scale represented better education within the profession:

* Universities should place more emphasis on auditor responsibility in auditing courses.

* Accounting firms should change their employee training programs to instill a strong sense of responsibility in auditing courses.

* Continuing education courses present good opportunities to change the attitudes of practicing auditors.

Hypothesis Testing

A correlation matrix of the problem scales and proposed solution scales is provided in Table 1.

Hypothesis 1 asserted that a greater self-perception of victimization would accompany defensive proposals for solutions to the problems. The two separate defensive solutions, "protection for the profession" and "need to educate the public," were both significantly correlated with "victimization" (p < .01 and p < .05 respectively). Hypothesis 1, therefore, was supported.

Hypothesis 2 stated that a professional assessment of the criticism would be associated with constructive solutions to the problems underlying the public criticism. In our research, we identified the following two separate constructive solutions: 1) responsible solutions to the problems, and 2) better education within the profession. As shown in Table 1, professional assessment was strongly associated with responsible solutions to the problems (p < .01), but was not strongly associated with education within the profession. Hypothesis 2 was partially supported.

Additional Analysis

To explore personal attributes that might lead to feelings of victimization or to professional assessment, we collected additional information with respect to 1) time in the profession, 2) size of banks audited, 3) professional certification, 4) position, 5) bank failure experience, and 6) individual locus of control. Time in the profession was measured in years and correlated with the professional assessment scale (p < .05, see Table 1). Our findings suggest that auditors with more experience tend to have a more professional assessment of the problems.

The banks audited were divided into large and small on the basis of total assets. Banks with assets greater than $100 million were coded as "large" while banks with assets of less than $100 million were coded as "small." Correlation analysis suggests that auditors of large banks tend to make more professional assessments of the problems facing the profession (p < .05).

Respondents provided information on their professional certification (such as CPA, CIA, CMA, or CFA). This variable did not indicate any statistically significant relation between either the victimization or professional assessment scales. Similarly, neither the individual positions (such as independent auditor, internal auditor, financial officer, or bank regulator) nor the level of experience with bank failures appeared to have an effect on the victimization and professional assessment scales. Due to the absence of significant findings in these areas, correlations for professional certification, position, and bank failure experience are not reported.


A profession is a self-governing, self-disciplined group of individuals bound together by shared knowledge, values, language, and a general consensus as to what constitutes proper behavior. Because of their special self-governing status, professionals must do more than merely not cause any harm if their behavior is to be termed "ethical." They must act responsibly in the public interest and proactively address problems within their areas of professional expertise.

In recent years, many professionals have responded to criticism with claims of being victimized by the lack of public understanding. If this self-perceived victimhood leads to the same kinds of self-defeating behaviors as is observed in studies of victims of crimes and natural disasters (such as loss of control, learned helplessness, denial of events, passivity, or withdrawal), these professionals will be unable to fulfill their ethical obligations to society. They have an ethical responsibility to be a creative part of the solutions to problems that arise in their areas of expertise even if they were not the cause of those problems.

In our survey of bank auditors, we found that a sense of victimization that focused on the criticism rather than the content was associated with defensive solutions, while a professional assessment, which acknowledged problems pointed out by the criticism, was associated with constructive solutions.

Our finding that time in the profession was strongly related to the professional assessment of the problems confronting the banking industry should be encouraging to society as a whole. It suggests that the leaders of professional organizations--generally people with greater experience--tend to be more responsible in addressing problems than the membership as a whole.

It is important for leaders of professional groups to recognize the dangers of self-perceived victimization and to focus the energies of their groups on constructive solutions instead of destructive or defensive behavior. We suggest that this problem be addressed in formal training programs and through informal acculturation processes whereby the more senior members of the profession are able to convey their assessments of the real problems underlying public criticism to the newer members of their profession.

The authors gratefully acknowledge support provided by the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce Associates Program. Price Waterhouse provided additional support to Susan Perry.


Abramson, L., Seligman, M., & Teasdale, J. (1978). Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 10, pp. 49-74.

Barker, J. (1993, July 27). Lawsuits over S&L's Tax Firms: Accountants Lobby Congress for Relief. Arizona Republican, p. 1.

Burgess, A.W. & Holmstrom, L. L. (1979). Rape: Crisis and Recovery. Bowie, MD: Brady.

Epstein, J. (1989, July 2). The Joys of Victimization. The New York Times Magazine.

Gardner, W. L. & Martinko, M.J. (1982). Learned Helplessness: An Alternative Explanation for Performance Deficits. Academy of Management Review, 7, pp. 195-204.

Nye, P. (1993, October). Creative accounting: How audits failed. Public Citizen.

Perloff, L.S. (1983). Perceptions of Vulnerability to Victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 39, pp.41-61.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1983). Learned Helplessness and Victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 2, pp. 103-116.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco, CA: Freeman.

Weiss, M. I. (1993, November 1). Report of Litigation Crisis Greatly Exaggerated by Big 6. Accounting Today.

Wortman, C.B. (1983). Coping with Victimization: Conclusions and Implications for Future Research. Journal of Social Issues, 39, pp. 195-221.

Brad Brown

Associate Professor

University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Susan Perry


University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Table 1
Correlation Matrix of Operational Variables

Variables Means s.d. 1 2 3

1. Mature Assessment 4.94 .86
2. Victimization 5.27 .73 .24
3. Need to Educate the Public 6.09 .91 .27 .29 *
4. Protection for Profession 4.56 1.66 .16 .46 ** .10
5. Responsible Solutions 4.66 1.27 .48 ** .01 .14
6. Education Within Profession 4.94 .82 .21 .02 .16
7. Time in the Profession 9.61 5.28 .27 * .11 .16
8. Size of Banks Audited .62 .49 .36 * -.09 .24

Variables 4 5 6 7 8

1. Mature Assessment
2. Victimization
3. Need to Educate the Public
4. Protection for Profession
5. Responsible Solutions .01
6. Education Within Profession .10 .45 **
7. Time in the Profession .10 .32 * .19
8. Size of Banks Audited -.12 .37 * -.03 .10

* p < .05

** p < .01
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Author:Brown, Brad; Perry, Susan
Publication:Business Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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