Addiction to greed: Why the wealthy still steal from the till

Koss Headphones, a small publicly-traded company based in Milwaukee, said last week it has fired Sujata "Sue" Sachdeva, the executive VP recently accused of embezzlement. Sachdeva, who is accused of spending millions on expensive clothing and jewelry, including more than $1.3 million over two years at a single Mequon boutique, told FBI agents that she directed her assistant to make fraudulent wire transfers -- paying down her credit card balances out of Koss' bank account, according to the complaint.

Further investigation by the company indicates that the total embezzlement may be closer to $20 million rather than the $4.5 million originally estimated. If $20 million has been stolen from Koss over the last four fiscal years, it would exceed the company's reported earnings -- $18.4 million -- during the same period. Big headaches for a small company.

I don't get it. It's not like the Sachdevas' didn't earn a nice living. Sachdeva's compensation from Koss Corp. totaled $173,000 in fiscal 2009 and $206,000 the previous year. Her husband, Ramesh, a pediatrician, is vice president for quality and outcomes at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. He also holds a law degree and is an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School. Together they probably brought in well over $500,000 per year.

Why do this? How exactly did Sachdeva come into work each day and look President and CEO, Michael Koss, in the eye without blinking? How much did her husband know as she rented a 1,000 square foot room in the Third Ward to house some of her purchases? Didn't he notice that over the last two years, her purchases included more than $1.3 million at Valentina in Mequon, $670,000 at Au Courant in Glendale and $649,000 at Zita in Whitefish Bay. That's a lot of stuff.

Unfortunately, Koss is not alone. Workplace embezzlement is an increasingly common occurrence: according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics, embezzlement increased by 39% between 1990 and 2000. It looks like there is an epidemic of greed and addiction. For some people, no matter how much they have, it is not enough.

For some, the "affluenza" of accumulating more provides a dopamine squirt of momentary well being. Unfortunately, negative thoughts and insecure feelings return quickly, requiring more consumption. In a series of case studies dating back to 1993, Ryan and Kasser examined the effects of pursuing money and material goods. Focusing excessively on obtaining wealth was found to create a lower sense of well-being and self-esteem according to Why Did I Marry You Anyway? Overcoming the Myths That Hinder a Happy Marriage. Everyone who sought affluence as a goal had a lower score for happiness.

Greed has grown like a cancer in our society, with too many people willing to sacrifice anything; reputation, honor and integrity to get what they want. At least some of them have had lots of time to think about it, as they complete their prison terms.

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Barbara Bartlein is the People Pro. For her FREE e-mail newsletter, please visit: The People Pro.
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