How Misconduct Spreads

I study the role of external auditors in the diffusion of stock-option backdating in the U.S. to explore the role of professional experts in the diffusion of innovative practices that subvert stakeholders’ interests. Practices that are eventually accepted as misconduct may emerge as liminal practices—ethically and legally questionable but not clearly illegitimate or outlawed—and not be categorized as misconduct until social control agents notice, scrutinize, and react to them. I examine how the role of external auditors in the diffusion of stock-option backdating changed as the practice shifted from liminality to being illegal and illegitimate.

The findings suggest that professional experts’ involvement in the diffusion of liminal practices is highly responsive to the institutional environment. Initially, professional experts diffuse these practices via local networks, but when the legal environment becomes more stringent, implying that the practice will become illegitimate, experts reverse their role and extinguish the practice. The larger network remains largely uninvolved in both diffusing and extinguishing the liminal practice until the practice is publicly exposed and labeled as illegal and illegitimate. The findings further show that the diffusion and then extinguishing of backdating before it was outlawed depend on the adopter’s geographic proximity to a local office of a complacent expert and on the absence of traceable communication about backdating between these offices. This combination sets the stage for each office to develop independent views about backdating, leading some offices to view backdating favorably and diffuse it, and others to view it unfavorably and curtail it—even at the same time and within the same audit firm. This study contributes to research on the diffusion of misconduct by providing insight into the role of professional experts and the mechanisms and boundary conditions governing that role.

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