It's hard for me to tell a specific rule for that; it's more a case of "I'll know it when I see it". One rule of thumb I seem to follow is whether the behaviour is more about explicitly seeking gains, or avoiding expensive loss. Like I described in another comment, there's a meaningful difference between a typical person doing bad things to keep their only job (jobs are hard to come by and vital to survival), vs. an entrepreneur who choses to profit from hurting other people, even though there are alternative strategies of making money.
The saying in question I've always taken to be one where the 'player' is the motivated party, not merely to prevent loss but to distinctly gain. Rather not the employee just trying to keep their job, but the employee playing shady politics to slither their way to the top of the heap and the largest possible portion of the take -- those who see what are team efforts as zero sum games where the teams are `I vs. Everybody else`.
So while we're sorting out the rhetoric, I agree with your sentiment as well -- and it certainly needed to be said that I wouldn't condemn somebody in such a situation. Of course I generally see morality as a gradient.