The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse- by Marianne M. Jennings - Book Review
by Abdel Abuisneineh, PhD candidate, Concordia University Chicago
August 04, 2014
The book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdown in Companies… Before It’s Too Late, was authored by Professor Marianne M. Jennings, JD, and published in 2006 by St. Martin Press in New York. The book falls in 334 pages and starts with author’s notes and preface and ends with more notes, an index, and an acknowledgement for the author. The book speaks of the signs of the moral collapse that inflict organizations and methods to spot them before they cause havoc. Chapter One lists the seven signs which were further explored in Chapter Two through Chapter Eight. The last two chapters in the book explore the application of the signs for future purposes and the roads ahead.
The book is not aiming at educating the importance of ethical practices and conducts in organizations. Actually, it is aimed at teaching people who already know the importance of ethical conduct in organizations of the techniques required to prevent ethical collapse by spotting “slippery slopes, the ethical cliffs, and any other physical and philosophical metaphors for doom,” (p.10). Providing the organizations with the mechanism for creating and implementing antidotes, “check and balances,” and stressing the importance of keeping employees and managers focused on moral and ethical issues are among the important issues discussed in the book.
Providing ethical culture is becoming part of the legal requirements per Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 where organization leaders are required to individually attest to the precision of the organization’s financial information. In addition, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act improved the independence of the outside accounting auditors and the oversights of top management who review the accuracy of organizational financial statements.
The importance of the book is greater in value to leaders than other change agents in organizations. “More than most agents, leaders have reason to believe that they are not bound by the requirements of morality,” (Price, 2004, p. 130.) Successful leaders have higher propensity to disconnect from morality standards because they think that their success can make up for their complacency in implementing moral codes.
Pressure to Maintain Those Numbers
Manipulating numbers is the key sign among the seven signs discussed in the book. Sherron Watkins, an Enron vice president and a whistle blower, was quoted saying that “Enron’s unspoken message was, ‘Make the numbers, make the numbers, make the numbers—if you steal, if you cheat, just don’t get caught. If you do, beg for a second chance, and you’ll get one.’” (Weiss, 2009, p.30).
The numbers could be related to deliberate attempts to falsify revenues, earnings per share (EPS), or simply expenses and costs. Jennings (2006) states clearly that “Numbers pressure impairs judgment and robs dignity,” (p.19), referring to educated college graduate managers of MiniScribe who ended up breaking into the vehicles of their company’s auditors to falsify and alter accounting records in 1986. The “unreasonable and unrealistic obsession with meeting quantitative goals” and the overemphasis of quantitative goals are the first set of symptoms of ethical collapse. This is not limited to businesses. It includes non for profit organizations, educational institutions, and even governmental organizations. Focus on numbers becomes clearer during economic downturns or when facing fierce competition when profitability and stock prices start to plummet, and in those cases the temptation for the fraudulent change of numbers is evident.
Manipulation of Stock Prices and EPS
Connecting management compensation to stock prices can become traumatic to investor as in the 1992 case of Finova when management has to overstate worthless assets, to reduce loss or inflate profit. To better serve management, Enron’s worked the EPS formula in reverse, dumping large amounts of its debts in to artificial entities to improve EPS (FASB125 allowed no debt reporting requirement if ownership of outside entities is less than 50%), and creating numerous offshore havens for their SPEs, or special purpose entities.
Twisted Accounting Practices
This is illustrated by the case of Enron when it took advantage of FASB 133 which allowed energy traders to recognize projected profit on energy contracts and derivative estimates. While Enron was not alone, it represented the king of all players as about 80% of its profit was coming from this elusive anticipated profit, known as market-to-market accounting. WorldCom questionable accounting for its merger (serial merge Ponzi scheme) were also used to elevate share price of WorldCom.
Enron and many other companies that collapsed for ethical reason had Andersen and Andersen as their auditor and “consultant,” an auditing company that steered most of its activities away from auditing to the more profitable part, sales of consulting services. Andersen was also guilty of being driven by numbers for which it faltered and collapsed for lack of ethical conducts when it provided bad advice and present the numbers to their clients’ shareholders as true and accurate. This procedure of mixing between consulting and auditing has been outlawed by Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
Falsifying sales numbers by faking orders or using accounting chicanery is another example showing the destructive effects of focusing on numbers. To look better Bausch & Lomb made fake shipment of sunglasses to make it sales look better. Employees of MiniScribe tried to dupe auditors by wrapping bricks of the same weight of disk drives in the disk drive boxes!
The Baptist Foundation of Arizona (BFA), a non for profit organization, resorted to tax fraud and Ponzi scheme to show better numbers on the side of “assets” of their balance sheet. Trading assets between leaders of the BFA, what was supposed to be related party transactions, were completed to inflate profits by inflating sales prices; at a time when no money was exchanged. NASA, a government agency, under the pressure to meet time guidelines and cost constraints ended up launching Columbia which crashed killing all of its crews, despite the safety concerns before the launch.
The issue is not in seeking to maximize revenues or to minimize costs, as every organization is entitled for that. Actually there are many organizations that do very well, but do not falsify numbers. Antidotes are necessary to counteract the issue of the Machiavellian approach of doing things, or “ends justify means.” In other words, the “antidotes curb only achievement at any cost,” (Jennings, 2006, p.44).
Accounting and tax laws are not meant to help leaders maximize sales or EPS; or minimize the cost of services and goods sold. Different tax and accounting rules do exist not for organizations to exploit them, but for the picture to be fairer. They are meant to give an accurate and “fair” picture of the financial position of the organization during a period of time and/or at a specific point of time. Jennings (2006) listed several that can be used, including changing numbers in a direction to serve certain stakeholder on the expense of other stakeholders may be legal, but may not be ethical. An ethical leader needs to be educated about accounting peculiarities and discuss those with organization members. Encouraging members to use “time out” to blow the whistle, or simply speak out, as well as watching for communication signaling the presence of potential people willing to cross the line, and firing those people who do cross the lines are key antidotes.
Fear and Silence
Phormio, an Athenian general and admiral during the Peloponnesian War, once said: “Fear makes men forget, and skill which cannot fight, is useless.” Fear deskills people and renders them incompetent sycophants. An Arabic adage also says “he who keeps silent of the truth is a mute devil.” Creating a generation of fearful and silent workers is tantamount to creating an army of impotent mute devils. “The culture of ethical collapse is one that does not encourage dissent, or even discussion,” (Jennings, 2006, p. 59.) The fear of being fired, demoted or transferred is dominant among organization members. Sycophants may well fear that they do not want to be looked at as mavericks. These fears were evident in the 1999 case of Finova, and later in the case of Enron where executives felt like being on the Titanic who would not even have the courage to reorganize the chairs on the deck of the sinking ship! Some of the executives at Enron such as Ms. Sherron Watkins, fearful of the “fuzzy” accounting practices, started looking for another job after writing an anonymous memo regarding the questionable accounting measure.
Perhaps more prominent is “Mr. Fix-It”, MiniScribe CEO’s Q.T Wiles who in a meeting made two comptrollers stand at the moment of firing them to prove he is in control of the collapsing business. WorldCom was very clear in its flagrant violation of accounting principles and laws when it was capitalizing ordinary expenses as capital expenditures, ignoring executive requests for explanations on some occasions and firing employees on other occasions.
Bullying and humiliation were evident at the ethically collapsed HealthSouth when the company’s CEO would call senior officers to clean the parking lot at 1:00 AM, or bullying accountants to falsify numbers and signed documents. Buying the silence of officers was the style of the collapsed Tyco which offered large loans to employees at low interest rates for various reasons, and failed to disclose the loans to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). The loans were too big for repayment and where meant to keep the employees quiet about the internal fraud. Royal Dutch/ Shell efforts to pressure executives in charge of “oil reserves” to falsify numbers were flagrant. The company wanted by any means, right or wrong, to replace every depleted barrel of oil with a reserve one.
In the non-for-profit and government sectors efforts to intimidate and spread fears in the heart of executives and managers were obvious in morally collapsed companies such as New Era Philanthropy and NASA. Fearful of his financial wellbeing, Visa status, or family support, some accountants were fearful to report New Era in the early 2000. Investigators of the crash of NASA’s Columbia indicated that at NASA “people were silenced, and useful information and dissenting views on technical issues were did not surface at higher levels,” (Jennings, 2006, p. 78.) In the agency that raised the motto “faster, better, cheaper,” there was nothing that any one can do on any technical risk that has been marked as “acceptable” by NASA engineer!
Concerning the antidotes suggested to counteract fear and silence the author states that “Being able to tell someone about ethical and legal problems and being guaranteed a response other than a termination or a downgraded performance evaluation are the key antidotes to a culture of fear and silence,” (Jennings, 2006, p. 80.) Organization members should be encouraged to speak out, and should be provided with the means to cast their thoughts and ideas without any fear of being punished. Contrary to that, employees should be rewarded for reporting ethical and legal problems so long as the rewards do not go the individuals with tainted hands. Employees should be discouraged from reporting cranks (vendetta motivated matters, issues connected with conspiracy theories, or simply things that employees do not agree with the company,) and should be encouraged to reports ethical and legal violations that can be substantiated by facts. Stressing ethical elements in the work performance reviews of members should be emphasized.
Organizations and individuals are not impeccable persons and mistakes can happen. Leaders need to “embrace their mistakes in the pursuit of success: the growth mindset is resilient in the face of failure and sees it as necessary for learning and achievement,” (Ryan, 2013, n.p.) With that understanding in mind, leaders and employees who report legal and ethical problems need not just be rewarded but also recognized in organization meeting.
Sign # 3
Young ‘Uns and a Bigger-than-Life CEO
“The structured component that fuels fears and silence and numbers pressure is the presence of iconic CEO who is adored by the community, media, and just about anyone at a distance. Iconic CEOs are not necessarily adored by employees,” (Jennings, 2006, p.98). In fact iconic CEOs may be hated than loved by employees, who tend to be young and inexperienced managers, called the useful idiots, or the ‘uns.
The young ‘uns act like a chorus in a band, just sycophants repeating certain words behind their band leader, all in a coordinated tone. At Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, HealthSouth, or AIG, not many sycophants dare to confront the icons, gods, and kings, the bigger-than-life CEOs who spent lavishly from corporate money on personal use for yacht and jets, use corporate money for personal investment and real estate and mansions, even for committing adultery.
The non-for-profit and the government sectors were not the exception for the profligacy of iconic CEOs or leaders. William Aramony of the United Way hired an underage girl with a high school diploma, who he had relationship with, and had her on payroll at an annual salary of $80,000. Mike Espy, Secretary of Agriculture, received and his girlfriend, gifts and presents from several parties related to the Secretary’s office!
Jennings (2006) spoke about the lack of morality in the media, citing some improper reports made by iconic reporters like the 2004 CBS’ Dan Rather’s report of the National Guard’s slacker, former President Bush! Mr. Rather later apologized for the lack of accuracy in his report. Similar icons provided similar inconsistencies such as NY Times’ Jason Blair, Jack Kelly of USA Today, and Stephen Glass of the New Republic.
The antidotes that the author suggests to deal with this sign includes serious efforts to curb the negative effects of iconic CEOs by not hiring iconic CEOs and firing those that grew within the organization or at least stifle them. Watching who CEOs hire or fire, the pay of new recruits, and other signs of the presence of sycophants around, can all give an indication of the kind of CEO in the organization. Investing in educating, training, and molding the new generations of leaders will also help reduce or eliminate sycophants.
Sign # 4
Despite the fact that most morally collapsing companies expressed admiration for strong boards, or even bragged about having ones, the truth of the matter was that all of them had weak and ineffectual boards. Jennings (2006) cited the following reasons for the weakness:
1. Inexperienced boards
2. Friendship with management impinged on board duties
3. Conflict of interests
4. Failure of board members to attend meetings
5. Lack of devotion of time and interest of board members
Jennings (2006) looked at several boards, from that of HealthSouth which takes the biggest prize of most negative factors to the board of Enron which has the most impressively deceitful board. These two boards including others such as that of WorldCom,Tyco, Adelphia, and other morally collapsing companies shared certain characteristics including:
Conflict of Interests: Almost all boards had members who had business activities transacted with the companies in one way or another. Self dealings and favoritism were also prevalent in the collapsed organizations.
Missing Red Flags: Board members ignored certain warning signs that collapse was imminent. At Enron, “aggressive opinion”, a term to describe illegal accounting procedures at Enron was used by its auditors at Arthur Andersen in 1999 but the board missed that red flag.
Lax Processes: Issues related to attendance, participation, qualification etc. also plagued the boards. Some committee members did not attend as many as one fourth of the board meetings.
The antidotes that Jennings (2006) suggested to curb weak boards included deep analysis of the current boards by walking around and talking to employees, sniffing for conflicts and removing members that have conflict of interests. Dutra (2012) suggests that an organization’s strong board is one whose strategist, talent-centric “directors went well beyond basic compliance to provide true strategic counsel,” (n.p.) DeLuca (1999) demonstrated that savvy leaders need to create enhanced ethicalness in their coalitions.
Sign # 5
The specific details of the conflict of interests vary but it arises when an “individual is playing two roles, and his or her role in one regard has interests that are at odds with his or her role in another.” (Jennings, 2006, p. 178). The author draws a very gloomy picture of the dot-com industry, which is entirely destined to self destruct, according to her. Worse than that, the simple notion of conflict of interest may not be evident any more considering the clever and more sophisticated methods that investment bankers, analysts, auditors, investors, even Wall Street use to cloak conflicts of interest, methods that have consumed the better judgment of too many.
The author argues that the conflicts are not the challenge, but the challenge is the inherent conflicts with the in-house analysts. The relationships between internal auditors and analysts, underwriting syndicates, investment brokers, mutual fund managers, and investors have become complicated especially when compensations of many of those are based on commission or value of traded stocks. That complexity has created the soft dollar conflicts of interest for which many institutions are suing their advisors for advice offered in situations that involved conflicts.
Arthur Andersen’s consulting and auditing services are examples of conflicts of interest. How could the company advise you to do something (right) and audit you to see if what you did was right? David Duncan, the auditor from Enron who was supposed to oversee Enron’s adherence to the accounting principles, was the personal friend of Richard Causey, the finance man who was appointed by Enron CEO to manage certain financial transactions at Enron. The two men traveled together, ate together, golfed together, and, apparently cooked the book together. The Yeehaw culture is abundant of family conflicts and that includes Enron, Adelphia Tyco, HealthSouth, and WorldCom which CEO, Mr. Ebbers, made it a habit to personally borrow over $1 billion capitalizing on his connections with banks.
The antidote that Jennings (2006) suggested to combat conflicts is a thorough review and evaluation of boards and CEOs to determine present relationships. Definitions of conflict of interests must be established descriptions of what belongs or does not belong to the organization. Keeping an eye on executives and office and evaluating their performance is a must. Conflict of interests is not something bad. Conflict “exists when two or more contradictory interests relate to an activity by an individual or an institution. The conflict lies in the situation, not in any behavior or lack of behavior of the individual. That means that a conflict of interest is not intrinsically a bad thing,” (Office of Research Integrity, n.d., n.p.)
Sign # 6
Innovation Like No Other
“Companies barreling toward ethical collapse fancy themselves as being above the fray, below the radar, and generally not subject to the laws of either economics or gravity,” (Jennings, 2006, p. 203). Most of these companies were built on great ideas and creative solutions in their fields of business, and not on the ideas of cheating the system. They were built on strong moral backgrounds, but they drifted in the abyss of immorality as they grew bigger. As they grew up and up, they pledged to invent new methods to stay up, to beat the odds, and to prove a point. Retreat is not an option for these icons and kings, even if it means falling in the sinful pools of deception, fraud, and lies.
The “Enron Model” was the paradigm of the utility industry. HealthSouth was the leading example of the “one stop shop” for many physicians and physical therapists. WorldCom, the “Bigger, Better, Brighter” company was the envy of its internet and data competitors. Tyco, however, was the prominent offshore innovator which invented every method to dodge tax laws with regard to offshore activities. Innovating in accounting interpretation was also the specialty of AIG, Finova, HealthSouth, Adelphia, and Fannie Mae. Use of the relatively new formula of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) in financial analysis and reporting became very noticeable among these companies because the formula allows companies to ignore certain non cash expenses such as depreciation. .
These morally collapsing companies and their executives received recognitions and citations from different industry authorities, journals, and institutions including Wall Street. Fannie Mae was dubbed as the most ethical organization in the US, one who is also an extraordinary corporate citizen. Kozlowski of Tyco was referred to by Businessweek as the most aggressive CEO in America; and was referred to and Tyco and the “darlings of Wall Street.”
The antidotes that the author suggested include first realizing that our ability to make judgment of the truth is limited. We should not assume what we see as the absolute truth, but rather subject everything to reason. Keeping every law of business and economics in mind is also important. Maintaining high rates of expansion with enormous success should have shed some red ink on the exaggerated profitability. Also, honesty and candor about achievements and realities are the best way to deal with others.
Goodness in Some Areas, Atones for Evil in Others
Morally collapsing companies will publicize their philanthropic culture, benevolent management, or environmentally and socially orientated operations as proof of their positive morality in spite of their lack of decorum in other place, suggesting that doing two good things may eliminate one bad thing you do, and keep one good in your deck. “The philanthropic and social goodness became the salve for a conscience grappling with cooked books, fraud, insider trading -- all the usual activities for the ethical collapse,” (Jennings, 2006, p. 237).
Jennings (2006) gave several examples of that. Alberto W. Velar, a financier at Park Ave stole $5 million from his clients to make good on pledges he made to charities! CEO of Enron, Mr. Fastow, was an active member of the Jewish community in Houston and was the lead fund raising person for the Houston Holocaust Museum! “Enron was recognized in the social responsibility and business ethics community for its global corporate citizenship. Enron had a fifty-four page award winning code of ethics,” (Jennings, 2006, p.239). WorldCom was recognized as a corporate citizen before it morally collapsed. The same with Tyco and its philanthropic CEO Kozlowski who donated $106 million of Tyco’s money to charity of which was $43 million given in his own name. Adelphia and its CEO John Rigas were magnanimous like no others when they donated to the needy without even being asked for help! Mr. Scrushy and his company, HealthSouth, were vivid supporters of colleges and libraries. Hank Greenberg and his AIG were equally great in their donation and good deeds that were hiding massive fraud in the background.
The antidotes for the “Goodness in Some Areas, Atones for Evil in Others” include redefining the concept of social responsibility and business ethics as well as rethinking organization’s activities, philosophy, and realities. Leaders must be skeptical about “doing well by doing good.” Instead, organizations have to rely on the foundations of virtue ethics.
In the last two chapters, Chapter Nine and Ten, the author discussed the idea of applying the seven signs for the future. She expressed concerns for varieties of unethical conducts at Apollo Group and the University of Phoenix, Coca Cola, the entire cruise line industry, and Google. She also pointed to certain questionable issues related to the healthcare industry and the proscription industry as well as the loose federal regulations surrounding them.
It is all about the presence of corruption in cultures, things that render cultures immoral and unethical, and for which the author listed some macroantidotes to deal with fixing cultures, before the cultures get spoiled. Changing the views on financial and tax reporting is important. Leaders need to recognize the errors and discrepancies and need also to do honest, clear, complete, and direct disclosure. Great leaders pursue attaining signs of health ethical climates which include “humility, zero tolerance for individual and collective destructive behaviors, justice, integrity, trust, focus on processes, structural reinforcement, and social responsibility,” (Johnson, 2015, p. 322.)
The book is a substantial piece of research that entailed studying the details of failures of several formerly reputable companies. It provides substantial proofs that immoral organizations will not live for long. However, there seems to be redundant description of facts and events. Long descriptive paragraphs and pages of similar contents did not help in keeping the focus. Furthermore, the signs related to weak boards and conflicts of interest are so much overlapping in terms of causes and effects, as well as facts and events that led to these two signs. The same ideas presented in this book could have been presented in about ⅔ of the number of pages.
Jennings (2006) demonstrated some bias in favor of the republican former presidents Bush. For example, she dubbed former President Clinton as an adulterer (p.105) on an occasion that has no relevance to the US presidents or presidency, while she came to the defense of former President Bush when he was reported by “the iconic” Dan Rather as a slacker. Dan Rather might not have been accurate and might have needed extra professionalism but the fact that he apologized refutes the author’s claim about Rather. Furthermore, Dan Rather is an iconic reporter, not a corporation or a CEO of an organization. In other words, the discussion should be about CBS.
The author discussed moral collapses and their signs in several organizations but when discussing moral issues in the media she was very trivial in here analysis. When organizations commit immoral acts they cause harms to a limited number of stakeholders in the businesses (investors, employees, lenders, etc.) When media outlets provide reports that lack moral stance the entire Nation is harmed! It was clear that the author wanted to criticize the media, but she directed her criticism on reporters, not the chain of commands in the media sector. Was the author intimidated by or fearful of certain individuals to avoid a serious discussion of immoral improprieties and inclinations of the media?
The author description of corruption in the media and the unethical improprieties of the media were significantly understated. Actually the media is involved in more unethical acts such as twisting facts, omission of facts, covering lies and deception of larger organizations, not investigating flagrant violations of government officials of codes of ethics… etc. Was the author in a conflict of interests between her goal to publicize her book and reporting on media lack of ethics?
There are many other old businesses that you can find similar symptoms and perhaps more moral improprieties. Perhaps it is a matter of time before those businesses collapse. The author argued that these businesses were great, but erred and fell in the pool of immorality as they tried to conserve their higher status. The question is how many of us can resist the temptations of protecting our status?
The author has failed in giving any warnings about one of the biggest collapses in the history of the USA, the financial services industry, which followed printing her book. Instead she focused on marginal industries or businesses (i.e the cruise line), citing labor exploitation, among other things. A large number of economists and ideologists were predicting the financial crisis as early as 2005 when University of Chicago Professor Rajan warned against an imminent collapse in an IMF symposium held at Jackson Hole, WY. Many of the big names in Jackson Hole convention weren't ready to hear the warning. Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of Treasury, famous among economists for his blistering attacks, told the audience that he found "the basic, slightly lead-eyed premise of [Mr. Rajan's] paper to be misguided,” (Lahart, 2009). Rajan, now the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, spoke on August 5, 2014 that “more turmoil maybe coming,” (Schuman, 2014, n.p).
The author failed to establish any connections between the morally collapsing companies and regulators and government officials. Many of the ethically challenged businesses have themselves covered by government officials some how. An example is Henry M. Paulson Jr., former Goldman Sach executive who was appointed by former President Bush to the Treasury Secretary. Paulson rehired mostly former Sach’s executives to help him at the Treasury. His former employer was among the significant beneficiaries that received the initial $700 billion bailout money paid by the US taxpayers. Paulson “specifically said that he would avoid any substantive interaction with Goldman executives for his entire term unless he first obtained an ethics waiver from the government,” (Morgenson and Natta 2009, n.p.) Details of phone conversation revealed that Paulson did talk to Sach’s executives before and after he managed to obtain an ethical waiver from the “White House” and from the Treasury Department to “interact” with the old pals at Sach in September 2008. Recently regulators have rejected several “living wills,” mandated per the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, because the banks are failing to meet certain guidelines, or even attempt to meet the guidelines. Experts believe that the “Fed is giving them what they want. In their current form, the big banks are too big to fail. That’s why the law requires them to either write acceptable living wills or be downsized. But they haven’t done the former or faced the latter…. [These banks] will still be too big to fail, too big to manage and, judging from the Fed’s latest indulgence, too big to regulate,” (Too Big to Regulate, 2014, n.p.)
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