Category Archives: ethics

Resigning in a ‘Very’ Public Way

By now, I probably don’t need to tell you who Greg Smith is.

Yesterday, Smith resigned as a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa in the most public of ways: through an op-ed piece in the New York Times!

Since then, the piece has created quite a stir, including leading off last night’s NBC Nightly News broadcast (and perhaps others).  As of early this morning, roughly 365 people posted comments to the op-ed piece on the NYT’s website and the news has been all over the business news channels, Twitter and the like.

This isn’t the first time a departing employee or executive has found an unusual way to tender his or her resignation. For example, I vaguely remember hearing about an incident where someone brought a cake to work colorfully decorated with their resignation letter on it.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t the first time someone used the op-ed section of a major national newspaper to bid his or her employer farewell. (Be sure to let me know if this isn’t the case.)

In his op-ed, Smith cites the “firm’s decline in moral fiber” as the reason for his departure, writing:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids?  No humility?  I mean, come on.  Integrity?  It is eroding.  I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.

Goldman Sachs (headquarters pictured above) responded to Smith’s assertions, saying that it didn’t reflect the way the company treated its clients.

So what’s the takeaway for HR leaders?

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas-based communications’ expert, offers this assessment of Smith’s letter:

Normally, you’d say this is exactly the wrong, wrong, wrong way to go out the door. But this is like the woman who wrote the long letter to Ken Lay (Enron.) This is a very substantial, very senior, very well respected executive. He is actually sending a love letter to the firm, meaning—he loves GS and is willing to have a potentially very negative impact on his own position in the industry by calling them to account.

(Spaeth says she considers the op-ed piece credible because of what happened to “a good portion of the financial services/banking industry,” not because she personally knows Smith.)

I suspect the folks at GS may not see it the same way as Spaeth.

So returning to my earlier question of what this might means to HR leaders, Spaeth suggests the following:

I think the message for the senior HR executives is that you have to have functioning internal feedback and safety valves which hold executives accountable. (Think of Mark Hurd at HP and his behavior with the ‘escort.’ Think how many people had to know about that but no one stepped in and said, ‘Mark, pal, knock it off. No good will come of this.’  The GS example is potentially much more detrimental. Think of what just happened to Olympus, the Japanese company. They fired their CEO when he uncovered massive wrongdoing, and they thought they could get by.)

Thoughts on PSU as Paterno is Laid to Rest

There are so many thoughts and feelings swirling in me as mourners gather for Joe Paterno’s funeral in State College, Pa., today. One is my wish that I could be there with my son, a recent main campus mechanical engineering graduate. It just wasn’t realistic, considering both our jobs. (He’s now an engineer for a Philadelphia firm — a job I am enormously proud of, for him; a job I am — and I’m sure he is — eternally grateful to Penn State University for.)

I’m also thinking of the culture I knew as a visiting parent, the tugs at my heart looking at a picture like this one, of the Old Main building, thinking of the many trips my son must have taken up and down those steps. No doubt the trips Joe Pa must have taken, too, in his 62 years there.

I’m thinking of the family weekends we attended at my son’s fraternity, the spirit and enthusiasm in the air about promising futures and convictions and pride, the life-size cutout of Joe Pa I remember standing alongside us on at least one of those occasions.

My heart aches for every one of those graduates, every one of their parents, every one of those victims at the heart of the scandal now hanging over the campus, every member of the Paterno family and even every trustee who had to wrestle with whether he or she would or should attend today’s ceremony.

Did Paterno’s firing hasten his death? Probably. Was his termination handled the way it should have been? I don’t believe it was. Was Paterno blameless in all this? Of course not. Erring through omission, not commission, is erring nonetheless.

But I hope, for Penn State’s sake, that the already-controversial investigation now under way into how the crisis was handled takes a long, hard look at the culture Paterno was part of and the system he said he was trying to protect by handing the information over to his next-in-charge. Merrie Spaeth, head of Spaeth Communications Inc., recently addressed the importance of PSU’s culture in this piece written after the scandal erupted. In it, she offers some lessons learned that every organization should take to heart from this tragedy — not the simple ones, like having tighter policies for child-abuse or sexual-harassment reporting in place, but the much deeper ones, like, “What are the unspoken barriers or constraints that affect how we process information and how we act?”

I hope investigators will consider the thinking of someone like behavioral-science expert Darnell Lattal, who talks in this piece about the much-bigger factors than one man’s omission or commission when an organization goes through an ethical breakdown the size and scope of Penn State’s. “Decisions are [often] determined by a phenomenon that Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer call the ‘sunk cost effect,’ ” Darnell writes, “meaning that people are often more influenced by what they have already invested than by factors that should determine the appropriate action.” I think we can all agree there was an element of that going on when certain people chose to go only so far, or to not go at all.

Clearly, Penn State will never be the same. Songwriter Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” keeps playing in my head. I just hope, and pray, that the entire world that is Penn State — investigators, new leaders and all — can tread carefully and objectively into this next chapter with a vision for a Happier Valley that doesn’t kill the spirit and the legend and the pride any more than those three entities have already been killed.

Kozlowski’s Take on Pay

In the early to mid-2000s, Dennis Kozlowski became something of a poster child for corporate greed thanks to his exorbitant pay package and other perks, including the well-publicized $6,000 shower curtain.

As you no doubt remember, the former Tyco CEO was convicted in 2005 of grand larceny, securities fraud and conspiracy and was sentenced up to 25 years behind bars. So it’s been quite some time since we’ve last heard from him—until today.

In an exclusive interview with Wall Street Journal writer Joann S. Lublin, Kozlowski talks about the past, including Tyco’s controversial pay practices. It makes for an interesting read.

On his pay package, Kozlowski tied it to being the “competitive person I am,” telling the journal it was “a way of showing how well I was doing.” No doubt. But I also felt, after reading the piece, he still feels a need to deflect some of the responsibility.

The Journal article said:

The disposed Tyco chief also wished he had chosen more seasoned people for his top team. ‘The lack of documentation was the key’ in his conviction for taking unauthorized compensation, he said. ‘We needed somebody to rein us in.’ 

Wonder who he’s referring to?

The story also points out that Kozlowski (who is now earning 80 cents a day doing laundry) is seeking early work release and wants to take a job with Access Technologies Group, whose offerings include job-search training for ex-convicts. Were he to be granted that opportunity, I suppose that means Kozlowski’s path back to the workplace will ironically pass, at least indirectly, through HR.

More Scandal for Murdoch?

This is an updated story:

According to the British paper, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal has been engaging in controversial circulation activities involving its European edition — and it accuses the CHRO of ignoring a whistleblower’s accusations.

According to the news story, “the Journal had been channelling money through European companies in order to secretly buy thousands of copies of its own paper at a knock-down rate, misleading readers and advertisers about the Journal‘s true circulation.” That scheme led to the resignation earlier this week, it said, of Andrew Langhoff, the European managing director for Dow Jones.

“The emails show that the chief human resources officer for Dow Jones, Gregory Giangrande, organised a meeting in London on 14 December at which the whistleblower detailed his allegations to a Dow Jones lawyer from New York, Tom Maher, and Dow Jones’ European human resources executive Carol Bosack.

“After the meeting, Bosack emailed the whistleblower: ‘You are expected to keep details and your reaction or beliefs about the recent events confidential and not shared with anyone external or internal to the business. This matter is to be kept between us, Andrew [Langhoff], Internal Audit and Corporate Legal.’ No action was apparently taken at that time on the whistleblower’s allegations. The whistleblower, who had worked for Dow Jones for 9 years, was made redundant in January.”

As you probably can figure out, “made redundant” is British for terminated.

This certainly won’t do anything to embellish Rupert Murdoch’s tarnished reputation in some circles. Nor do the Guardian‘s accusations reflect well on the way whistleblower complaints were handled by the company.

Dow Jones emphatically denies the allegations, saying the British paper’s “inflammatory characterization … is replete with untruths and malign interpretations. Andrew Langhoff resigned because of a perceived breach of editorial integrity, not because of circulation programs, whose copies were certified by the ABC UK.”

The company also says Giangrande, the CHRO, did not ignore the alleged scam, but, in fact, initiated an investigation into the allegations. Dow Jones says the employee who was fired was not a whistleblower, but was, instead, “first investigated by the company because of concerns around his business dealings.”

It acknowledged the circulation program was “admittedly complex,” and because the company was “not comfortable with the appearance,” it subsequently no longer has “relationships with any of the third parties directly involved in these agreements.”

A Different Way of Looking at Corporate Misconduct

Not sure how helpful this is, but this recently published guide to lessons learned from cases of corporate misconduct is so uniquely packaged it caught my eye.

Called The Unlucky 13: Lessons Learned from Companies Caught in the Act, the small and free downloadable publication offers tiny little synopses of small and large cases — some I’d heard of — from the likes of Xerox, Ford, Siemens, Tyco, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, Google, Verizon and more.

Most of the write-ups start with the monetary damage involved, followed by one or two graphs about what happened, followed by one or two bullet-pointed corporate “takeaways.”

Like the $50-to-$100-million case from November 2010 involving a former Ford employee who pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets by downloading design documents unrelated to his job onto an external hard drive. Reminders there: Don’t ever give employees access to information unrelated to their jobs and eliminate their abilities to connect any sort of media-storage devices to the network.

Or the $20 million disability discrimination settlement by Verizon, underscoring the need for employers to have attendance policies in place that take into account the need for paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.

My personal favorite: a smaller case involving a $22,500 discrimination settlement paid by Happy Days Children’s Wear Inc. for — of all things, considering the business — firing a female employee because she was pregnant.

If you really want the full scoop in any of these cases, you’ll have to do your own digging. The guide is hardly comprehensive. But you might find some of the reminders helpful.

Perhaps the best advice around corporate misconduct comes from HREOnlinecolumnist Susan Meisinger in her column this week: If you, as an HR leader, detect unethical practices or behavior that set a cultural tone you — hard as you try — can’t change … “Go. And go as quickly as you can.”

To Tell the Truth

Should we expect the next innovation in screening technology to come from, of all places, Russia?

A story appearing on today’s New York Times’ front page, entitled “Russia A.T.M. With an Ear for the Truth,” reports on how Russia’s biggest retail bank is testing the use of ATMs with voice-recognition software to determine whether or not someone is telling the truth.

The software, developed by the Speech Technology Center, analyzes “vibrations as shaped by the contours of an individual’s throat, larynx and other tissue involved in speech” to identify whether a person might be in the midst of telling a lie. Russian law-enforcement databases of people found to be lying were used to develop the software. (No doubt the voice-recognition technology is more sophisticated than some of the stuff I’ve encounter in my quest for customer-service help.)

Banks would use the analysis, along with other data collected by the ATM, to determine the truthfulness of applicants when they’re answering questions about whether they have a job or any outstanding loans.

Of course, this has nothing to do with HR. But as I read the NYT’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some day we might see technology like this make its way into the job-interviewing process, where more than a few candidates have been known to stretch the truth. Companies already do thorough background checks of job candidates. So how about a little voice analysis to boot?

I’ll be the first to admit that’s a scary thought. And I imagine legality and privacy concerns would present some serious stumbling blocks. But in this day and age, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities.

Going Against the Code

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis is in the news again, this time because of its decision to terminate a number of senior managers for misconduct. (Last year, you may recall, Novartis paid out $250 million when it was found guilty of sexual discrimination.)

Yesterday, the pharmaceutical industry blog Pharmalot reported the contents of an internal communication from Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez, in which he informs employees that the company had to let some senior managers go for not upholding Novartis’ corporate values and violating its Code of Conduct.

Few specifics were available and a Novartis spokeswoman told Pharmalot that the company wouldn’t comment of “disciplinary actions against current or former employees.” But it’s interesting to read some of the comments linked to the Pharmalot post, which included “these mgrs are sacrificial lambs” and “coverup.”

I wouldn’t know. But what I do know is that if you’re going to bother writing a Code of Conduct that says you won’t tolerate misconduct, you better be willing to put some teeth behind it.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  In this particular case, Novartis was prepared to do just that.

IRS Awards $4.5 Million to Whistleblower

We’ve seen and written plenty of whistleblower stories, but this one from NBC Philadelphia caught my attention because it involves the Internal Revenue Service awarding an accountant for turning in his employer for tax evasion.

The lawyer for the accountant calls it a “win-win for both the government and taxpayers.”

“These are dollars that are being returned to the Treasury that otherwise wouldn’t be,” the lawyer, Eric Young of Blue Bell, Pa., tells the press.

Mind you, this isn’t the largest whistleblower award issued. Young represented one who netted $2 billion in a case against Pfizer  was part of a $2 billion settlement Pfizer paid to the government.

It’s also not the first tip to come into the IRS Whistleblower Office  since it opened in 2007. According to this report the Office received nearly 1,000 tips involving more than 3,000 taxpayers in fiscal years 2008 and 2009.

It is, however, the first in the program to reach fruition. Could this be the start of many more to come?

IBM Settles SEC Case Alleging Bribes in Korea, China

This one came as a surprise. For those of you with subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, here’s that paper’s recent story on IBM’s reported $10 million settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission following the Armonk, N.Y.-based technology giant’s alleged decade-long campaign of bribery in China and Korea.

In its complaint, filed Friday, March 18, the SEC claims IBM employees gave shopping bags stuffed with cash to accomplices in South Korea and arranged junkets for government officials in China in exchange for millions of dollars worth of contracts for computer gear. The “widespread” payment of bribes, it says, involved more than 100 employees of IBM subsidiaries and occurred between 1998 and 2009.

The WSJ reported the settlement on March 19, the day after it was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “IBM, which neither admitted nor denied the charges,” the story reads, “said it holds employees to high ethical standards and has taken ‘appropriate remedial action’ to address the issues raised by the U.S. government, though it wouldn’t be more specific.”

This isn’t the first case to come across HRE‘s radar screen suggesting an increasing crackdown by the federal government against corporations and executives accused of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — as U.S.-based multinationals continue to grow rapidly abroad.

But it certainly is a big one, as most stories involving IBM are. The company’s immediate settlement is also worth a raised eyebrow or two.