For those who don’t know, the US Government is currently offering trillions of dollars – yes, the amount is now in the trillions – to loan or purchase parts of failing banks and other financial institutions. This money is given mostly to cover those banks who would otherwise fail because of so-called “toxic loans.”
The CEO of Freddie Mac, one of the agencies given the money, recently resigned. His successor, who was the acting CEO and former Chief Financial Officer, just killed himself. The troubles asset relief program’s (TARP) “special investigator” just determined that the entire program is exposed to the potential of massive fraud, waste and abuse. This is very similar to what happened with Enron.
Folks, the Chief Financial Officer is the one responsible for ensuring the proper financial controls are in place. Instead, it’s become a powerful position with the opportunity to look the other way or even help cover up fraud and abuse. And some do; the Enron CFO went to jail, and so did the WorldCom CFO.
Now when we discuss this story, it’s very easy to get judgemental, and say something like “how do they sleep at night?”
Here’s the secret: We are just like them. Integrity challenges are one of gradualism – a little here, (ever make personal photocopies on the work machine?) a little there, and soon it’s pattern, a lifestyle, and you are in too deep to get out. Oh, perhaps when we cheated in 9th grade geometry class we got caught, so we didn’t try to cheat in college. Perhaps we were never so desperate for work that we were willing to lie (a little bit) on the old resume. We get to big integrity lapses by two things – (1) giving in to small ones, and (2) getting away with it.
The Professor and author C.S. Lewis put it this way in a graduation speech at King’s College:
… the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still-just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif, or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play: something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face-that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face-turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
If you’ve been working in technology long enough, you’ve probably felt this. Yes, perhaps over coffee, right after mentioning that your annual review is coming up and right before talking about your potential to be a senior, or lead, or manager, the elder who is mentoring you says that “of course, it would be unprofessional to talk about problems with the software at the meeting with the customer”, or perhaps “I just need you to sign off on XYZ testing” when you both know that XYZ testing hasn’t been performed – and it might not even work.
Integrity challenges are like that – they come under pressure, when you didn’t have enough sleep, they offer great reward if you could just shut up about it, punishment if you can’t, and give you five to seven seconds to respond.
If it were easy, it wouldn’t challenge your integrity.
More to come.