I have often made the observation that in American society, time after time, competence trumps integrity. We value people who have certain abilities or who entertain us in certain ways, and what they do to make us money or make us happy is much more important to us than who they are, or who they hurt in the process. I see it as a fundamental weakness in the moral character of American society, one that provides a ceiling on how far we can really progress ethically.
I see the examples in business again and again. The latest example is Mark Hurd, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and currently the new co-president of Oracle. I would say that the things that he did to get fired at HP were relatively small compared to the accusations against many in positions of power in business. Usually, a single relationship that leads to an accusation of sexual harassment, especially when there is no favoritism shown in areas like promotion and raises, is not enough to get a successful CEO fired. If the reports in The Wall Street Journal are accurate, Hurd’s alleged misrepresentations on travel reimbursements were the cause of the board’s breakdown in trust with their CEO. If this is true, it is to their credit that they took the issue seriously. But many in the business community think that they were fools to fire him.
And, in that light, there is probably no one more likely than Oracle’s Larry Ellison to be a buyer in the market for someone of Mark Hurd’s skills. Ellison has a reputation for taking no prisoners, and he manifested that arched back mentality when HP pushed back at the hiring because of a non-compete clause in Hurd’s contract. Ellison openly threatened breaking off the long-term relationship between Oracle and HP, relatively typical bluster for him. It was all settled by Hurd giving back some of his stock awards, which, of course, does nothing to address the fact that Hurd has extensive inside information about HP.
As much as I care about business ethics, it is hard for me not to see Ellison as the clear winner in the negotiation. In some sense, competent people being employable despite their flaws may simply be the price of the free enterprise system. If the moral disconnect is not so outrageous as to make people angry, and you are really good at what you do, you are probably going to get away with it. If you are punished, it will probably only be in the short-term, and you will quickly have other, even superior, opportunities.
It is no different in the NFL. New York Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards’s alleged drunk driving event this week was met with a tepid response from his team’s organization, from the coach to the general manager to the owner. Coach Rex Ryan indicated that he was tired of these types of events and owner Woody Johnson intoned that Edwards had let himself and the team down. Oh, by the way, he will be playing against Miami Sunday, because the Jets have a better chance of winning if he does. (As an aside, it’s unclear to me as a football fan, based on his performance on the field, why they think that.)
And Edwards is a second chancer also. Cleveland traded him to the Jets not only because he had a tendency to drop passes, but because he was a public relations nightmare, including accusations of assault on a 135-pound man. The Jets are clearly a superior opportunity for him, the chance to play with a team with designs on the Super Bowl. Nothing he has done has prevented him from having this chance, and who could blame him for believing that nothing ever will? About the only thing you can do that will push you off the cliff is lie about what you did—ask Roger Clemens and Martha Stewart. And Mark Hurd is, allegedly, living proof that not even that will always do it.
I can feign moral outrage if you like. But, the truth is, Americans generally like winning more than they like doing the right thing. They like making money more than they like doing the right thing. That’s why I tell the young auditors I train the truth. It’s the world you are operating in, and you had better be prepared for it.
It is also the truth that the fall comes for many, for Enron’s Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow, for WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and Scott Sullivan. And I am glad that I live in a country that gives second chances. But sometimes, in my heart of hearts, I wish I could pick who got them.