When I was growing up, I idolized ballplayers who scrapped and worked hard to do what the team needed. They were always “whatever it takes” guys; lay down a bunt, hit behind the runner, hit the ball in the air with a runner on third and less than two outs. They were not looking for the glory, but they were the glue that held a baseball team together.
But “whatever it takes” has taken on a new meaning in adulthood, most recently demonstrated by the recent college admissions scandal. Parents focused on maximizing opportunities for their children were willing to pay to game the admissions system in two ways—direct payments to coaches for their children to be classified as athletic admits when they were not competitive athletic recruits, and paying to cheat on standardized tests. The lack of controls at well-regarded schools, even Ivy League schools, meant that the “whatever” in “whatever it takes” was simply money funneled through Rick Singer. And the lack of control over testing centers by the College Board and the ACT, when their only product is an exam that is supposed to be a reliable measure, meant that the willingness to travel to take the exam at those testing centers was part of “whatever it takes.”
But these types of scandals take more than money. They require unprincipled men and women who are willing to do anything to insure their own personal success.
Rick Singer, CEO of college counseling firm The Key, was reportedly paid $25 million to enable these admissions before cooperating with the FBI and the Justice Department. Mark Riddell, a 2004 Harvard grad who was paid $10,000 per exam to take standardized exams for entrants, issued a hollow apology to his alma mater last month for his role. Until the scandal broke, he was IMG Academy’s director of college exam preparation; IMG is a Bradenton, Florida, prep school hotbed of college football recruits.
People operating without a conscience are necessary to virtually any business scandal. Volkswagen decided that it would do whatever it took to get 800 miles out of a tank of gas, jump-starting its efforts to become the world’s largest car company. They had numerous engineers fully aware of the defeat devices being installed on their cars that were meant to fool emissions testers into believing their vehicles were compliant when the emissions equipment was automatically shut off in normal driving conditions to maximize gas mileage. Those in the highest levels of the organization have been accused of complicity, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn.
KPMG was willing to do whatever was necessary to improve its performance on audit inspections with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), since its failure rates were significantly higher than its Big 4 competitors’ rates. KPMG has undertaken many legitimate approaches to improving its performance, from intentional training and audit planning strategies to the current construction of an 800,000-square-foot education center in the Orlando area. However, a number of top partners in the national office decided that “whatever it takes” included hiring people from the PCAOB who brought not just their expertise, but an actual list of KPMG audits that would be inspected by the PCAOB for the years 2015-2017. After two KPMG partners and a managing director pled guilty to their roles in using the inspection lists, the partners testified in a recent trial that resulted in the convictions of a third partner and a PCAOB employee.
In my current accounting ethics class, we are covering a laundry list of cases where a “whatever it takes” mentality, combined with unprincipled people, led to the types of disasters that you would think we would all learn from. Enron, WorldCom, HealthSouth, and Bernie Madoff only touch the surface of colossal misjudgments that have harmed thousands. These situations lacked that person, for the most part, who was willing to say, “I will do anything I can to help us succeed — but I won’t do THAT.”
When I look back on my childhood, I am open-eyed that some of the ballplayers who were willing to do “whatever it takes” were simply cheaters. Gaylord Perry made a career as a pitcher loading substances on baseballs to make them dance when he threw them. Many people had a grudging admiration for Perry, and some have the same feelings about the cleverness of people today who succeed by crossing lines. The feeling is, if they can get away with it, why not?
I have to look in a mirror, as well. Am I willing to do whatever it takes to be successful? Am I carefully managing my image and refusing to speak the truth because of concern about what others will think of me? Am I willing to compromise my standards in order to go along?
We need lines in our personal lives that we will not cross, and we need a systematic way of developing those bright lines. We also need truth-tellers to speak into our lives and tell us when we are getting close. That is the intention of my accounting ethics class. And I will do whatever it takes to help that happen in my students’ lives.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics