Bottom Line Ethics - Part 10

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Harambe and Polyanna

Michael K. Shaub, July 21st, 2022

I recently wrote an essay describing my view of the impact of the accounting profession’s latest cheating scandal. My basic view is that we have proven repeatedly as a profession that we do not deserve to be self-governing, with the latest example being firm personnel cheating on CPA ethics exams. Some people in the profession who like me have been checking on my emotional health after reading that piece. Others just doubt my mental acuity and would consider my view of expecting truth-telling and honesty in the profession as being a “Polyanna” approach to our problems.

My friend Matt Morton recently spoke about the incident a few years ago involving Harambe the Gorilla (may he rest in peace) at the Cincinnati Zoo. When a little boy fell into his enclosure, Harambe decided to investigate, dragging the boy around and not heeding the zookeepers’ calls to come inside. This led to a difficult decision for the zookeepers, who shot the gorilla for fear that a tranquilizer would not work quickly enough before the boy was harmed.

After this incident, people blamed the zoo for the exhibit’s design and fencing, and the mother for losing track of her child. Some even blamed the existence of zoos. The hashtag #JusticeForHarambe circulated on the internet. But no one blamed Harambe because, in Matt Morton’s words, “That’s what gorillas do.”

This reminds me of the argument being made to explain the behavior of young professionals and students who get caught up in cheating scandals. You must expect that people are going to cheat given the opportunity because they must keep up with their peers or they are biologically inclined to do so by evolutionary responses to their environment. All we can do is put in the types of controls that will be effective in preventing and detecting it, hoping to reduce the opportunity, or even the motivation, to cheat. Telling people to be better is just spitting in the wind. Those who hold these views do not consider themselves cynical in the same way that I do not consider myself naïve. We may both be fooling ourselves.

But I have seen throughout my career, and particularly post-Sarbanes-Oxley, many students whose perspectives have been changed through an extensive consideration of their duties as CPAs, particularly in the accounting ethics course. A recent paper by Zach Kowaleski of the University of Texas and his co-authors provides evidence that financial advisors who receive more training in rules and ethics actually behave better.

In fact, I think it is silly, and an abdication of responsibility, to say that we cannot significantly influence the ethical behavior of our students or of those under us in the accounting firm. We influence studying behaviors, love for the material, and student interaction behaviors every day in the classroom. Accounting firms influence employees’ views of working late, teach them to sell better, and force feed them technical skills. Why are people’s moral views somehow unassailable by those who lead them?

There is nothing magical in moral learning that is less able to be shaped than any other type of learning. Of course, there are powerful incentives internally that cause people to cross lines, and human nature is unreliable when it comes to doing the right thing. Give a child no moral direction and see what happens.

But the claims of powerlessness in moral education and training are overstated. I have heard for many years that students are fully formed morally by the time they reach the university, and there is little that you can do about it. This has been a sort of received wisdom applied to no other area of reasoning. Despite that, numerous student organizations are designed entirely to change people’s views on a variety of moral issues—to morally educate them.

I need moral education. There are ethical issues I have not encountered yet and that I need to be prepared to navigate effectively. I need to be a better moral leader for people who come from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is not easy work. But in the accounting profession, we are used to undertaking difficult tasks without complaining, of adapting to environments without losing our north star, of overcoming obstacles, of speaking the truth even when it makes others uncomfortable.

We have a chance to preserve something important, not given over to the cynicism of the day, but battling against it by relentlessly speaking truth into society in reliable ways that require others to pay attention. It also requires not undermining our objectivity by selling out to the inevitable temptation to be a hanger-on rather than a true friend to our clients. We need to be “trusted advisors” not because we will tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know. And the same holds true for us to be “trusted professors” who will help to preserve a profession we all love. We need to tell our students, our clients, and ourselves when we are crossing lines that harm others and undermine a society and an economy that rely on being grounded in truth.

You are not going to learn this on social media. Some will learn the principles in their families or in their faith settings. But you certainly ought to be able to learn it in the accounting classroom. And it is incumbent upon the Big 4 firms, the AICPA, and the rest of the accounting profession to make it a priority to do this before we lose our trusted role in society.

Call me Polyanna if you like. But I am not teaching Harambe in my classroom. I am teaching incredible minds capable of doing far more than settling for whatever makes them richest or most “successful,” regardless of the impact on others or on their own souls. And for as long as I am in the classroom, they are going to be treated with that level of respect.

I may not change a profession. But I am going to change some lives.

John Edwards. Ouch. Just the name makes me flinch. Having just written about Mark McGwire’s shortcomings in apologizing, John Edwards reappeared in the headlines. If you’re a professor, there’s nothing like an immediate opportunity to apply a theory!

In my last piece, I indicated that an apology for integrity issues should (1) avoid progressive revelation, (2) acknowledge the reason for the timing of the confession, (3) show visible evidence of a changed heart, (4) not attack those who raised the issues, and (5) embrace the consequences in a way that will prevent you from making a similar mistake. Doing this, of course, assumes that the apologizer is interested in a changed character.

John Edwards’s painful statement about his two-year-old daughter is an object lesson in how allowing progressive revelation can swamp the positive effects of taking any of the other steps. Stage one for Edwards was denying his affair with Rielle Hunter, referring to it as “tabloid trash.” Stage two was denying paternity of her child, stating that it was “not possible . . . because of the timing of events.” At the same time Edwards was, according to former aide Andrew Young, convincing Young to assume public responsibility for fathering the child. The final stage was his recent admission that he has been secretly supporting the child because he is, indeed, the father. We can safely say that John Edwards has done about as bad a job as any public figure in the last decade of providing progressive revelation of his culpability.

Second, he has not acknowledged the reason for revealing the information now, though most observers expect that the imminent release of Mr. Young’s tell-all book is what motivated Mr. Edwards’s written statement. In fact, personal advisor Harrison Hickman denied to NBC News that the book’s release motivated Edwards’s statement.

Having failed to follow my first two suggestions, it appears that people are not paying much attention to the final three. Despite his admissions, it is hard to show visible evidence of a changed heart when you are invisible to the public. He is not attacking those who raised the issues, but he has in the past. Actually he is, in a sense, embracing the consequences of his actions; perhaps most people believe this behavior could happen again, even if he is assuming responsibility for his child.

I recognize that it is hard to expect an attorney like John Edwards to follow my advice, when doing so might cause him to sacrifice legal protections. But the cost of his reticence is a jaded public’s resignation that they will always receive hollow apologies from those who betray their trust.

Categories: Politics

With Mark McGwire apologizing for his steroid use recently, I thought it would be appropriate to address the subject of saying “I’m sorry.” Years ago I expressed my view that a major gap in the implosion of Andersen after Enron was that they had never actually apologized. So kudos to Mark McGwire for coming out and saying he actually did it, albeit at least four, and perhaps ten, years too late.

However, his explanation seems a little less than forthcoming, in that he characterizes his use as only designed to maintain his health. It reminds me of the explanation offered by his companion both in the 1998 record home run chase and at the Congressional hearings, Sammy Sosa. In 2003, when there were already whispers about steroid use, Sosa’s bat cracked unexpectedly in a game and was discovered by the umpires to be corked. Caught with irrefutable evidence about his cheating to gain an advantage, he referred to it as a “mental mistake.”

As I said in an article at the time, mental mistakes do not bring into question integrity, but competence. In baseball that might include throwing to the wrong base or forgetting how many outs there are. But the questions with Sosa’s actions, and McGwire’s, are all about integrity.

The apology for issues of integrity is entirely different from the apology for issues of competence. I will sometimes have students apologize to me for their performance on an exam. I respect these apologies, but for the most part they are unnecessary, unless they are used by students to motivate themselves to give a better effort in preparing for the next exam. However, if a student apologizes for an issue of integrity in my class, it matters how that apology is expressed.

I have on many occasions apologized to my wife for my incompetence—in home repairs, car repairs, investments, you name it. Acknowledging my failure is usually more than sufficient to satisfy my wife, and often she does not even require that. I am guessing that for Tiger Woods simply saying, “Hey, I’m sorry, I messed up” was not sufficient.

So what should an apology look like for issues of integrity? My first piece of advice is to avoid, if at all possible, progressive revelation. McGwire’s confession to Bob Costas appears to be the kind of halfhearted trickle of information that often leads to a feeding frenzy as other reporters build a case for there being more to the story. And there are always the Jose Cansecos of the world around to fill in the details.

Second, the reason for the eventual confession ought to be acknowledged. These confessions are virtually always delayed until after some event that triggers the need to say something. In McGwire’s case, he not only received fewer Hall of Fame votes this year than Tim Raines, but he has been hired as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, who are unlikely to be happy if he is a spring training sideshow. If these are not the reasons, why did he wait until now to apologize? These apologies ought to be prefaced with a simple acknowledgement that the time was right for specific reasons.

Third, there ought to be visible evidence of a changed heart. By this, I am not referring to the crocodile tears that seem prevalent when revelations are made. But when people get the sense that the confessor would do it all over again, given the chance, there is no hope of repairing a reputation. Even Pete Rose’s strongest supporters for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be unwilling to bet their fortunes that, given the same set of circumstances, he would avoid the kinds of gambling he engaged in.

Fourth, there can be no residual attacks on those who have raised the issues. This has to be especially hard for people like McGwire, who is faced with continuing assertions that he was injected with steroids by Jose Canseco, one of the most unlikable truth-tellers in modern sports history. Of course, this attacking behavior is often part of the legal defense team’s strategy if there are still issues being addressed in court. But when you are apologizing for integrity failures, no one wants to hear you blame others.

And, as hard as it is, embrace the consequences of your action in a way that will lessen the chance that you make that choice again. My son’s first hero, when he was a five-year-old baseball player on the Rookie Cardinals, was “Mark-uh McGwire.” We have a picture together in our uniform shirts taken from the back, like the old Maris and Mantle pictures, and he wears that number 25 so proudly.

Today, he only winces when I mention the name McGwire. Mark McGwire will never see that, just as CEOs like Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski are often insulated from the betrayal of trust felt by investors and employees. But coming face-to-face with the consequences of a trust betrayal is often the most powerful deterrent to repeating the behavior.

Life is always better if you can avoid integrity failures, but it is relatively certain that most of us, from time to time, are going to fall short and need to say, “I’m sorry.” Being up front about what we have done and communicating a genuine rejection of the values that led us to fail are important. Leave the opinions about others’ culpability to others. And, as painful as it is, face up to the impact. It is the shortest route to refining character.

Categories: Athletics

I was sitting in Starbucks this morning, the day after Lane Kiffin announced that he was leaving after one year at Tennessee to become head football coach at USC. Just as I began to write this piece, Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair walked through the front door. I do not know Coach Blair, but I was prompted to walk up to him and shake his hand to say thanks for what he brings to the table here. He is a fantastic recruiter, and there is no question that he is a salesman. But he has brought a stability and an integrity to the women’s basketball program that makes it easy to be a fan.

As I chatted with him, he mentioned that we are all struggling with ethical issues in our own lives, and that he had brought up a number of examples at a Lions Club speech the day before. I agree. But there is something deep in a person’s character that leads to a pattern of behavior. Certainly we all fall short of what we want to be. And a single failure can have disproportionate results in our lives. But it seems worthwhile to seek out the kinds of relationships that will give us the ability to live consistently, to make good choices as frequently as possible. And, as a society, it is worth our while to have the kinds of values that reward those who live this kind of life.

But, to be honest, we value far too many vacuous things as a society. Which brings me back to Lane Kiffin. The love of sports is deeply ingrained in me. But in so many ways, sports, particularly big-time intercollegiate sports, has abandoned virtue for success. And it results in fans and alumni who reward people like Lane Kiffin.

One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes about the importance of teaching virtue comes from The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” This must be the feeling in Knoxville this morning. One minute you are mocking Urban Meyer and Florida and thumbing your nose at the NCAA, and the next minute the head mocker is headed for Southern California. But these are chances to look inward at what we have become as fans.

I am no more a fan of the somber grinders like Alabama’s Nick Saban than I am of the Lane Kiffins of the world. His is another example of rewarding success, and success alone. Does anyone look like he’s enjoying what he does less than Nick Saban? His Gatorade dousing after the national championship game was perhaps the most painful celebration event I have ever witnessed. He seemed as likely to punch his players as to embrace them. I respect the fact that he did neither. But I cannot imagine having my son play for someone so humorless, so consumed by his work that he can’t even publicly enjoy reaching the pinnacle most coaches can only dream of achieving.

I am trying to teach my children, and my students, to embrace the types of values that make them the parents, spouses, and friends that can sustain a civil society in the next generation. Sports gives me a regular chance to examine my own heart, whether I am having a running conversation with a referee at a basketball game or critically evaluating my children’s performance. I do not claim to have the right balance. Competition reveals character more than it creates it.

But when I see the good in sports, I want to make sure that I say something publicly. Gary Blair, the consummate salesman, offered me tickets for the game tonight. I turned them down—this time. For once, all I wanted to say was, “Thank you.”

Categories: Athletics, Texas A&M

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