May 11, 2005
Accountability should be rule, not exception
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, in his April
5 Wall Street Journal commentary, suggested that only
law enforcement works to restore confidence in the "integrity-challenged" system
beset by scandals.
His perspective is rigid, one-dimensional and potentially
destructive of the society he intends to defend.
But the time has come for accountability - at all levels
and across many walks of life. Certain behaviors are
no longer acceptable, legal or appropriate: Winking is
not the right response to sexual harassment. Nor are
knowing nods when it comes to "insider deal-making" or
other self-serving and unethical behavior. Society is
speaking. Enron and WorldCom have become business clichés
for big shots living the high life while cheating hard-working
employees and uninformed investors. And where is this
According to a March 29 article by Landon Thomas Jr.
in the New York Times, "On Wall Street, a Rise in
Dismissals over Ethics," the business environment
is changing rapidly. Thomas quotes Ira Lee Sorkin, a
senior white-collar crime lawyer, who describes the current
climate as "a regulatory frenzy" and adds, "Corporations
are acting out of fear, and they don't want to take a
chance that employees did something wrong under their
watch. So they are basically cleaning house. Someone
has to say enough."
I agree wholeheartedly and would add these points:
- Enough! We must not forget that
in Colonial America, "witch hunts" saw innocent
people burned at the stake in the name of religious
purity. In the 1950s, McCarthyism was a terrifying
term for hate-mongering and a rush-to-judgment approach
that destroyed careers, families and lives. Are we
heading down the same path? Litmus tests are being
drawn up in such rigid ways that disqualify just about
anyone those designing the tests might choose to exclude,
including public servants, religious leaders and business
people. If only "perfect" people were salvageable,
who would be left to do anything?
- Mistakes are inevitable. A broken
trust need not remain so forever. The current "in
thing" - at least on Wall Street - of terminating
folks who are even perceived to be involved in a breach
of ethics is irresponsible and destructive. Presuming
guilt is not a part of our justice system - presuming
innocence is. "Photo ops" of these accused
may make great theater, but they do little to restore
confidence in the entire structure of our society.
- Standards and behaviors seem to be improving. Overreacting
and operating out of fear will discourage courage and encourage
cowardice. Whistleblowers are prevailing. Crooks are serving
time. Integrity throughout the economic system will emerge
when relationships are rebuilt. Let's try trust, while
not forgetting to monitor one another all along the way.