Integrity Matters
May 11, 2005

Accountability should be rule, not exception

Question: (E-177)

Dear Jim:

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 leading us?

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.

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