Corporate Treasurer Responds to Ethics Questions
In 1997, Jeff graduated from UCLA with a degree in accounting. He built his career in finance, and while in his early 30s, Jeff held the position of treasurer with a publicly traded corporation in Northern California. With hopes of earning the company a higher short-term return on its money, and in the process advancing his career, he made an inappropriate high-risk investment. Jeff was prosecuted and convicted, and he served a few years at Taft Prison Camp.
Although Jeff did not want to reveal too much personal information, he responded to questions from Professor Schrenkler’s questionnaire on ethics. His answers follow:
1. Do you feel you had/have a good understanding of your core values? How did those core values guide your decisions while on the job?
I do not believe I had a sense of my core values at the time I committed my crime. I had been raised with values, but they were not “core” in that they did not pervade every aspect of my life. While on the job I used values that were what I thought the accepted values in business. These were values I had seen my supervisors use and seen other people use on me over the course of my professional life.
2. What was the most important aspect of a career in business for you? (bottom line, wealth challenge, etc…) What motivated you the most while working for your company?
For me the most important aspect was wealth. I was motivated by getting a better role within the company or getting a better job outside the company.
3. Who do you think is responsible for the ethics of a company?
I think the leaders of a company are responsible for the ethics of a company. If the leaders are the Board, officers, upper management or whatever, it’s the people who make the decisions. However, every person is responsible for their own ethical behavior. If your morals differ from what you see practiced around you, you need to probably find another job.
Ethical Decision Making:
4. Did you have a written code of ethics at your company? If so, did you base your decisions around those codes?
I do not recall a written code of ethics at the company when I committed my crime. In my opinion I saw a lot of unethical behavior as the norm.
5. Did you believe that your business decisions followed your particular company’s core mission, vision, and values? Explain.
To answer that, I would have to know what my company’s mission was. I suppose it was to provide good customer service, and shareholder value. I was trying to earn a higher yield for my company, but I invested in something that was outside the investment policy. I suppose I could argue that I was making decisions that fit with the mission, but the decisions did not fit with my values. I should have seen that and reevaluated if I was working for the right company.
6. Did you think you should have been held to a higher ethical standard, given that you were in a position of great power? Explain.
The prosecution certainly felt I should be held to a higher standard. I felt more like I was the scapegoat for people who had more power that failed in their ethical duties. It’s easy to blame someone lower than you, but it takes some moral fortitude to take responsibility for the errors of someone you supervise. I made mistakes, but it was impossible to make them completely on my own. Yet, that’s how it was painted by the company and the prosecution.
7. Do you feel your employees were equipped to recognize and resolve ethical dilemmas? Explain.
In the company I worked for employees and supervisors were not equipped to resolve ethical dilemmas. That seemed to be something reserved for Human Resources and I don’t think they always resolved things ethically. Resolution to them was to avoid litigation.
8. Please explain the corporate culture within your company during your involvement.
In my opinion the corporate culture was convoluted. Regularly during audits I recall people hiding information from auditors and only providing to the auditors was they specifically requested. I recall issues that involved employees that I supervised being handled with very little concern or compassion for the employees, again, with the objective being to avoid any possible litigation. I saw bad decisions being made that were explained away by upper management and bad decisions by lower level management punished with termination or with the common practice of making the job so miserable the employee would quit.
9. Is it possible to have a very aggressive corporate culture, yet foster an ethical environment?
First, a company has to define what ethics, integrity, honesty, etc are. If you say that you won’t break any laws, then I would say that your ethics are the bare minimum. I’ve seen a lot of unethical behavior that was legal. If you say that your ethical standards are to follow the golden rule, Do business the way you would want others to do business, your company will probably fail. Unfortunately, the best check and balance on capitalism is morality. Laws can only do so much to prevent unethical business practices. I would say that you cannot have a “very aggressive” corporate culture and foster an ethical environment. This is not to say that you cannot have a profitable company without ethics.
10. If you could choose to redo anything, what would it be?
I would have pursued the right thing rather than pursue money, success and a higher paying job.
11. Do you think anything good came out of this?
I suppose that there is some good that has happened. Unfortunately, I think there was a lot more pain and suffering when the government got involved. This could have been resolved with a lot less pain and financial burden for all of the parties.
12. What is your biggest regret?
That I did not act with integrity and honesty in my business dealings right from the start.
13. Do you plan on taking on the business world once again when you are released? If so, do you think you will encounter any roadblocks getting back into the business world? Explain.
I do plan to go back into the business world, but with different goals. My primary goal will be to act with integrity and honesty regardless of the outcome. I know that there will be roadblocks. The business world will always view me with skepticism. That’s part of the punishment. You have to accept that people are biased and prejudiced against you. The hope is that you can change that by your actions.
14. What advice would you give to a business student about to embark on their chosen career path?
If you can be honest, think outside yourself and be willing to accept not always getting / what you want, your reputation will be much stronger as you progress through life. I believe this is an investment and that you will achieve to higher aspirations by applying some integrity into your business life.
15. How do you feel about a business class questioning you on your ethics?
I think it’s good to get some real world perspective. I had an ethics class in college and we didn’t discuss anything about honesty, humility and selfishness. It simply told us to consider all impacted parties of a decision. Well, that leaves the decision open to all sorts of justifications. I never thought I would commit a crime. I didn’t think I was committing a crime when I was doing what I did. The problem was I did not follow my values. At the time I was not willing to accept that I had to be humble, that I was making enough and didn’t need more money. Everyone is on the precipice of committing a crime. Application of solid values is the only thing that will prevent it.