Sunday, March 7, 2004

Look Who's Talking: Paul Fiorelli

Eye on Business Ethics

Paul Fiorelli is director of Xavier University's Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility in its Williams College of Business. Scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco have led Fiorelli, who teaches an executive-level Master's of Business Administration class at Xavier, to scrutinize the unpleasant areas of business.

Paul Fiorelli

SOMEWHERE, MAYBE, IS A PERSON who has never heard of the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom scandals. How would you summarize those cases, and what are their lessons?

In one word, greed. Contrary to what Gordon Gecko (from the movie Wall Street) said, greed is not always good. What you saw with these companies was pressure on top management to make the books look as good as possible. The pressure comes from Wall Street, investors and pension funds. There are a lot of stock options that kick in once you raise the price of the stock. But that doesn't lead to long-term stewardship of the organization. Stewardship is to leave the company in a better position than when you came in. I don't see that with a lot of these organizations. When Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco has a $2 million birthday party for his wife and charges it off as a business expense, that is an abuse of power. He does it because he can do it. And there didn't seem to be any effective controls either at the board or with outside regulators to say you can't do that. John Rigas at Adelphia was using a publicly traded company as his personal piggybank.

COMPANIES IN OUR REGION, at least as far as we know, have not had these kinds of violations - except, apparently, for former homebuilder Bill Erpenbeck. Talk about Erpenbeck.

The question is this: Is this kind of behavior the mean or the extreme? I think it's probably the extreme. There are lots of excellent organizations and corporations. What we've seen is that some of the bad apples have been caught. Have we got them all? No. Are more indictments coming out? Yes. Regarding Erpenbeck, again, that is an example of both greed and pressure. There is pressure to perform and also greed in taking advantage of things because somebody can. Every year I take a group of executive M.B.A.s down to a federal prison for the day. We have an opportunity to speak with women inmates from a minimum-security work camp. I ask, "Why did you do it?" Often times the answer is we did it because we could: really bad or lax internal controls. The money was just sitting there.

BEING LED INTO TEMPTATION: How do you know when that Friday afternoon round of golf becomes something a little more nefarious?

That's the true test of ethics. It's when people don't do things when they could.

John Eckberg

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