Partners in Crime

In Life on May 1, 2012 by thebetweenthoughts

At a corporate training this past weekend, my firm paraded out the Partners to extol the virtues and vision of the organization.  As each panelist walked on stage and spoke about the firm, a common trend was starting to emerge:

– They were all old…(expected, since to reach this level at a firm you have to have a good 15-20 years of experience…)

– They were all white…(sadly, also expected since ethnic diversity is sad joke in the professional services realm…)

– They were all male…(c’mon, given the last line, is this is  surprise?  Diversity in professional services is a topic for another time though.)

– They were all former Arthur Andersen employees.

Now, for those of you out there who aren’t familiar with the Andersen name, think Enron and your memory might start to clear up.  Arthur Andersen was the accounting firm that went down in ball of flames as a result of the Enron accounting scandal that occurred in 2002.  [Disclaimer: I’m not sure with which part of Andersen these partners were associated.  Andersen Consulting eventually became Accenture…but none of these partners used the Accenture name, so I can only assume they were with Andersen in some form or function before that split occurred.]  So, the senior leadership of my organization all had ties to one of the most despicable (in the public’s eye) professional services firms in recent memory.  Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd?

The business of professional services is all about reputation and credibility.  We don’t sell products or tangible items, we sell ourselves.  We sell our expertise.  We sell our intellectual capital.  We sell our trust.

Based on this, how can the former employees of such a disgraced firm be in charge my firm?  [Second disclaimer: former Andersen employees are everywhere…it’s not just a feature of my firm, it’s just that I have first-hand experience with the phenomenon now.  Ha.]  Does this just speak to the disconnect between the perceptions of the general public and the perceptions of corporate America?  These former Andersen employees have the same level of expertise and intellect as before.  To a corporation in need of strategic or operational insight, do the unethical stains of the past really matter?  Now, one can make the argument that the sins of Andersen during the Enron scandal were relegated to a few individuals or a specific group within a practice and that those infractions shouldn’t impair the reputations of other parts of the firm.  But given the emphasis on culture and the “hive-mind” mentality these firms seem to cultivate, one has to wonder if these infractions were a product of individual thinking or of institutional practice.  The reason why Andersen went down was that it could never regain the luster of its former institutional reputation.

During business school, we were all required to take a business ethics course.  Partly, this was due to the scandals of the recent past and the (perceived) rampant unethical behavior in the corporate world.  We all thought it was a joke.  After two years of “the bottom line” being drilled into our minds, how could we take a course seriously that asked us to weigh the social ramifications of our actions against corporate profit?

When push comes to shove…and we really need “something” (be it a service, product or a relationship), do ethics really matter?  Are you willing to wait on your high horse until your competitors catch you?  Would you rather have a partner you can trust or a partner who you can trust to get the job done?




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