April 8, 2010
Who wants to be a white collar criminal?
Apparently enough people to prompt Wake Forest University's Schools of Business to host a panel called "Finding the Way Back: Impacts of White Collar Crime" last week.
Designed to warn students against the temptations of corporate theft, the panel featured convicted white collar criminals who've served prison time and forensic accountants who've investigated business fraud firsthand.
Among the advice given by the reformed scammers on the panel:
If asked to compromise your ethics on the job, don't be afraid to say no. "Knowing right from wrong isn't enough to defeat temptation," said panelist Justin Paperny, a former securities broker for Bear Stearns/UBS who went to the Big House for a year after being involved in a Ponzi scheme. "From the first day of my job, I never understood my profession. My senior broker taught me how to lie and cheat so that we could line our own pockets. I was afraid to say no to him because I was a people pleaser. If you're afraid to say no to people, they're going to own you."
When you become a manager, make sure you pay attention to the actions of your staff. "It's important to hold people accountable," said panelist Diann Cattani, who earned 18 months in federal prison after embezzling $500,000 while working at a consulting firm. "Don't assume employees are behaving ethically, because even trustworthy people behave differently in extreme situations."
My first thought upon reading about this panel was, Really? Students need a bunch of reformed embezzlers, book cookers, and Ponzi schemers to remind them that stealing is wrong?
But as Wake Forest University reports, corporate fraud affects one in two U.S. companies and costs the country almost a trillion dollars a year. I've also written about the topic before, citing the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners statistic that U.S. employers lose 7 percent of their annual revenue to employee theft, be it squishy expense reports, corporate credit card abuse, or flat-out embezzling.
In other words, the Bernie Madoffs of the world aren't the only ones ripping off their clients and employers. Countless small fish are skimming off the top too.
This is precisely the point Wake Forest University was trying to make. It's not just Fortune 500 CEOs getting funny with their shareholders' money -- it's also your average Joe or Jane office manager, payroll coordinator, and anyone else with access to client or company funds.
"They're friends of your parents, they're your co-workers, they're your neighbors, they're ordinary people who made mistakes," said panel moderator Kelly Pope, Wake Forest University visiting professor of accountancy.
As panelist Paperny implies -- and news stories like this and this illustrate -- sometimes there's no telling what a person's really made of until they're faced with a potentially life-altering ethical dilemma (i.e., an illegal windfall). I applaud Wake Forest University for encouraging its students to set their moral compass now so they can steer clear of the dark side when they enter the business world.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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