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Sunday, May 20, 2012
Taking responsibility for our credentials
Scott Thompson, the CEO of Yahoo, earned an accounting
degree from Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. His degree was not also in
computer science, a program that didn't begin at Stonehill until after Thompson
graduated. Yet, in Yahoo's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission,
Thompson was identified as having earned the degree in both majors.
Filing false information with the SEC about the CEO's
background is not a particularly wise choice given that it violates the
Sarbanes-Oxley Act and, as such, runs afoul of federal law.
But in spite of the fact that the erroneous academic
credential has been featured as part of Thompson's public biography for years,
the Yahoo CEO has said that he did not know about the error until it was
pointed out by a Yahoo investor who wanted Thompson removed from his position.
Before Yahoo announced on Sunday, May 13, that Thompson
was leaving the company, there was already fallout from the incident. One of
the firm's directors, Patti Hart, who chaired the search committee that
ultimately pinged Thompson to become CEO, stepped shortly after the resume
embellishment hit the press.
If Thompson knew of the embellishment and did nothing to
correct it, then he, like many executives before him who have been caught with a
resume that didn't reflect reality, should be held accountable for not
correcting the error. Ten years ago, I wrote about the president of the U.S.
Olympic Committee stepping down after it was discovered that she did not hold
the Ph.D. she claimed to have earned. In that case, the fake credential had
nothing to do with the skills the person needed to perform her functions, nor
did they run afoul of any federal laws.
If others posted the information about Thompson and knew
that he did not hold the credential, then they, too, should be held
But what if it becomes clear that it's impossible to know
who knew what when? What then? Should anyone be held accountable?
Yes, they should. And in this case, the ultimate
responsibility lies with the boss. If Thompson truly didn't know what was in
the SEC documents regarding information about the degree he earned, he should
have. Granted, being a CEO of a large, public company is a consuming job and it
may be impossible to keep track of every aspect of every detail that's involved
in running the company.
But when it comes to personal information that is being
presented, the CEO should be held accountable for knowing that it's out there
on company documents and that it's accurate.
Would the search committee have offered Thompson the job
if it turned out that he had a degree solely in accounting rather than a dual
degree in accounting and computer science? Perhaps. Based on his extensive
experience and documented accomplishments, what he majored in in college more
than 30 years ago seems hardly likely to have mattered.
It's often the small stuff that does a fellow in. Making
sure that how you're represented is accurate, particularly when it's your
company doing the representing, is essential. Not just to avoid getting caught
in a misstatement, but mostly because it's the right thing to do.