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 accountable.

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.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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