Chapter 2. Business Ethics and Social Responsibility

Chapter 2. Business Ethics and Social Responsibility -...

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Chapter 2. Business Ethics and Social Responsibility “Mommy, Why Do You Have to Go to Jail?” The one question Betty Vinson would prefer to avoid is “Mommy, why do you have to go to jail?” [ 14 ] Vinson graduated with an accounting degree from Mississippi State and married her college sweetheart. After a series of jobs at small banks, she landed a midlevel accounting job at WorldCom, at the time still a small long-distance provider. Sparked by the telecom boom, however, WorldCom soon became a darling of Wall Street, and its stock price soared. Now working for a wildly successful company, Vinson rounded out her life by reading legal thrillers and watching her twelve-year- old daughter play soccer. Figure 2.1. WorldCom Inc.’s former director of management, Betty Vinson, leaves Federal Court after pleading guilty to securities fraud October 10, 2002, in New York City.
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Her moment of truth came in mid-2000, when company executives learned that profits had plummeted. They asked Vinson to make some accounting adjustments to boost income by $828 million. She knew that the scheme was unethical (at the very least) but gave in and made the adjustments. Almost immediately, she felt guilty and told her boss that she was quitting. When news of her decision came to the attention of CEO Bernard Ebbers and CFO Scott Sullivan, they hastened to assure Vinson that she’d never be asked to cook any more books. Sullivan explained it this way: “We have planes in the air. Let’s get the planes landed. Once they’ve landed, if you still want to leave, then leave. But not while the planes are in the air.” [ 15 ] Besides, she’d done nothing illegal, and if anyone asked, he’d take full responsibility. So Vinson decided to stay. After all, Sullivan was one of the top CFOs in the country; at age thirty-seven, he was already making $19 million a year. [ 16 ] Who was she to question his judgment? [ 17 ] Six months later, Ebbers and Sullivan needed another adjustment—this time for $771 million. This scheme was even more unethical than the first: It entailed forging dates to hide the adjustment. Pretty soon, Vinson was making adjustments on a quarterly basis—first for $560 million, then for $743 million, and yet again for $941 million. Eventually, Vinson had juggled almost $4 billion, and before long, the stress started to get to her: She had trouble sleeping, lost weight, looked terrible, and withdrew from people at work. But when she got a promotion and a $30,000 raise, she decided to hang in. By spring 2002, however, it was obvious that adjusting the books was business as usual at WorldCom. Vinson finally decided that it was time to move on, but, unfortunately, an internal auditor had already put two and two together and blown the whistle. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged WorldCom with fraud amounting to $11 billion—the largest in U.S. history. Seeing herself as a valuable witness, Vinson was eager to tell what she knew. The government, however, regarded
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Chapter 2. Business Ethics and Social Responsibility -...

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