Ask The Secret CIO: Cheater's Comeuppance

Several readers respond to Herb about Jerry, who got a "free PC" by taking advantage of a sales clerk's error.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 4, 2002

9 Min Read

What Happened to Honesty?

Dear Herb:

I have enjoyed your column for many years. I find your style of writing and your use of humor very refreshing. Your column No Such Thing As A 'Free' PC hit home.

My wife and I have tried to lead our lives in an honest fashion. She has even returned to a store to pay for something hidden in the bottom of the cart that was missed by the checkout clerk. While we sometimes feel we are unusual, we believe in how we are living and try to act accordingly. When I saw this column I just had to write.

I am glad that you put into words what used to be common facts of life: that honesty is the best way to live and that others learn from the examples we set. I would be very interested in reading about the reaction this column received.


Dear Chris:

I got a lot of letters about Jerry and his sense (or lack thereof) of ethics. As the world gets increasingly complex, it is more important than ever than we all have a strong sense of what is right and wrong.

It used to be that ethics was not a big topic for discussion in IT circles, no doubt because we were a back-office function with little power. Now that we IT people have increasing capability to do damage with the information under our stewardship, we find ourselves having to make multiple decisions that require examining ethical considerations.

Read on for a sampling of the reactions to the column you've requested, as well as some additional details about what I did about the situation with Jerry.

Old Fashioned Values


I look forward to reading your articles in InformationWeek all the time. They always hit the nail right on the head. The column "No Such Thing As A 'Free' PC" prompted me to right this note.

What is happening to the world? I am 46 years old and it seems the values that my parents and teachers taught me are so old fashioned, that I don't fit in anymore. It seems that almost everyone I meet is cheating someone out of something. Moreover, they are more than happy to brag about it and tell you how "smart" they are.

A "friend" of mine was out of work for a month. However, once he got a job he told me how great it was because he could get paid off the books and still collect unemployment. Why? Because he needed the money. He will also think nothing of buying himself a $300 watch and then say he "can't afford" his child-support payments.

Another friend was in a car accident. He was going through the green light and a woman running a red light smashed into him. His car was totaled, but luckily he only had minor injuries. The police report clearly stated that the other car ran the red light. Well, a year later he gets a letter that the woman is suing him for $2 million because of his negligence by being in the intersection. Maybe it's just me, but it seems if she has anything to say it should be an apology.

These same people wonder where their kids get their values. It couldn't be them, could it?

Thanks for your interesting thoughts and some good old-fashioned values.


Dear Bruce:

One reason I wrote the article was so that I could highlight Jerry's wonder about his son's problems with cheating on his high school class exam. What shocked me the most was that this grown man, who held a responsible job in a major corporation, did not realize (or admit to himself) that his own actions were setting a terrible example for his son to follow. I would've thought that he understood children tend to do what you do, not what you say.

I have kicked myself, more than once, for not immediately telling Jerry when he told me about the exam that he was reaping what he had sowed. On the other hand, I doubt that he'd have considered the connection a valid one. Knowing Jerry, I believe he would have told me that getting the computer and cheating on the test were two entirely different situations.

By the way, I want to emphasize that although I have changed the names and the situation somewhat to disguise the participants, the incident in the column really did happen. Jerry's son survived the problem and got into a good school. He is now aiming to be a lawyer (really).

And At Work ...?

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

And I have a theory about Jerry and his activities at work ...


Dear David:

Actually, Jerry was very conscientious at his job and followed company policy--to a fault (It's Good To Be King). He did do some wheeling and dealing, but as far as I could see, he never was unethical at work. I have to say, though, that after the incident I never really trusted him again. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I've never been one to think that you can successfully compartmentalize your ethics.

But What Did You Say?

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

I am not usually taken to writing to senior management, but your column about the colleague who ripped off a store for the computer just didn't sit well with me.

Of course, I understood the point you made that the Appropriation King's son learned the bad ethical choices of his father.

However, what I struggle with is that you don't say in the column what your reaction was when this man reported to you that he stole a computer worth several hundred dollars (if not more than a thousand). And I would certainly struggle with the fact that this man works for your company's CFO. He obviously is not honest with his dealings with his personal finances.

So what qualifies him to keep his financial position within your company? In an earlier article, you indicated that a bright young employee was terminated for making the poor decision (Bad Judgment's High Price) to continue with activities that were forbidden by company policies. I'm afraid I don't see the difference here, other than one was a nice (but low on the pole) employee, and the other is an employee who reports to the CFO.

I would be interested in knowing what you did with the information you had on Jerry, as well as why you think it ethical to allow Jerry to continue in a financially-sensitive role given the fact that he is a thief.


Dear Tom:

Thank you for your letter. Your questions and comments are good ones, and in many ways mirror my own reaction to what I heard that day. At first I thought Jerry was kidding. I couldn't imagine that someone who was at a high level in our company would do something dishonest. When I realized he was serious, I couldn't for the life of me understand why he would admit it--even boast about it.

My first impulse was to tell him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his behavior, but it was evident to me that my criticism would in no way modify his behavior. Instead, I sat there listening with a blank look on my face. Finally, as I stated in the column, I commented that what he did wasn't very ethical and asked him if he wouldn't be embarrassed to tell his story around the family dinner table. As I related, he responded that he had told them--in fact, bragged to them about how smart he was.

That night I wrestled with what to do. Here was a guy who held a sensitive position in our finance department admitting that he was dishonest outside of the office. The rub was that while we might not hire such a person, Jerry was already an employee and there was no indication he had ever done anything illicit at work.

Of course, I could have gone to Sid Gornish, his boss and our CFO, and relate the story to him. Sid, however, would immediately recognize--as I had--that Jerry's work behavior would have to be the basis for any sort of action by the company. Further, since Sid is a straight arrow, unless he heard the account straight from Jerry, he could not give it much weight in any future organization decisions.

After dinner that night, I thought about it and decided, without too much of a struggle, on what action to take. The opportunity came about two weeks later, after a budget meeting that ran into the lunch hour. Sid, Jerry, and I, along with a few other people from Finance, decided to eat in the cafeteria. We were talking about the money I was spending in the next year on equipment--a continuation of our budget conversation--when with a very neutral voice I said, "Well, maybe I can cut the amount if I use Jerry as my procurement manager. Jerry, why don't you tell everyone your story?"

Just as I thought, he launched into his little tale, laughing as he related his adventure. I was watching Sid's face as it clouded over, almost imperceptibly. He didn't say anything to Jerry and went on eating. The subject quickly moved on to something else.

About six months later, there was a slight change in the financial organization, and Jerry lost some of his authority. His career has been on the downgrade ever since. Is it related to that day at the lunch table? I don't know. Did I do the right thing, or was I playing dirty pool? You can make your own judgment, but I'd handle the situation the same way again.

Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. If you want to participate or comment, write to me at [email protected]. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online. And feel free to join me in my discussion forum. As I've mentioned, I'm planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If you'd like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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