Sunday, June 22, 2003

Their cheating hearts: Why did they do it?

Pressure to get ahead often a driving force, experts say

Chicago Cubs baseball star Sammy Sosa is hitting homeruns again. After serving a seven-game suspension for using a corked bat, one of baseball's all-time good guys returned last week to boos at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park.

Sosa maintains that he confused his corked bat used in batting practice with the non-corked ones he's supposed to use in the game. Whatever, Sosa has tainted his legacy and undermined the trust of fans.


    We all know there is "cheating" and then there is "CHEATING." It's the difference between a harmless white lie and a malicious slander. Most of us understand there probably isn't much harm in fudging things a little bit here and there. So what are you willing to try to get away with? Answer yes or no to the following scenarios.

Responses are due by noon Wednesday. We will print the results in next Sunday's edition. Personal information is optional and will be kept confidential. It will not be published, but may be used to contact you for a follow-up story.

Sadly, that erosion of trust extends into the board rooms, in government and in classrooms. Studies have shown that more than 70 percent of high school students cheat, but few get caught. In promoting her new book, former First Lady Hillary Clinton is trying to explain how she stayed married to her cheating husband. Cheating executives and employees have ruined their companies.

As more cases emerge in which people bend or break the rules and violate the public trust - be it in the church, business, politics, sports or academics - what does this say about the moral values of society? Is the concept of right and wrong dead?

"I think a lot of it has to do with whatever model or structure of framework we are exposed to as we're trying to figure out how we are trying to negotiate our way through this world," said Dr. Quinton Moss, a resident in psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Cincinnati. "We are told not to lie, not to cheat, but yet we see our parents telling little white lies, and cheating in various ways. We see those things and say, 'Hey we can use these tools to do what we need to get done to be successful."

Indeed, from Martha Stewart's nine-count indictment on securities fraud last week, to recent plagiarism in the New York Times, we have been fed a steady diet of people breaking the rules or accused of some form of cheating. When the allure of economic wealth, social prestige, or career advancement is at stake, the line between right and wrong increasingly has become blurred.

Cheating's not new

People breaking rules for personal gain is nothing new, from people not paying their taxes, to a butcher's thumb on the meat scale. Yet the recent high-stakes, multibillion-dollar rip-offs in corporate America, coupled with our heroes and trusted leaders letting us down, seems overwhelming.

Many of us remember high-profile examples of cheating in the mid-1980s: Charles Keating's S&L debacle, and Ivan Boesky's ("Greed is all right, by the way... I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.") and Michael Milken's insider trading and junk bond scandals.

Joseph Jett, a bond trader at Kidder Peabody & Co. in New York, was widely blamed for the downfall of that venerable company. He manipulated the company's accounting system to fake $348 million in profits over a three-year period ending in 1994.

Jett, who earned millions of dollars in bonuses for his work, said his bosses knew what he was doing, a "conspiracy of silence" kept the money rolling in, and the bosses looked the other way.

It's parent company General Electric sold the company's assets to PaineWebber Group Inc., and nearly 2,200 people lost their jobs. Kidder Peabody no longer exists.

"It was a traumatic experience," said Ana Sierra Leonard, of Blue Ash, who, as vice president of finance and accounting systems at Kidder Peabody during that time, was personally affected by Jett's trading and those who allowed it. She and a handful of other employees essentially were left to close the company.

Last week, Leonard earned a Ph.D. in management from the University of Cincinnati, and this fall, she will teach at Miami University in Oxford. She will use that first-hand experience as she teaches ethics as part of management classes.

She rightly believes employers have to set the tone for moral and ethical behavior and it starts from the top down. "If you behave ethically, the people around you will behave ethically. If you are a manager or a top executive, that counts so much more," Leonard said. "People look at what you do, more than what you say."

Recent experiences bear that out. Good-life maven Martha Stewart is under a cloud of controversy, accused of misleading investors in her company about the seriousness of her involvement in the biotech company ImClone stock trading scandal. Subsequently, the stock in her own company has plummeted and her name has been sullied.

Think of the litany of once-respected companies whose names have become synonymous with cheating: WorldCom, Enron, Global Crossing, Andersen, Tyco, HealthSouth. They each cost investors billions of dollars and further eroded the public trust in the integrity of American business.

Culture of cheating

How did we get to this point?

Some scholars say a culture of cheating, or bending the rules, begins early and, if unchecked, can lead to bad behavior later.

Timothy Brezina, a Tulane University sociologist who has extensively studied academic cheating, said research finds that several factors have increased the likelihood of cheating: 1) when students feel intense pressure to succeed, from parents or otherwise, 2) when cheating is viewed as conduct that is not very serious and 3) when peers tolerate cheating and endorse supporting rationalizations and justifications.

"These rationalizations and justifications encourage people to minimize the seriousness of cheating or academic fraud," Brezina said. "Some students justify cheating by downplaying its significance - for example - by discounting the legitimacy of testing procedures and by pointing out that, in the real world, one can use notes and that memorization is overrated by schools.

"Other students may justify cheating by convincing themselves that it would have been difficult to succeed without cheating, due to impossible instructors or unfair exams. And, of course, there is the old stand-by rationalization: everybody else is doing it,'" he said.

Often, rule-benders are rewarded.

Brezina noted a 2002 Wall Street Journal report that said ImClone's former president and CEO Sam Waksal maintained a reputation as a brilliant immunologist, even after being ousted from a number of research positions during his career for misleading and possibly falsified scientific work.

To prevent cheating and fraud, Brezina believes opportunities to cheat must be eliminated. In the classroom, this may mean developing multiple versions of an exam and challenging the "rationalizations and justifications that people give for cheating or fraud," he said.

As it relates to businesses, he says meaningful regulatory reform must occur in the quiet aftermath of the current high-profile cases.

"Unfortunately, the spotlight will likely fade before reforms are implemented. But we need to keep the pressure on, which means adequate resources for the SEC, (Securities and Exchange Commission) for example."

Teaching ethics

Elletta Sangrey Callahan, associate professor of law and public policy and chair of academic integrity in the school of management at Syracuse University, said teaching ethics in the classroom, from elementary through post-secondary, is one way to help overcome moral lapses in society.

"My opinion is that teaching ethics - that is teaching about different ethical theories and analyzing ethical dilemmas - are important and legitimate and necessary parts of a business-school curriculum, I would argue any curriculum," Callahan said.

While business schools ought to consider covering ethics in stand-alone courses, rather than addressing them as case-studies within other courses, they must also be willing to insist that students behave ethically during their tenure in school, she said

Like Brezina, Callahan believes teachers must more effectively deal with students who cheat, through prevention and other strategies. Several studies have shown that two-thirds of students cheat, but only 1 to 3 percent of those cases are discovered, she said.

In business schools, this means having policies and procedures in place to address dishonesty. Faculty must be willing to follow procedures to address cheating when they encounter it, she said.

"The essence of this thing about academic integrity is that if we don't confront our students when they cheat, they get the message that it is OK to use whatever means they need to use," Callahan said.

Businesses, too, must be more diligent in screening job applicants before they hire them, she said. "Employers should ask prospective candidates, particularly, recent graduates, whether they have been disciplined for academic dishonesty by a post-secondary institution," she said.

"I would rather know whether a job applicant has plagiarized a paper than his or her grade in an ethics course."

Businesses can follow Callahan's advice, but that still won't protect against the employee who lacks integrity and is willing to cheat to get ahead. Sports stars can be fined and suspended, but there will always be someone else to cork a bat if it helps the team win.

The golden rule

Dr. Moss, the Cincinnati psychiatrist who is also a Baptist minister, rightly offered what is perhaps the most important advice for the morally and ethically challenged.

"I think it boils down to two things: 1) Questioning your beliefs in accordance with what your higher power will expect of you, and 2) When you do things, are you hoping that you are treating someone else the way you think you want them to treat you?"


Byron McCauley is associate editorial page editor of The Enquirer.

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