Just when we thought the technology “depression” was over, we face another scandal that, if I’m right, will rock the general investor confidence in technology investments. You know what I’m talking about. Options backdating.
Just today, Pui-Wing Tam of the Wall Street Journal writes about how the new CEO of Mercury had to grapple with the scandal. In her article, more than 80 companies are being invested for options-related issues. 80. Not 1, not 2. 80, now. And more to come is my bet.
In some ways, this is not a new set of ‘bad acts’ but an issue being uncovered long after it was done. The options backdating mattered during the hey-day of the boom.
Could it be you next?
The execs involved, a few whom I know personally, are not evil or bad. The best Steinway can get out of tune. In the same way, we humans can get slightly off kilter in small moves. The many decisions that lead to what is right or wrong are often more shades of grey and unclear forks in the road. Ethics are fundamentally about a set of graduation and subtle decisions that lead to larger impact.
Greg Reyes, the former CEO of Brocade, has become the poster child of this options scandal. Would I ever have looked at him and thought him unethical. No. Arrogant, yes. Full of conceit, yes. Pompous, yes. But unethical, not at first appearance.
So the question and comment is towards all of us. Will we know when we are making those forks in the road choices that will lead to deceit in the end? Certainly honesty and other spiritual qualities, by definition, presume some level of concern for others, including the well being of a company, they also presume ethical restraint. We can not be honest and ethical unless we curb our own harmful or selfish impulses and desires, even if our colleagues embrace them. But if all the stories are true, Greg didn’t do his set of actions out of malice or intent to deceive but out of a desire to motivate his employees. Could you have held that up to the light of day and seen with clarity what was going to happen?
No one should suppose it could ever be possible to devise a set of rules or laws to provide us with the answer to every ethical dilemma. Such a formulaic approach could never hope to capture the richness and diversity of human experience. It would also give grounds for arguing that we are responsible only to the letter of those laws, rather than for our actions.
My own view does not rely solely on religious faith or even on an original idea, but rather on ordinary common sense. We have no means of discriminating between right and wrong in the small moves. Our original intention can be good and yet end up being bad. It is the ways in which we reflect on our words, actions, thoughts that enables perspective and clarity.
The Need for Discernment
Ethical behavior entails more than restraint. It also includes the cultivation of virtue. Because ethical discipline is what facilitates the very qualities which give meaning and value to our lives, it is something to be embraced with enthusiasm and conscious effort. But it’s not something you brag about or even talk about. It’s not about golf scores and fancy suits. So the tough part is investing time into something you cannot share, cannot express, cannot brag about.
That, my friend, is quite different than what Reyes or others do.
Time passes unhindered. When we make mistakes, we cannot turn the clock back and try again. All we can do is use the present well. And if we have no ways in our life to calibrate our choices, then perhaps we’ll all get lost.
What do you have in your life today in terms of practices, people, places that could allow you to stay grounded in that which is good? Can you still your mind and your movement to see with clarity the impact of your decisions, or are you walking through life, quickly, with a swagger?