The NPR story that aired May 1, 2012 brought a number of questions, comments and requests for specific clarification of points within the story. The NPR narrative is here.
Q: Why did you participate in this piece? A: First, I think it was an excellent story and the NPR reporters did a fantastic job explaining a complicated subject. I participated because I believe in the importance of this research, and it would be hypocritical not to subject my own story in an unvarnished fashion to the same scrutiny that I am asking others to do as part of my research in this area.
Q: There is important, additional information to consider for students studying this case? A: Yes, as I speak to groups, there are couple of points that strongly impact the way they relate to the events in the story. Primarily, the decision-making frame, or the reasons why someone believes they made certain decisions is of interest. For this case, those are the reasons for lying about the income on that first transaction. First, to offer some additional detail about the initial loan discussed in the story-It was taken to replace losses-but not company operating funds-rather it was taken to restore monies that belonged to Groves’ clients that had been lost due to errors while being held in escrow on customers’ behalf. At that time, I viewed the dilemma as a choice between taking responsibility myself, or allowing the clients who trusted me with their money to suffer for my negligence. I believed my father would have wanted me to take responsibility-although in hindsight, not with the methods I chose. Second, these transactions were not typical transactions requiring documentation of income-the company was itself the “bank” making the lending decision and didn’t rely on another bank for approval (“feels” less like lying to someone else). These details do not change the conclusions of the story, or lessen the fact that the actions were improper and illegal—in fact people say that knowing those contextual details helped them understand the story and made navigating the accompanying ethical decision-making process much more provocative.
Q: What if I wanted to learn more about the research you are conducting? A: It is building on the work done as outlined in the article entitled “American Fraud” that you can find on www.tgroves.com . I believe this research is of critical importance to the advancement of knowledge about this topic—for auditing, governance, and anyone interested in restoring trust within our corporations and our financial markets. It is critical for this advancement, that people from different perspectives, including auditors, executives and offenders openly discuss these issues, even if it subjects them to harsh scrutiny. The NPR story is an effort in that direction.
Here are some of the more interesting comments (from both sides of the fence):
“I thought this was a wonderful piece,that went way beyond reporting the “facts” of the case. I think you provided a real service by delving into the whys of this particular tragedy. Great job, great radio ! Thank you ATC.”
“This story is a perfect example of why I subscribe to NPR. This was perhaps one of the most thought provoking stories I have ever heard, and was a magnificent example of the value of being an NPR subscriber. Please keep up the fantastic work.”
“I am not accepting excuses for willful fraud, sorry.”
—”No one gave an excuse. Understanding how something happens does not excuse it. Understanding is the first step in being responsible for generating possible solutions. If Americans keep turning every discussion into a court case about who’s to blame, then WE are to blame for letting serious problems go unsolved. We throw away OUR responsibility to step up to the plate and give problem-solving our best shot.”
“The conclusion reached by this post is, essentially, that every human being is capable of doing horrible things given a certain context. While existentially this is not the most pleasant thing to accept, I’m kind of surprised that so many on this board are reacting so negatively. As the podcast said, this does not take away responsibility, it just says that this idea of essentially “good” people who do “good” things all the time is…kind of naive. Imagine, there are no completely pure heroes and evil villains twirling there mustaches all day plotting. The majority of human beings are more complicated then that. Putting aside your own ego’s stake in things, is this really that strange a proposition?”
“It is absolutely true that most people are not cognizant of all the ramifications of their actions. Many would like to believe that bad things happen as a result of conscious choices made by evil people. But the sad truth is that most bad things in the world happen unintentionally or are done by people who think they are actually making the right choices.”
“Given the anecdote you presented, I don’t understand how it shows that people are unaware of the ethics of their own affairs. In the law, there’s a notion of “mens rea”, guilty mind. Toby Groves took special precautions to ask his employees in private whether they were okay with these actions. That shows he knew, at a minimum, that his actions could raise ethical concerns for some people, or might cause him to lose his reputation. Instead, why can’t we just say that Groves made a rational choice that breaking the law was better than coming clean? Or engaged in ordinary self-deception; he thought this small deviation in ethics could be repaired later. Maybe the common ‘character’ theory of ethics is what blinds people to their own ethical lapses. They look back on their lives, and don’t see that they are wholly bad and selfish people. Therefore, what they are doing is by definition not the action that a bad person would undertake.”
”Sorry, but reject the notion that you can do bad things and still call yourself a good person. The real title should have been, “How good people become bad people.” Then maybe all those good people turned bad people can overcome their denial and start thinking about what they did and how they might redeem themselves someday.”
“It is sad to read so many of the responses. I’ve been on the losing side of a few arguments with people who say that if they were faced with (for example) Joe Paterno’s situation with Jerry Sandusky, they’d have handled it correctly, no questions asked. I say they are completely wrong. This article goes a long way to explain why people are not as ethical as they think they are. My view is that you cannot even begin to think you are ethical until you accept you are always one or two bad decisions from going to prison; from losing your job; or from permanently betraying friends and loved ones. As for those who say more prison time is the cure, they clearly did not read this article with an eye to how it really applies to them.”
”I’m sorry if I am simply misunderstanding the article, which I acknowledge is possible, even likely, but is NPR actually advocating that people ought to be excused from unethical behaviors due to a failure to think through, or understand, the possible consequences? If so, how in the world does “not thinking” make a person doing unethical things into “a good person?”
Sorry to confirm, but you have misunderstood the article.
“Mr. Groves knows what he did was wrong. The article is examining the reasons why someone who promises to be ethical, and believe’s he is doing his utmost to keep that promise, would wind up breaking said promise. Committing an unethical act does not make someone a bad person. It is reason behind the act that determines the character of the actor. That said, a crime committed for the right reasons is still a crime and should be treated as such. Understanding the reasons behind the crime can help prevent its recurrence.”
“To NPR: this subject of ethics is a hit and I would suggest that you continue the thread of ethics in business as we (USA) seem to be suffering from a hurricane lack of ethics. Simply look at our former leaders and the apparent loss of focus on truthiness…:-).”
“Listened to the story this morning. It was quite well-done, as I anticipated. Thanks for your efforts to educate young people.”
“I just listened to it. The piece is great – so much more interesting and well done than I thought it would be. I imagine everything about doing this story may have been hard; nice job.”