06/16/2010 10:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Individual Accountability "Fail"

We live in a society where there is little accountability for individual decisions that are made in a group enterprise. This article is by an aggrieved victim who actually won compensation in a court of law. However, the damages were paid by a famous upscale enterprise and there was no individual accountability for fraud. Quote:

But over those same two decades I've grown disgusted by what corporate America has become. Several words come to mind: venal, corrupt, conniving, irresponsible, unaccountable, amoral. All are accurate, but none alone captures the extent of decay that has left us with a truly rotten system.

Corporations have mutated from organizations that once generated jobs, products and prosperity for the country into voracious, impenetrable monsters legally required to put their own selfish interests first. The result: Corporations now enjoy powers and privileges historically reserved for monarchs, and, like monarchs, the people who run them are largely insulated from the consequences of their actions.

Even in many of our psychological theories we discount the responsibility of individuals by saying that their brains tricked them. Note this post by James Kwak in which he rebuts a NYT piece which lays primary blame for our crisis (plural) on irrationality in decision processes. That irrationality is there and should be studied and mitigated, but it does not replace the moral dimensions or consequences of actions.

The problem isn't that people have cognitive biases in assessing unlikely events. When you're dealing with a big company like Citigroup or BP, you have many people applying lots of clever thinking to these problems. The problem is that there is a systematic bias within these companies against certain assessments and in favor of others. That is, the guy who shouts, "Danger! Danger!" will be ignored (or fired), and the guy who says, "Everything's fine, the model says disaster can strike only happen once every hundred million years" will get the promotion -- because the people in charge make more money listening to the latter guy. This is why banks don't accidentally hold too much capital. It's why oil companies don't accidentally take too many safety precautions. The mistakes only go one way. You have executives assessing complex situations they don't even begin to grasp and making the decisions that maximize their corporate and personal profits. (Is BP's CEO going to give back years of bonuses now?)

So to the question of sin. Religion has always dwelt on these topics the most and sometimes very well. But one man's sin is another man's folly and another man's license. The elementary rule may be summed up in many faiths or no faith. "First, do no harm." "Love your neighbor as yourself." " Do unto others..."

So what we have today are systems that transgress against society by violating these most elementary and universally held values. And we allow no individual consequence of any proportionality to the transgression. Should we be surprised with what transpires?


I believe that there are consequences to the individual and that part of the sin of management today is the promotion of unethical behavior with the mistaken belief that it is somehow harmless or that the individual actually benefits, say from higher compensation. They foster in individuals unrealistic thinking which is actually self-destructive. Such "sins" as avarice can have tragic externalities, as we have found. But the bad thinking also serves to trap the individual in preoccupations with fear and fantasy. Fantasy about the future, fear of losing it. Fear of being found out. Fantasy about successes, defined by metrics which may mean nothing, and are often falsified, which support false self concepts. In these mental preoccupations we cannot truly be in harmony with ourselves or others. This is the shortest of all sermons. But our corporate systems do harm in the most profound ways and there is no escaping it.

That is part of why I write. I write to give voice to the suffering of employees everywhere who long to be free to do the right thing. I support restoring consequences for actions as a way to help people "wake up" and ultimately claim their freedom.