The National Catholic Review

As Jesus says, "What goes around, comes around."  Or at least he should have said it.

Here's something that has just about knocked me over in the past few days.  A few years ago, I wrote a brief memoir called In Good Company, which told the story of a move from the corporate world of General Electric to the Jesuits.  I left GE in 1988 for the Jesuit novitiate, after having worked in their New York City and Stamford (Ct.) offices for six years.  In passing, in some of the early chapters, I took aim at some seriously shady accounting that GE used to do (or asked me to do, at least in one of the divisions I worked in early on).  Now bear with me.  A few days ago the SEC socked GE with a $50 million fine for precisely those accounting practices.  In any event, The New York Times business columnist Floyd Norris must have an amazing memory, since he recalled that the Enron-like practices that the SEC had uncovered were just the unethical things that I had mentioned in my book.  So his column today (Friday) takes the book as a jumping-off point.  Here's Norris:

'Another view of G.E.’s accounting standards emerged a few years ago in a book written by a man who worked there for six years in the early 1980s, before concluding the corporate life was not for him and entering a seminary. James Martin may be the only Jesuit priest with a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. [Hm. I doubt that.] “The primary task of my first job was to issue very long, monthly statistical reports,” he wrote in his book, “In Good Company: The Fast Track From the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.” “The first month,” he recalled, “I informed one executive that our results were coming in low” because of losses in overseas operations.  “So what?” replied the executive. “Just reverse a few journal entries.” Corporate headquarters, he explained, would come down hard on them if they missed the numbers. Another boss told him he was “taking those accounting courses way too seriously.”  The S.E.C. complaint makes it sound as if those days came back, assuming they ever left. It tells of corporate accountants discovering misstatements and secret side deals, and of more senior executives telling them to sign off on the books anyway. It outlines four separate violations, two of which it says descended to the level of fraud.'

But the best bit comes at the end, when Norris asks GE for comment...

'Ms. Eisele, the G.E. spokeswoman, declined to comment on Father Martin’s book.  Much has changed at G.E. since Father Martin was hired. The long paper spreadsheets that he used have been replaced by computers. Some of the financial instruments involved in G.E.’s hedge accounting violations had not been invented.  But some things, it appears, never change.'

You know, in the early 80s when that manager told me to cut that ethical corner, I felt powerless to say "no."  (A better man would have realized that he did have the power to resist.)  It's sometimes hard to do the right thing at work, especially when you're young and senior manager is standing over you, literally.  I can still remember how much I wanted to resist (looking back, I can see this as the voice of conscience) and even more, I can still, vividly, remember feeling less of a person for going along with his orders, and how those moments seemed to shrink my soul.  Anyway, it's somewhat gratifying to see that the truth is eventually revealed, and that, as Jesus says in Luke, what is "whispered in private rooms will be shouted from the housetops"--even if it takes 27 years.   

James Martin, SJ

Comments

Anonymous | 8/11/2009 - 5:37pm
 
My mother tells a story about a time when my father quit his job rather than condone some accounting tricks being advanced by management. At the time he had a mortgage and four kids under ten years of age. Over the years, I've looked for clues among his posessions to understand what shaped his character, and have come to appreciate one book in particular: Liberty its Use and Abuse, By Ignatious Cox, SJ
Anonymous | 8/7/2009 - 5:27pm

I had a long corporate career that ended in 2007, one that I largely got to do with my conscience intact... Notice i say largely and not completely. Reading this post today really hits me because I spent some time talking to my 13-year-old stepdaughter, who recently had her First Eucharist. We were speaking of the importance of what might appear to be "small sins" - cutting corners, what seem like small lies, "adjustments" and so forth.
The problem with the corporate world in general (and I do emphasize the in general part although one wonders) is that the "small" lies and adjustments are just fallen boundaries that make the bigger ones come more easily.
It is very sad to me.
There is the other element of the pervasive nature of GE culture in the business world. What was happening - in ways both good and bad - while you were there, became the model and template for the corporate world. When I saw that particular handwriting on the wall, I knew my own days were numbered.
And they were.
For the record, this former SVP is today a parish secretary, blogger and grad student in theology. And much more aware, due to many changes in scenery, of all the tiny little lies and cut corneres that were once part of the world I worked in.

Anonymous | 8/7/2009 - 12:38am
You have encouraged me today.  
Thank you, and God bless and keep you.