IT Employment

Career-harming scandals: Why do smart people do such dumb things?

Career-ending scandals, sexual and otherwise, seem to be everywhere these days. Why do intelligent people shoot themselves in the foot so often?

As the year is winding down with a brand new sex scandal in the news, it's forced me to take a look at why these things keep happening. I know that some people are just depraved, or act that way sometimes. I know that some people have egos that can't be punctured. What I don't get is how an otherwise intelligent person does disgraceful things without understanding the possible fallout.

(If you thought that the tech sector was above and beyond any kind of headline-grabbing scandals, you would be wrong. Even before the bizarre McAfee deal, there were so many that they had to be narrowed down into a top ten list.)

Unfortunately, whatever sector a scandal falls in, one thing is shared: They involve moral corruption, arrogance, or head-slapping cluelessness. And in some of the more entertaining scandals, all three of these play a role. Take, for example, number ten in the top ten list above: The former CEO of IT services company Savvis, Robert McCormick, got busted in 2005 after he and several associates rang up a $241,000 tab on the company American Express card during a single visit to a topless bar in New York. (McCormick disputed the charges, saying that they were all bogus except for $20,000. Like $20,000 is understandable.) The New York Daily News dubbed him "The Lap Dunce," a phrase I cannot wait to use in conversation, by the way.

I'm not sure that the moral corruption that plays a part in scandals can be "treated." I'm sure some of you may argue stringently otherwise. And, in my opinion, arrogance can only be cured with a tremendous fall from grace.

But, like I said, I just don't understand how people like Mark Hurd, former CEO of HP, who is featured in the top ten list twice, can be so intelligent on one hand and so clueless on the other. Perhaps arrogance and good judgment can't co-exist?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

87 comments
Dr. Leonard
Dr. Leonard

Responding to my post about "Natural Law, " Zenith545 wrote, "What about cultures where polygamy is normal for them?? Did they not get the 'built-in'??" Cultural customs are not the same as natural law. Obviously, whole cultures can violate natural law in some ways, but maybe not in every way. In a culture that tolerates polygamy, for example, stealing someone's wife might still be considered a "built-in" wrong. It was a polygamous culture that transmitted to us the Ten Commandments, which forbid coveting another man's wife. And before we judge such cultures, ask what are the status or prospects for an unattached woman in a society where her opportunities to support herself by employment are nonexistent, and where the number of available husbands has been greatly reduced by warfare. In such a society, being one of several wives of the same man might be the woman's only hope of a secure livelihood (other than becoming a prostitute, perhaps).

Zenith545
Zenith545

Many companies and this country are being run by people others see as, intelligent, clever, witty and knowledgeable. All the while many of them show they are apathetic to other's concerns, they lack common sense and lack firm moral convictions or a sense of appropriateness. That, in my humble opinion, is not "smart".

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

In a world where fewer and fewer have integrity, there are those lacking integrity who encounter a lack of accountability.

dr_dev_das
dr_dev_das

We settle for our wives and girlfriends and when a more attractive personality presents itself and if both parties take the next step, we try to look the other way. The problem is that when both men and women work in close proximity, there is bound to be issues. Problems occur when either parties are looking for a way to get ahead or are disappointed with turn of events. It is probably more appropriate if corporations have a simple policy - if you are having an affair, the senior of the two must quit or get fired if not disclosed immediately (within 5 days), else, we should all look the other way.

vgrandja
vgrandja

It is true and more than a phrase: "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." The profiteers don't care how they get it because money is the most important thing.

Philogos
Philogos

Whatever airs we may give ourselves, we are a social animal that organises its bands by suppressing testosterone production in subordinates and stimulating it in dominant males. That feeling of being superhuman is the root of most of our banking scandals, corporate hubris and, almost as a by-product, sexual indiscretions. No amount of corporate governance is going to make this system of winners and losers buck human nature and suddenly become saintly. Perhaps what we need is a return to the medieval system of court jesters licenced to stop the top guy from getting big headed and thinking with his dick.

schmidtd
schmidtd

Funny thing about these kinds of scandals, I wonder how much impact the affairs had on the family vs. how much impact the media coverage had on the family. Take Hillary Clinton, I would guess that if faithfulness was her #1 priority, she would have dumped Billy years ago. Also, they seem to still have a good relationship considering. It makes you then wonder, which is worse for her, an affair she suspects or having her face rubbed in it by the media. But of course I guess that was Bills real sin, exposing their family to criticism by the media. And you cant hold the media responsible, after all, they are just responding to basic human urges.

jperick.mbei
jperick.mbei

Toni, Good and timely question. However, I am rather puzzled that you are bringing this up. Of course, whenever an important personality collapses, it seems justified to wonder why. And some--like you, would go farther and ask why do such "smart" or "intelligent people make such gross mistakes? I think that we ought to be careful. Neither intelligence nor smartness are synonymous of wisdom. A 20th Century philosopher (I hope I am correct) tells us that wisdom is "prudence" AKA caution in "business." Business, taken contextually, could mean life's matters, or life situations. Additionally, from a Scriptures point of view, humans, though very rational, are by nature prone to miserable "failure". By failure--in t his context, I mean mistakes, or missteps. If you have the Bible, please read Romans 7:14. pay close attention to 15-24. I remember, as a high school student, Late Pope John Paul II was visiting France. During a meeting, one journalist asked him how could he explain the fact that man, supposed to be so rational, always behaves irrationally. Pope John Paul II used this powerful section of the Scriptures to support his answer. The Bottom line is this: Neither the "intelligent" person who makes such "stupid" mistakes, nor I, or you, truly "understand" our "own actions." Interestingly, we only see light after we have screwed up miserably. Lastly, if sin ever hurt while we engaged in it, I could posit that none would be a sinner, at lest not a repeat. And the world would be full of saints. Just my humble opinion and I could be bloody wrong. Jean-Pierre

gorman.mi
gorman.mi

It is interesting to note that conferred power, increased responsibility so-often creates extreme Arrogance, and subversive tendencies-depending on the individual concerned. I recall a friend who rose to a position of great financial power for a religious organization, he was found out embezzling money and abusing his position of trust-possibly a reaction to lost faith... In any case this 250 grand tab, what a waste of resources that is-it would purchase a decent home for a homeless person, or train someone to make a living-instead just pissed against the porcelain and financed some cheap thrills (not so cheap) what a failure of imagination-at least he could have done something original with the loot!

terry.floyd
terry.floyd

What disturbs me most about the Petraeus scandal is that the chief of the nation's Central Intelligence Agency didn't even have the minimal amount of basic "intelligence" to understand or use common encryption techniques. There's no excuse for that. Spies should know how to encrypt their communications, and the boss of the spies should be smarter than your average code monkey who routinely encrypts all his/her email, regardless of its nature (mundane server log reports or confidential security studies). Clearly, someone that stupid was not qualified to run the CIA, much less command the armed forces of the United States.

Duke E Love
Duke E Love

Years of working the restaurant business left me with this simple adage. Don't stick your (insert favorite euphemism here) where you bake your bread.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

Why would an expert in people like Toni not know the answer to this question? Because psychology refuses to use all the data developed by non-psychologists on the mind and how people work. Start with Dianetics and go from there. There are about 15 other books to read and hundreds of hours of lectures that can be listened to. And yes, these things can be treated, and we're working on that.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Sex scandals the mainstream media are trumpeting about are NEVER about sex. They are ALWAYS about something else. Dominique Strauss-Kahn never touch that hotel maid, and even if he did, his is above the law anyway. It was some sort of power politics. Petraeus affair is not about sex either. As far as I was able to piece together from alternative media, it has something to do with the attack on US consulate in Libya. Looks like somebody is trying to silence him, or something.

mjc5
mjc5

The interesting thing about moral outrage is that it takes two groups to have it. People seem to enjoy being outraged. The outrage the author feels at the fellow who spent money at a stripper bar is an interesting example. But! But there are countries that feel identical outrage at teaching a woman to read, or a woman appearing in public without her face covered. Or showing someone the bottom of your feet. The point is, that the outrage is just something that we do. The amount of outrage you let yourself feel is the amount of outrage you are going to feel. It's just part of the human condition. I defy the author to tell us she didn't enjoy writing this article. In my own personal experience, I've had relatives who collected scandals like a hobby. "Oh, that trampy neighbor was out getting the mail in her nightgown the other day - Isn't that awful?" They knew every affair, every drunk passing out at the bar, every single woman who became pregnant, and anything else that was risque' or otherwise scandalous. And they smiled as they expressed their outrage. Scandals? Moral lapses? We wouldn't have it any other way.

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

Really. Have none of you read "Moral Mazes" by Robert Jackall -- that what is right and ethical is what those above you expect of you (leave your ethics at home / church and have at every damned thing you can imagine). Have none of you read "The Management Trap" by Dr. Chis Argyris -- don't you know that lying absolutely IS Executive Ability. Have you not read "Snakes in Suits: When Psycopaths Go to Work". Have you not watched the video "The Corporation" where Dr. Robert Hare is caught on camera saying that Corporations as psychopaths. C'mon, we know what's at stake: Greed and fulfillment of lust. It's just business -- get over it. All managers these days are expected to conduct themselves in a way which is devoid of any sort of morality for the sake of the business. Hey, look at former President Clinton: Can't argue with success in the Rose Garden. Corporations, Government, Church Corporations, Academia need more leaders like that. It's just the way of the world. On the other hand, there is one ethic amidst the "End Justifies the Means" to which even top management must adhere: Don't get caught. That is why there are endless meaningless diversity classes by HR: To avoid lawsuits -- the outflow of money is a back breaker. But other than that, anything goes: It's sort of the "Psychopath by Day" scenario where a CEO can lie, cheat, steal, murder, pollute and do all sorts of nefarious things and then go home and be a wonderful husband, father, community leader and recycle. Those of us who are technologists, though, should be of a higher standard. We're not smarmy sleazes standing around gossiping at the water cooler. We're in this Universe on a mission to learn the secrets of said Universe to create witty inventions, ever expanding our tools for the good of humanity. It is our job to work around these rotten evil wicked management forces of nature to bring goods and services to the masses in spite of the chaos rendered by budget busting prodigal empty headed extremely attractive twits running things. And yes, the two managers controlling everything in IT are still married to each other, violating the law against conflict of interest, wasting millions of dollars each year on each other for egos' sake with full support of elected officials and HR because top management perceives them to be vital to the operations of the County which could not possibly do without them for the NEXT 20 years. It's the technologist underlings that do the work and will continue to do so until they too are RIFfed due to budget constraints in order to retain the 12 new managers the IT Director hired this year. Any questions?

tony_ia
tony_ia

Maybe their career isn't the most important thing in their life (or at least it didn't seem like it at the time).

Zorched
Zorched

...that they've reached a level of power and influence where they no longer have to play by the same rules the regular rabble does. They believe that they're untouchable. It's the lure of power and money that permeates our society: If you're rich enough you can do ANYTHING you want. To a certain point this is true because the rich can buy off the government. The only way to neuter this mindset is to take the influence of money out of the democratic process. Being that our representatives are just as greedy as the the people paying them off, that's unlikely to happen without a serious house-cleaning and a few constitutional amendments. I'm afraid that the Sheeple are too infatuated with said money and power to want it to change until things get really, really bad.

maj37
maj37

Maturity is achieved when a person postpones immediate pleasures for long term values. ~Joshua L. Liebman Unfortunately much of our society follows the hedonistic philosophy that only their own pleasure matters.

Dr. Leonard
Dr. Leonard

C-3PO wrote, "The only way to cure this is to have a fixed view of what is right and wrong - but then how do we do this without an external view to define that right and wrong (AKA religion and God)." I disagree -- not because I think God should be out of the picture, but because of the concept of "natural law" that is applicable to all, regardless of their religion or culture. This concept goes back to the Greek philosophers and, perhaps, before. Reality itself -- the nature of the physical universe -- establishes a framework for human conduct, and enforces this framework by enacting the consequences of disregarding it. You don't have to believe in God, for example, to recognize that it's wrong for someone to steal from you. Basic virtues such as honesty, fidelity and generosity are built into the structure of human life. So the moral infractions mentioned in the article are infractions not because they violate some religious standard, but because they violate the "natural law" inherent in the way people are made.

zorba0@yahoo.com
zorba0@yahoo.com

When you referring to top-level managment, they lose their way when those leaders get catered to so often and then arrogance creeps in in addition to becoming associated with individuals that don't have high moral standards which will lower that person's standards after a period of time. But not withstanding CEO, CIO etc positions, what about middle managers and lower positions. I think the big culprit is the stress level on individuals over time that lowers their abilities to think clearly and to prevail against temptations that would compromise their integrity.

cab
cab

The only thing that has changed in hundreds of years is we now have too many over zealous media judges who use 'scandal' to sell their merchandise. Of course it gets extra nasty if the 'accused' is on the opposite side of the political arena. If a wife/husband was damaged in a civil way, there are lawyers and judges to handle such situations. If an actual law was broken, we have police and prosecutors. What we need is the media to report the news, not turn 'yet another' example of imperfect human beings into a big sensation because of star appeal. If we had judged our Civil War or WWI or WW2 or cold war generals by the so-called standards of today's media, we probably would have lost some or all of them.

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

The thing is that the comments here show in most cases that either people who wrote them would like to become priests or COEs who splash out money and spend their time in bars,pubs and whorehouses. I don't see any view that tell me it is good to balance some ideas and be normal simply. Few people try to be normal which means that it is nothing wrong with sleeping with as many women as you wish, nothing wrong with cheating on a woman who cheated on you or even sleep with a maid because your wife doesn't suit your needs any more and she doesn't want to give you a divorce. This perfection in either of the mentioned ways is bad and the effect will be negative to a company you're running. You can't be a priest and you can't be a pimp, you can't show dictatorship behavior towards employees and you can't treat them too soft because in the end they would screw around and get lazy. You can't cause frauds at your company as a CEO but you must be smart enough at the same time to use the law in a legal way that makes some additional profit for your company. This is view (and this article, I think) is based on morality and there is no maximum morality (something like 100% morality) and minimum morality. We are always somewhere between these two points and it is the best when CEOs behaviour is in the middle, and that makes a good CEO.

mark305
mark305

Depsite their intelligence or success we are just human beings and human beings make mistakes.

viggenboy
viggenboy

but this year especially it seems to be a fresh scandal every month. If career priests can't even keep their wieners in their pants, what hope have dodgy CEO's got; and it's not just sex: The impropriety that "God's chosen ones" seem able to show with regard to other people's money regularly leaves us open mouthed too.

rpocciax12
rpocciax12

People do the math if he has a group of people , he is in a strip bar. the bill could be 20k. I do not know when you last visited one but they are usually 10 dollars for a beer, mixed more expensive. private lap dances 30 bucks for a song. plus additional tips. That added to the fact that they were most likely there 5 or 6 hours. I noticed no one even mentioned 1. why is his company allowing this. I know if i took a company card and did this i would most likely be fired. Most companies would ok a real restraunt if you wanted to . 2. who has a 200k limit on their credit card. don't tell me it is an amex no limt etc. I know if i ran up a huge sum in an evening my credit card company would halt it due to suspicous actviity .

sarc007
sarc007

When it comes to women men do not think from their brains........

count_zero_interuptus
count_zero_interuptus

Everywhere and anywhere and to anyone. Just hope it does not come your way....

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

CEOs have a lot of arbitrary power which they should use for the benefit of their shareholders. Unfortunately, some CEOs use their arbitrary power to benefit themselves. Morality is important. If you are screwing your maid, you are probably screwing your shareholders. Shareholders do not want to wait until the CEO gets caught screwing them.

dscheypie
dscheypie

Correct. Many of us don't care too much what persons do as long as it is legal. Moral is an intellectual, indestructible ribbon: You stretch it as far as you believe you need it. Any observer does the same; judgement is injust by default because too often we do not care about the needs and beliefs of others. On the other hand: You can't do EVERYTHING here, too. Surely not. If corruption is involved, everything gets sticky and tricky. If, as mentioned above, you make it too apparent that you have something others don't but want, normally it is going to get difficult for you. Envy and a rotten kind of self esteem will keep a balance. So at least _most of the time_ people try to keep distance to other ones' private lifes... Greetz from Germany

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

the funny thing about articles like this one is that people behaviors are blocked sometimes and in the case of CEOs may lead to their bad influence on companies they run. The reason is not in the way they behaved but in the way this behavior is blocked. I'm sorry (maybe I am a bit old-fashioned in this matter) but I don't see any connection between being a good CEO and f...ing a maid after working hours at home. :)

tKahner
tKahner

... economic efficiency and the associated necessary intelligence with a moral standard. In Europe nobody gives a damn about what people do in privacy - unless it is illegal.

Zenith545
Zenith545

Don't get your honey where you make your money. :)

Zenith545
Zenith545

Ok, yeah, sure. Scientology has done so much for Tom Cruise's multiple marriages. Xenu is coming!!!!!

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

And this can work in lots of different ways. The exact reason that a person "gets caught" doing something improper or admits to it is unique to each case. But in leadership circles, it's definitely connected to the fact that people who have stuff like this to hide can be pushed around and manipulated more easily for political reasons (yes, politics exists in business, too!). In the case of upper-level executives, the reports I have read indicate that there is a certain amount of culling that takes place as one attempts to move up the ranks, and one thing being looked for these days is lax sexual morals. To the extent that this is true, we have an entire power system that has been corrupted. It is not impossible to be morally sound and also be in command. But the game has not been played that way. And there has been no human technology (psychology) capable of creating such a game, until relatively recently. On top of that we have the fact that power will always attract crime. Always. So the powerful have to be vigilant or they will, more than likely, succumb to criminal pressures. This in not a light subject. The ultimate fate of the planet depends on solving this.

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

so Mr Liebman, with all his respect, presents a very fragile point of view because you will always find people who can finish Mr Liebman's phrase like this: "Maturity is achieved when a person postpones immediate pleasures for long term values....to burs into flames in fulfilling the desires when a crucial decision must be made." (I hope you got the point.)

Zenith545
Zenith545

"Basic virtues such as honesty, fidelity and generosity are built into the structure of human life." You talking about instinct?? Where does that come from?? Saying it is not learned behavior?? What about cultures where polygamy is normal for them?? Did they not get the "built-in"??

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...will cause them to violate whatever standards that have, what kind of decisions are they making for their company?

GoobyPlz
GoobyPlz

That is exactly my tough

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Trouble is, they tend to use the two auxiliary brains, and they only have one objective.

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

I don't think you got the point in this particular case. I meant where is the connection between f...ing a maid and writing out checks for your employees (example) ? As far as morality is concerned it might pose a sort of a threat to the morality itself (well, you sleeping with a maid and you have a wife but you're married) but still where is the connection between this activity and managing a company. Is it possible that this kind of immoral behaviour may influence everyday operational activities in the company. I don't think so.

Zenith545
Zenith545

Typing part of a insulting, crass definition for sexual intercourse is the same as typing it. The connection between what the CEO did and what you did is clear. Think about it - he did it because he could, you also did it because you could. Typing the entire word may get you in trouble, but what do you think people are seeing when they read "f...ing"?? For me, its the same as typing the entire word. With thousands of words in the English language it amazes me that so many people use a small set of four letter words to describe things and feelings.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

between f...ing the maid on one's personal time and the employee during business hours? Are they not the same behavior? You think that behavior is "right"?

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

ok so let's say I slept with 15yo hot girl (with her permission) from neighbourhood and I'm 25. Is is moral or immoral? What do think?

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

I think it's hilarious as management pretends to be something they can never be: The last words I heard the IT Director say -- "I don't know what I'm doing". Incompetence combined with amoral, illegal and unethical behavior by non technologist managers playing politics loose and fast provide endless soap-opera-like scenarios fraught with drama. This exists because while you can't argue with the Universe -- just do what it wants and it will provide what you want with a tithe in entropy -- you can and management does, lie to people, convince them of their warped, twisted, distorted perceptions, make them do stuff they shouldn't have to do, all so the management can look good and make a profit on the backs of the people who do the real work -- and then declare a victory and throw parties congratulating themselves. It's hilarious, funny, knee-slapping, ROFL stuff. Too bad it's tragic and destructive to the people who have to live in the dysfunctional environments created by these psychopaths. And I am happily and merrily retired from all this and have a ball making these comments. It's sort of like the movie, "What About Bob" where the old couple is in the rowboat in the lake as the Psychologist's house blows up from the explosives he planted in order to get Bob -- a house they wanted and the Doctor bought out from under them -- as they make snide remarks about the Doctor and his house....

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

You should use someone other than the CEO's maid in your example as both the maid and employee are beholden and subject to abuse of power.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

would never look to any powerful or financially successful person for a moral compass. Screwing the wrong person and deciding if a merger will be good for the pocketbook are two unrelated matters.

Adam_12345
Adam_12345

Ask yourself some questions: Is this maid is your employee? What sort of effect it could have to your company if you sleep? (negative or positive). If positive (profitable) so where is the problem, if it is negative then there is certainly a problem. If this maid is your employee then there are always two sides to this problem. One: She might feel offended in a way that you slept with her and you didn't give her a rise or, two, if she considered this as a pleasure then there is a chance that you will stay with her on a very friendly ground and even use her for things like watching for some other employees who might steal in the warehouse and so on. There is no proof that having intimate relationships with employees has a destructive or constructive effect to a company. Sometimes it might raise the ambition or determination in achieving goals such as in production, sales etc. It depends on each of the side's attitude.

tKahner
tKahner

following the logic of the article it is a matter of selfperception as being smart or not. When smart people have to have a "higher" moral standard than the average, then is "being smart" obviously a draw-back! So the more stupid you are (for the purpose of this matter) the more you will get away with a fun and "enviable" living. We should not forget that to question other people's moral it always needs a certain amount of envy!

Zenith545
Zenith545

"we wish that we too could behave as a sociopath" Crazy, man, really crazy.....

Zenith545
Zenith545

I think if you sit on the edge of the razor, you will be split in two, thereby not being whole. :)

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...but i also see a razor edge smack-dab in the middle. If you try to sit on that edge, you will fall only one way, toward good, or toward evil. I just dreamed that up. Damn, I'm wise!

captainanalog
captainanalog

That is precisely the problem. We see these people getting away with it, but instead of rebuking their behavior we wish that we too could behave as a sociopath. Case in point: Donald Trump acts like a d##k. Instead of banishing the man from polite society we give him his own TV show so we can all watch. What a bunch of morons!

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

when they are two totally unrelated matters.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Morality is about right and wrong. I don't believe that there is such a thing as "higher" or "lower" morality, there is only one's capacity to split hairs over what is "right" versus what is "wrong" as agreed upon and documented by the majority over time. No matter what the legal age of consent is, you must first ask if the 15 year old has the capacity to make decisions about what is "right" versus what is "wrong". Oddly enough most societies would say she does not have that capacity (voting, ability to enter into contract, et-al) but would say she can consent to sex. Thus my working hypothesis is that dirty old men make laws and it is not right to have sex with an individual that can't even vote.

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