UNETHICAL BEHAVIOR BY A STAR EMPLOYEE
It had been another long and sleepless night, not at all what Robbie expected when he became chief executive officer of the bank two years ago. His wife, Beth, had noticed that something seemed to be bothering him. “What is it, honey?”
“I was thinking about how good life was a couple of years ago,” Robbie answered. “I was the CEO of a small, local, financial institution with seven offices and about fifty employees. Assets were less than $500 million. The challenging operational systems, such as asset/liability management and information technology, were outsourced to another bank. The truth of the matter was I didn’t have to work too hard and there were few difficult decisions. I had plenty of time to promote myself as the successor to the retiring CEO of the much larger bank that provided the support systems to my old bank. You know what I mean, Beth. You used to be a banker.”
Now Robbie was the CEO of a bank with operations in more than twelve states, 1,000 locations and more than 4,500 employees. Only 300 of these employees were at the main office. Assets were in excess of $10 billion and growing rapidly. Robbie was responsible for a highly complex environment he really didn’t know much about. The support of the bank’s two executive vice presidents, especially Mark, was what saved him from bad decisions, and, at the same time, caused him sleepless nights.
A Difficult Key Employee
Mark had been one of the finalists to replace the retiring CEO, having worked his way up in the financial and lending areas of the bank. Everyone agreed that his intellectual abilities were strong, as was his vision for the future direction of the bank. Mark was also strong willed and determined to implement his vision no matter what the obstacles. He had been the dominant manager in the bank before Robbie arrived, and continued in this role after Robbie was hired.
“Why do you think Mark wasn’t selected for the top job?” Beth asked. Robbie believed Mark’s biggest problem was a total absence of tact combined with a volatile temper. Mark was fond of telling people how stupid they were when he was irate about something. Worse, Mark didn’t distinguish between clerical employees, managers, customers or even members of the board of directors.
In addition, there was Liz, Sarah, Leslie and possibly others. Mark had sexual relationships with these employees and didn’t trouble himself to attempt to be discreet. The affairs were carried out during work hours, at bank functions and while traveling extensively throughout the country at bank expense. The total cost was easily in excess of six figures, all of which hit the bank’s income statement as legitimate bank expenses.
Worse, these three employees were so inept at their assigned responsibilities that it was clear they were being retained for sexual favors. This brought the total cost up to more than $250,000 per year.
Liz was a high school graduate who had worked as a secretary at a small law firm before coming to work at the bank. She was married to a plumber, lived in a small town not too far from the main office of the bank, and hadn’t been exposed to extensive travel or expensive hotels and meals. Her sexual relationship with Mark didn’t take long to develop and it had continued for at least six years.
Liz’s life at the bank was excellent. She was deeply feared because of her relationship with Mark, and was frequently rude to other employees and managers at all levels. Liz had told Robbie off twice since he became CEO, and neither experience had been pleasant. She went to conferences throughout the country with Mark, which were designed for financial executives, not secretaries. Liz spent her time shopping rather than attending the programs, anyway, though. She was included in the bank’s senior management bonus program, the only clerical employee on the list, over the protests of many other managers. During the bank’s internal education programs, which were usually held at resort locations, Liz was often at the pool, where she was easily seen by other employees on their way to attend training sessions.
Liz steadily progressed up the management ladder despite many grim exit interviews with her former employees, who complained about the way they had been treated. Not only was she extremely unpleasant to work for, she also lacked even basic knowledge about the functional activities she managed. She reported directly to Mark, who approved her travel plans and expenses as legitimate bank expenses.
Robbie shook his head and told Beth, “Liz is a real management problem and an excellent example of fraudulent use of bank funds. I really don’t know what to do about her.”
“And what about Sarah?” Beth asked. Sarah was employed as a senior financial manager at the bank. She met Mark at conferences out of town when Liz wasn’t able to attend.
“Beth, let me tell you about a couple of situations involving Mark and Sarah. During a small break-out session at one conference, Sarah and Mark sat in the back of the room and talked about how drunk they had been when they were together the night before. The conversation was easily heard by everyone in the room. At another conference, Mark told the person in charge of the meeting he had to leave for the bank’s main office immediately due to an emergency. Within a minute, Sarah told the same person she had an office emergency and would be working in her hotel room for the afternoon. When the training class took a break several hours later and moved outside to enjoy the beautiful weather, the hotel valet was just delivering Mark’s car to him. Mark laughed and said he had waited more than two hours for the valet to retrieve his car from the hotel garage. The employees who heard the explanation weren’t nearly as stupid as Mark thought they were. Can you imagine this happening at the old bank, Beth?”
And then there was Leslie. She was the bank’s most senior female officer. She had previously had sexual relationships with both Mark and William, the bank’s other executive vice president, and was thus “double-protected.” She reported to William and managed the bank’s public relations area. Robbie had received many complaints about Leslie’s work, even from the bank’s customers. Leslie also had a habit of failing to complete performance appraisals on time or authorize the salary increases that went with the reviews. She was often more than a year late with these and her employees had reached the point of mutiny. The salary increases were so far overdue the employees’ retirement contributions and 401(k) matches were understated. This control weakness had been reported to the audit committee twice, and each time Robbie told them the problem had been corrected. He knew it continued to exist, but holding Leslie accountable would mean conflict with both Mark and William. Still, one of Leslie’s employees had written a letter of complaint to one of the bank’s directors and it could prove troublesome.
“I don’t know how much longer I can cover for her, Beth.”
“That sounds like a real mess, Robbie.”
Robbie started thinking about the general auditor, who had been with the bank for nearly ten years. The auditor had received nothing but praise from the retiring CEO, the external auditors and the regulators. His credibility and stature with the audit committee and the board of directors were excellent.
The auditor, Fred, had talked with Robbie twice about the use of bank resources to facilitate Mark’s sexual relationships. Fred pointed to bank regulations, the Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act, the bank’s internal policies and employee perceptions as support for preventing the use of bank funds to pay for sexual relationships. He also commented at length on the use of promotions as rewards for Liz, Sarah and Leslie in spite of their well-known lack of qualifications and ability. The bank’s clerical employees and managers believed the only reason these three employees remained employed was to provide sexual favors and companionship during business travel. Fred concluded the meeting by saying, “There isn’t any gray area on this one Robbie. Using bank funds and resources in this manner is plain old fraud.”
The human resources director was also highly regarded by the bank’s board. Sam had talked with Robbie on several occasions regarding complaints about the sexual relationships and the exceedingly favorable treatment extended to Liz, Sarah and Leslie. It was clear to other female employees the surest way to win a promotion wasn’t through excellent job performance; it was through sex–if you were relatively young and attractive. “I’m very concerned about the possible legal implications,” Sam told Robbie, “as well as the example being set for our employees, to say nothing of the improper use of bank funds.”
“How are you going to handle this, Robbie?” Beth asked, when he had explained it all.
“I’m not exactly sure yet. Please listen to what I’ve been thinking.”
Robbie was having sleepless nights because he knew that Fred and Sam were right on target in their assessments of the situation. But Robbie also knew Mark would most likely seek other employment if questioned about his relationships, and without Mark, Robbie’s days as CEO might be numbered. Only Mark was capable of managing the bank to the earnings records that had been achieved recently. Mark had also been able to convince the board to greatly increase salaries and bonuses for the CEO and two executive vice presidents.
Mark and William were close personal friends and Robbie had talked with William about the situation. William reinforced Robbie’s conclusion that Mark would leave the bank if approached about his relationships and agreed the bank’s financial results would not be nearly as strong without Mark. “Robbie, Mark’s ego is too strong to be dragged through the mud over these women. He’d leave for sure,” William said.
Robbie told William that he had decided to ignore Mark’s “personal behavior” and hope that it would soon be forgotten.
Several months later, William’s new girlfriend, also an employee at the bank, received a very poor performance appraisal. Susie was in danger of being terminated soon unless her performance improved dramatically. William quickly transferred his secretary to another area and put Susie in the position. Her new office was a few feet from Robbie’s office and he noticed she only worked about 20 hours per week rather than full-time. Although the bank did not allow children of employees in the building, Susie’s three children were in her office when she was there. She used a couple of other bank employees to help her kids with their schoolwork, and Susie spent most of her time planning field trips and working on other school functions.
Susie and William took two hour lunch breaks together every day and traveled together frequently. At company functions, they ate food from each other’s plates in front of bank employees. Susie wielded power in William’s name and became feared.
William and Susie worked late often. An hour or so after the bank closed, they would leave the bank together and get in William’s car. A couple of hours later, the car would return to the bank, Susie would get out and head for home in her own car. The bank’s second shift of security personnel enjoyed watching this on their cameras and it became widely known through the bank’s grapevine.
Since Robbie had seemingly condoned Mark’s behavior, it appeared that William thought he had permission to become completely indiscreet about Susie. Now more trouble was on the horizon.
Fred, the auditor, and Sam, the HR director, had agreed to give Robbie time to end bank funding for the relationships. Robbie had talked with each of them twice about Mark’s importance to the bank, and he asked for their patience to give him time to straighten things out. He promised Fred and Sam they would see changes over time implemented in such a way that no one would lose face. He did change Liz’s reporting relationship away from Mark to the chief financial officer. But that was the only change he had made after several months.
Fred and Sam had talked with him again, but Robbie was firm in his decision. “I don’t plan any further corrective action because I fear losing Mark. The risk of losing a star performer is too great, especially since it’s simply based on personal indiscretions.” Both Fred and Sam were asked to cover up the situations with Mark and William for the good of the bank and to ignore the regulatory, legal and policy violations. Robbie had closed the meeting by saying he was confidant things would work out for the best, and he appreciated their support.
When Beth heard the entire sorry tale, she was worried. “Robbie, we’re in trouble, aren’t we?”
In your discussion comment on the following:
Is Mark’s behavior unethical or fraudulent?
Should Mark be terminated?
Should Leslie be terminated?
What is your opinion in regard to how Robbie handled this situation?