Recently a fired employee at my university, UT-Austin, was arrested and charged with six counts of tampering with government records (his time sheets) as law enforcement officials investigated him for fraud. It appears that Jason Shoumaker often claimed pay for hours worked in his job as a facilities director at the University of Texas School of Law when he was actually in Las Vegas, Florida, Cozumel, and other places outside the State of Texas. Co-workers knew that Shoumaker was not showing up at work, even as he claimed that he was.
For those of us in the ethics biz, there’s a lot to think about in this scenario. Assuming the allegations reported in the media so far are true (and they may not be), why did Shoumaker do it? Is he a psychopath who just doesn’t care about society’s rules? It’s possible, but not likely as only 1-2% of people are psychopaths. Did he have a gambling and/or alcohol addiction? Given the location of some of his outings and the alcohol he charged to his credit cards when he claimed to be working in Austin, this sounds like a credible explanation. Studies show that employees with a drug addiction are 80 times as likely to be involved in workplace fraud as employees with no such addiction.
Alternatively, Shoumaker might have been subject to a combination of the social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and/or situational factors that often lead good people to do bad things (and that are subjects of many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos). Shoumaker almost certainly used rationalizations in order to give himself permission to engage in the wrongdoing and yet still think of himself as a relatively good person. Perhaps he used the metaphor of the ledger, telling himself that he was underpaid or overworked or both, and therefore deserved these “perks” he took. (Check out our “In It to Win” short video on Jack Abramoff’s rationalizations.)
However, for current purposes I wish to focus on Shoumaker’s fellow employees. There are insufficient details reported in the media to be certain, but it appears that employees noticed Shoumaker’s dereliction of duty and chronic absenteeism at least a year before the school put a stop to his frolic. For at least a while, co-employees covered for Shoumaker by doing his job for him, probably not realizing how serious his derelictions were. Fortunately, eventually there were a string of internal complaints that finally led to Shoumaker’s downfall.
Co-employees seeing something and saying something is so critical to fraud prevention. Most frauds are not detected by auditors or by law enforcement. They are most likely to be detected by co-workers, but how do we encourage them to speak up? Most of us find it far easier to avoid wrongdoing ourselves than to report wrongdoing by others. There are many ways that organizations can make it easier rather than harder for employees to speak up when they see wrongdoing. But I want to focus on the employees themselves and struggles they may go through when torn between speaking out and staying silent.
A key concept here is moral muteness. This occurs when people are reluctant to speak up for their moral values or to act on them. A classic example may have occurred, for at least a time, in the Shoumaker case. Other employees may have known of Shoumaker’s wrongdoing, but not wanted to cause conflict with a co-employee. Or perhaps they felt that it wasn’t their responsibility. Or perhaps they didn’t want to be labeled as a whistleblower (or, perhaps, some other, more opprobrious term). Or perhaps they rationalized that UT was really to blame if it wasn’t policing Shoumaker adequately.
I take the view that when one employee learns of wrongdoing by another, it is part of the former’s responsibility and duty to the employer to blow the whistle on the wrongdoer. As an employee, one owes a fiduciary duty to his or her firm and a duty not to look the other way while embezzlement, employee theft, insider trading, and other forms of fraudulent activity occur.
Behavioral ethics has a lot to contribute to this discussion. Mary Gentile, a contributor to Ethics Unwrapped and now a professor at the University of Virginia, has written an influential book entitled Giving Voice to Values that teaches people how to speak up in order to act on their values in an effective manner. These videos could definitely help someone who knows that he or she should blow the whistle on wrongdoing take first steps toward doing so. Our four-part video series “Being Your Best Self” also contains some important tips for living up to your own values in a variety of settings.
Vikas Anand et al., “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” 18 Academy of Management Perspectives (2004).
Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (2012).
Ralph K.M. Haurwitz & Mary Huber, Fired UT Employee Arrested, Austin-American Statesman, May 5, 2018.
Melanie Miller et al., Hand in the Pot Cookie Jar: Does Employee Substance Abuse Predict Fraud (March 26, 2018), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3147938.
Jay Root & Shannon Najmabadi, Former University of Texas law school official arrested as part of ongoing fraud investigation, Texas Tribune, available at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/05/04/former-ut-austin-director-arrested-part-ongoing-fraud-investigation/.