The Key Man: Fraud and Its Supporting Cast

In our last post, “Impact Investing and the Damage Done by The Key Man,” we explored Simon Clark & Will Louch’s book (The Key Man: The True Story of How the Global Elite Was Duped by a Capitalist Fairy Tale) detailing Arif Naqvi’s billion-dollar fraud in the impact investing space. A billion dollars is a lot, and much of that money went into Arif’s pocket, enabling a lavish lifestyle. That blog post focused on a simple question: “Why did he do it?” Was he a psychopath, totally unmoored morally? Or was he a normal human being who was led astray by the common influences that cause most of our white-collar crimes—incrementalism, the overconfidence bias, the self-serving bias, loss aversion, etc.?

As we read the book, we also focused on Naqvi’s employees and they receive our attention in this blog post. In reading The Key Man, we were reminded of the good work of our friends Minette Drumwright of the University of Texas Moody School of Communication and her co-author, Peggy Cunningham of Dalhousie University in Canada. They have developed two important concepts in the context of long-running sexual harassment scandals like those involving Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, R. Kelly, and Roger Ailes.

The first concept is that of networks of complicity. For a serial sexual harasser to succeed over a long period of time, there is almost always a network of subordinates who support the harasser by running interference, deflecting criticism, and perhaps even recruiting victims. In addition, others in the organization typically form networks of complacency in that they know of the harassment and while they do not actively and directly assist it, they are unwilling to report it or take other action to stop it.

The facts as reported by Clark and Louch make it clear that Arif’s long-running financial fraud was indeed enabled by both networks of complicity and networks of complacency inside his private equity fund, the Abraaj Group.

Complicity. At the top of Abraaaj were many officers who helped perpetrate, perpetuate, and cloak Arif’s fraud and thievery. They sent investors’ money to Arif’s secret bank accounts for his personal use whenever he asked. They transferred money from one account to another and then back again in order to fool auditors and investors. They falsified some documents and refused to disclose others. These were not mere flunkies. They were major officers who had generally had success in their own careers before joining Abraaj. As managing partner Sev Vettivetpillai admitted, “[i]t is people like us [the top managers] that give credibility to characters such as Arif because the investors …think we probably will not support those kinds of things.” (p. 214) These top officials were complicit in the fraud, which Arif could not have maintained without their help.

Complacency. Eventually, many employees in the rank-and-file of Abraaj came to know about some of the many irregularities going on. Thank goodness, a few whistleblowers acted, some contacting Clark and Louch, facilitating their investigation that culminated in The Key Man. However, these whistleblowers were greatly outnumbered by employees who knew of the fraud, but did nothing.

So, as always at Ethics Unwrapped, our focus is on the “why.” Why did so many employees form these networks of complicity and of complacency, enabling a billion-dollar fraud?

Obedience to Authority. We are all wired to be obedient to authority. The pleasure centers of our brains light up when we please people in authority. Even CFOs of corporations will act unethically to benefit their CEOs in situations where they would not act to benefit themselves. The book quotes several employees who observe that–as with Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos and Adam Neumann at WeWork–through emotional manipulation, bribery, and intimidation, Arif managed to create a cult-like atmosphere with himself as the unquestioned leader at the center of the cult. Employees strove to please him not only at their jobs, but also in the social events he sponsored which often involved much heavy drinking and sexual activity. For employees, “Abraaj was a cult, not a company, and Arif was their god.” (p. 105) Arif “was by turns charismatic, frightening, inspiring, jealous, and manipulative. Enthralled employees listened to him talk for hours about their grand purpose in the global economy.” (p. 106)

Enthralled employees are more likely to be complicit and/or complacent than to rock the boat or challenge the cult leader.

Conformity Bias. People also generally derive guidance as to what to wear, what to eat, what music to listen to, and how to act in the workplace from those around them. Numerous studies show that workers are more likely to act ethically if most of their co-employees are doing the same and more likely to act unethically if they move to a different unit of the company where doing the right thing is not valued. Arif urged employees to socialize together to tighten bonds, and the pressure to drink large amounts and to engage in sexual activity overwhelmed some of them. (p. 111) If the bulk of your co-workers seem fine with the unusual activities in the company, you may choose to be fine with it also.

Self-serving Bias. Human have also evolved to generally act in their own best interests. What is best for us, often seems to us to be what is best. Arif lavishly compensated those at the top of the organizational chart in Abraaj (p. 131), some of whom, following Arif’s lead, became preoccupied with their own personal enrichment. (p. 95) Even those at the bottom of the pyramid naturally wanted to keep their jobs. Arif’s modus operandi was to reward employees who complied with his demands with promotions and bonuses. (p. 105) The main objective of working at Abraaj “seemed to be pleasing Arif and getting paid a bonus.” (p. 107) “Employees tried hard to please Arif because that was the surest route to promotion and higher pay.” (p. 112)

Role Morality. We all play different roles as we go through life—parent, spouse, neighbor, loyal employee, etc. While some people succeed in following their own moral compass no matter what role they are playing, many people jettison their personal moral compass when playing certain roles, such as that of loyal employee. In pleading guilty to fraud charges, Mustafa Abdel-Wadood admitted to the court that he had made many false statements to investors and had lent credibility to Arif’s fraud. He said: “I knew at the time that I was participating in conduct that was wrong. When things turned bad in 2014, I should have walked away. I considered it, but didn’t. My commitment to Abraaj compromised the integrity of my judgment, and I ended up drifting from who I really am.” (p. 282). Many Abraaj employees were proud to join Abraaj and to work for a company that they believed was doing good in the world. Their commitment to the role of “loyal employee” seemingly bolstered their decision to remain part of a network of complicity or of complacency.

John Carreyrou’s book on the Theranos fraud and Brown & Farrell’s book on the WeWork scandal also document the existence of networks of complicity and networks of complacency. They’re not just for sexual harassment anymore!

 

 

Sources

Eliot Brown & Maureen Farrell, The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion (2021).

John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018).

Simon Clark & Will Louch, The Key Man: The True Story of How the Global Elite Was Duped by a Capitalist Fairy Tale (2021).

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumwright, “R.Kelly Was Aided by a Network of Complicity—Common in  Workplace Abuse—that Enabled Crimes to Go on for Decades,” The Conversation, originally published Sept. 28, 2021 and updated June 30, 2022, at https://theconversation.com/r-kelly-was-aided-by-a-network-of-complicity-common-in-workplace-abuse-that-enabled-crimes-to-go-on-for-decades-168809.

Peggy Cunningham, Minette Drumwright & Kenneth William Foster, “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sex Harassment,” Equity, Diversity & Inclusion 40(4): 392-409 (2021)

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumwright, “Banning Non-disclosure Agreements Isn’t Enough to Stop Unethical Workplace Leader Behaviour,” The Conversation, Dec. 13, 2021, at https://theconversation.com/banning-non-disclosure-agreements-isnt-enough-to-stop-unethical-workplace-leader-behaviour-173574.

Minette Drumwright & Peggy Cunningham, “Unethical Newsroom Behavior: Paradoxes and a Perfect Storm,” Journalism Practice: 16(5): 963-983 (2022).

Lamar Pierce & Jason Snyder, “Ethical Spillovers in Firms: Evidence from Vehicle Emissions Testing,” Management Science 54(11): 1891-1903 (2008).

 

Blog Posts

“R. Kelly, Sex Abuse, and Networks of Complicity,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/r-kelly-sex-abuse-and-networks-of-complicity.

“Sexual Harassment, Networks of Complicity, and Newsrooms,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/sexual-harassment-networks-of-complicity-and-newsrooms.

 

Videos

Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority.

Overconfidence Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias.

Role Morality: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/role-morality

Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias.

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