May 082012
 
bonuses, commissions and other incentives can distort a business

“Who would have thought our CEO didn’t have the qualifications we thought he had?” wonders the Yahoo! board.

“It seems we forgot to count the number of beds!” whines the cleaning contractor when challenged about a filthy hospital.

“We had no idea these people were corrupt,” growls the politician and former trade union official when confronted with proof its factional friends were misusing expenses.

An interesting phenomenon in the rise of the managerial classes over the last thirty years has been the group’s refusal to take responsibility for their failures.

Instead we see boards, investors, managers and politicians duck responsibilities that a reasonable observer would have thought is the reason for their healthy salaries, bonuses and perks.

One of the many conceits of 1980s thinking is the ideology of “personal responsibility” – to low paid workers and those at the bottom of society this mantra is applied ruthlessly.

The call centre worker who makes a mistake gets counselled or fired while the aboriginal kid who steals a can of coke is denied bail and goes to jail.

Let’s not mention the fines and sanctions that befall a small business owner who is too slow in submitting paperwork or forgets to pay one of the countless fees that make up today’s hidden taxation.

In boardrooms and Parliaments those doing the wrong thing rarely face any accountability; politicians caught misclaiming expenses are allowed to pay it back at their convenience while senior executives and captains of industry with a track record of mistakes continue to be employed in positions way beyond their abilities.

One exception to the that rule is former Tyco Chief Executive Dennis Kozlowski and his cohorts who looted their company through the 1990s. Eventually their excesses became so great that the CEO and his cronies ended up being jailed.

Not that this has rattled some of his cronies sense of entitlement. Former CFO Mark Swartz is suing the company for $60 million in retirement benefits and other monies.

I have a personal connection with Messrs Swartz and Kozlowski – I worked for their company in the mid 1990s and lasted nine months in a culture of cronyism and rorts where middle management enthusiastically aped the excesses of their senior executives.

One can argue I didn’t carry out my due diligence – a little bit of digging and more detailed asking around would have revealed Tyco’s institutionalised corruption and cronyism at the time.

I paid for this oversight by having my contract terminated in a public and humiliating way which drove me to set up my own business.

While working for companies like Tyco I saw them drive smaller businesses into the ground through slow, or non payment, of invoices. Strangely they always seemed to pay the corporate hospitality bills on time.

The weakness in today’s corporatist economy is that boards like that at Yahoo!, executives like Tyco’s in the 1990s and many of our business and political leaders have a sense of entitlement way beyond the value they add to their business, community or society.

Worse, the main lesson of 2008’s financial crisis is that massive government spending will protect these peoples’ bonuses and privileges regardless of their actions.

As investors, employees, suppliers and voters we have to do our due diligence on these people and organisations. We have the tools today to check the track record of those who want our vote, skills or products.

In today’s economy, we can’t afford to squander money or time on those who demand fat fees and salaries without delivering value.

At the cash register and ballot box, it’s time to do our due diligence.

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