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George O’Leary, Scott Thompson, and the Absence of Candor

“Who doesn’t want a shortcut to greatness?”

This was the question posed by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender. It could easily have been posed to Scott Thompson or George O’Leary.

Don’t remember George O’Leary? He held the title of Head Football Coach at Notre Dame for five days before being fired for lying about his background. O’Leary claimed to have earned a master’s degree in education and to have played college football for three years. Neither claim was true. In fact, he never earned a degree from New York University, let alone a master’s as claimed, and he never played a down for his alma mater.

Of course, by the time O’Leary had been hired by Notre Dame, he had other, real accomplishments in his chosen profession. But the lie, once told, grew legs and followed. Time, perhaps, bestowed upon it the ring of truth even to O’Leary’s ears, until the falsehood brought him down.

I hear echoes of George O’Leary in the headlines arising out of the Yahoo! shareholder dispute. Now former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was fired last week after only four months on the job after it was revealed that he padded his resume by embellishing his college credentials. Unlike George O’Leary, Scott Thompson did, indeed earn his degree. Unfortunately, his degree was awarded for accounting and not, as Thompson had claimed in his online biography and in corporate SEC filings for “accounting and computer science.”

Certainly, all dramatic downfalls contain cautionary tales. But O’Leary and Thompson are not in the same category as the indictment of John Edwards or the drunken rantings of Mel Gibson. O’Leary and Thompson shine a light on an issue all too common for business owners: what do you do with an employee who lied about his or her qualifications?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is “it depends.” Critical factors include:

  • The significance of the fabrication.
  • Whether the employee had already been working with the organization and proven his or her value by the time the discrepancy was uncovered.
  • The employee’s value to the company.
  • The existence of an established company policy.
  • Whether or not the employee is under contract.

Each circumstance is unique, and business owners must make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. Sure, you can establish a zero tolerance policy, but it has always been my experience that companies should avoid knee-jerk reaction policies intended to remove discretion. “Zero tolerance” sounds great in company literature but, by removing the human element, fails as an answer to an inevitably complicated question.

Instead, I strongly recommend that companies expressly reserve for management the right to use such fabrications as a basis to terminate immediately and for cause, preserving the ability to choose from a range of disciplinary options. Company policy in this regard should appear without fail in personnel handbooks, contracts of employment, applications for employment (hard copy and electronic), and applicable HR memos.

There is no doubt that fabrication or its kinder sister, embellishment, is a serious matter. Even the slightest fallacy can undermine a relationship and speak volumes about an employee’s character. In George O’Leary’s case, Notre Dame determined, and I think rightfully so, that O’Leary was not the kind of man it wanted as the face of its football program. Yahoo! may have an even bigger problem in that Thompson’s fabrication appeared on documents filed with the SEC.   In both cases, the correct decisions were made to separate the offenders from the institutions to which they brought dishonor or, at the very least embarrassment.

For those other businesses which do not routinely occupy space on the front page of the business or sports sections, the answers may be less clear, but in no way are they less important.

Let’s discuss! 

What do you think you would do if you were put into this type of situation?