This one word was what Aaron Beam used to describe the cause of his and other top executives’ motivation for “cooking the books” of Healthsouth. The former CFO of one of the nation’s leading outpatient healthcare providers visited Fisher for a MAcc Applied Talk unlike any other I’ve attended. If you’re unfamiliar with the story behind Healthsouth and the fraud Mr. Beam was involved in, I’ll do my best to fill you in. While Mr. Beam was acting CFO, he and other accountants falsified revenue and misstated financial statements in order to meet Wall Street analysts’ expectations. He plead guilty to involvement in the fraud and served three months in prison.
Mr. Beam’s stories of the fraud, his relationship with former CEO Richard Scrushy, the trials, etc., were all enlightening. The former CFO made a few points that I found to be full of wisdom and extremely good advice for us as students and future business people.
Success, as defined in the Webster’s dictionary in 1806, meant “being generous, prosperous, healthy and kind.” Today, the definition of success is “the attainment of wealth, fame, and rank.” Culture, especially in business, has transformed over the years to where many people are focused on getting rich no matter how many lines they cross. If everyone is doing it, that means it’s okay, right?
Mr. Beam told us that we, as students, are the beginning of the change of the culture in the business world. We don’t just do something because we’re told – we want to know why; we want an explanation. We’re not afraid to blow the whistle when we know decisions being made are unethical or unlawful.
One student asked Mr. Beam what he would have done differently. After the first white lie he was asked to go along with, he said he would have left. He wouldn’t have stayed at a company that pushed employees to go outside their ethical comfort zone. In giving us advice, he suggested to look at the tone at the top. If it’s one we’re not comfortable with, we’d better have an exit plan.
Lastly, when asked how his friends and family reacted to the fraud, Mr. Beam was quite short. He was ashamed of his cowardly behavior and was disappointed in how he hurt his wife, daughter and friends. I think if he had been thinking of all of his loved ones when Mr. Scrushy had asked him to commit fraud, he would have acted quite differently. That’s something that we should all take with us as we go into the business world and will undoubtedly be faced with ethical decisions down the road.
And we could probably all be a little more focused on being generous, prosperous, healthy, and – most of all - kind.