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Yahoo Sitting On Its Hands-But What Would Harry Stein Do?


by Kenneth Rudich

One of my all-time favorite books contains a collection of essays about ethics that were originally published in Esquire magazine. They were authored by a man named Harry Stein, and they showcase not only his brilliant gift as a writer, but also his sharp, incisive, insightful wit.

For instance, there’s the book title, which in my humble opinion is about as clever as tongue-in-cheek can get.  It’s: Ethics (and Other Liabilities).  With the sub-title: “Trying to live right in an amoral world.”

Though it was published in 1982, it’s a timeless topic, and the observations he offered back then are as relevant today as ever.

One needs only to witness the events unfolding around Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson for evidence of that.

Brand Management & Ethics

If the Gordon Gekko character in the movie “Wall Street” will forever be known for declaring, “Greed is good,” then Thompson and Yahoo may hereafter be known for following a creed that embraces the notion “Ethics and Other Liabilities.”

What am I talking about?

Recent revelations in the media have disclosed that Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson lied in a series of published biographical statements stretching back for years — including his bio on Yahoo’s website – about holding “a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and computer science” from Stonehill College.

It turns out his degree is actually only in accounting.  Stonehill College has since confirmed this.

CNNMoneyTech reported on May 4, 2012 that a Yahoo activist shareholder, a firm by the name of Third Point, discovered the misrepresentation and revealed it “in a scathing letter to Yahoo’s board of directors.”

The news report added: ‘After the letter was released, Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) sent out a statement saying references to Thompson earning a computer science degree were an “inadvertent error.”’

Only thing is, references to Thompson’s nonexistent computer science degree are also featured in his bios on sites for PayPal, the eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) subsidiary where he previously served as president.  And it was included in the latest SEC filing of Yahoo’s annual report. 

All of which begs the question, doesn’t such an extensive trail begin to make “inadvertent” look more like “premeditated?”  Or “inadvertently premeditated?”  Or maybe simply a flat out deliberate fabrication for the sake of getting a leg up on the competition for a job?

Yahoo has since removed all references to Thompson’s degree from his official bio on its website.   It also issued a statement in which it contended the error “in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.”

And while Third Point insists Thompson should be fired, Yahoo has yet to concede.

In response to Yahoo’s foot dragging, Third Point is now demanding that the company turn over books and records related to Thompson and the board’s vetting process.

According to CNET News, Third Point says it wants to investigate possible “wrongdoing, mismanagement and corporate governance failures” connected to Yahoo’s appointment of Thompson as CEO in January.

Stay tuned, because Third Point is now in “full court press” mode.

Getting Caught and Other Liabilities

It’s not like this is a first, and that there’s no precedent to fall back on.

Five days after being hired in 2001, George O’Leary resigned as Notre Dame football coach when checks into his background showed that claims about having a master’s degree in education, and having played college football for three years, weren’t true.

Former Arizona Republic Newspaper Publisher Darrow “Duke” Tully resigned in disgrace in 1985 after it was discovered he faked an elaborate military career.

In fact, Marquetinternational has published an entire list, which it calls the Resume Liars Club, filled with high-powered people who felt it necessary to resign from their high-flying, high-paying positions after subsequent circumstances revealed they’d concocted background information in their resumes and bios.  No doubt done inadvertently, of course.

With cases like these, it seems the only liability that’s bigger than having ethics is getting caught without them.

What Would Harry Stein Do

The inside book flap for Ethics (and Other Liabilities) asserts Harry Stein is known as Mr. Ethics by his fan base.  He claims no professional qualifications other than “a decent conscience.” 

I wonder if Yahoo might be looking for advisement on what to do with to Mr. Thompson.  I know one consultant they could tap.  He’s got an impeccable credential.     

Update: This commentary originally appeared on May 8, 2012.  On May 14, 2012, CNN Money reported that Thompson had been officially ousted by Yahoo. 

P.S. — I’m pretty sure that’s what Harry Stein would have done.

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