Working Wounded Blog: Executive Cheats

News Flash: Thomas Coughlin, Wal-Mart's former No. 2 executive, was forced to resign because of company accusations of theft.

I'm Bob, and I've been suffering from corporate corruption fatigue. And there seems to be no end in sight.

You know the names: Ebbers, Koslowski, Lay, etc. Just when I thought executive suite misdeeds were going to stop pushing my buttons, along comes Mr. Coughlin's sordid tale, and once again my juices are flowing.

First, some background. Thomas Coughlin was accused of requesting 51 Wal-Mart gift cards, each with a value of $100. He said he was going to give these cards to company "All Stars" -- lower level employees who were recognized for superior performance.

How was he caught? The company was able to track how these cards were used. Coughlin used them for three 12-gauge shotguns, puppy chow, a Celine Dion CD, vodka, a fish license, a rifle case and a $3.54 Polish sausage (according to The Wall Street Journal).

Polish sausage! You just can't make this stuff up.

I know that Wal-Mart doesn't have the reputation of overpaying its people. But the No. 2 guy must have a salary north of $300,000, not to mention stock in the company. And I'm guessing the guy who is just a heartbeat away from the CEO at the country's largest employer has something better to do than working the old gift card scam.

So either he was stupid enough to think he'd never get caught or was he so focused on his "free" sausage that he just didn't care. But in the end, the question comes down to this -- was he evil or just stupid?

As much as I'm hoping for stupid, my sense is that it's probably evil. And that leads to another key question: how does someone go that far in the wrong direction? Especially someone so well paid and in such a position of authority?

My sense is that it isn't an accident. I'm starting to think that Leona Helmsely's famous line that "only little people pay taxes" isn't the exception at the executives suites, but rather it's the norm. And this frightens me.

Which all reminds me of a Vietnam era "grunt" joke (grunts were the enlisted soldiers). One grunt asks, "What is the difference between the Marines and the Boy Scouts? Second grunt says, "I don't know." First grunt says, "The Boy Scouts have adult leadership."

Speaking of adult leadership, wouldn't it be great if the business world could get some?

Quote of the week:
"My favorite thing is to go where I've never been." -- Diane Arbus, photographer

Weekly book excerpt:
From "Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown, 2002)

"In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85 percent of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31 percent of the time … When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem -- the seizure-like sounds from the other room … isn't really a problem."

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