Would YOU do the right thing? A business ethics quiz with a twist

IMAGINE you return from the Easter break to face the following dilemma. You are a non-executive director of a firm of fund managers. One of your firm’s star managers, Brian Poole, after spells as a fund manager with a number of competitors, has now been with your firm for seven years. Due to his consistent success and high profile, Poole is a hugely valuable asset to you firm and there are therefore plans to invite him to join the board. Currently, he is intended to be the face of a major new fund that you are about to launch.

But a few weeks ago, one of your nephews mentioned that he had seen Poole being interviewed on television. He commented that he had been at Casterbridge University with Poole who, he recalled, had become ill midway through his degree course, had gone home and, your nephew believes, never returned to complete his degree.

At the time of this conversation, the proposal to invite Poole to join the board had not been made and, with a number of other seemingly more important matters on your mind, you thought no more about it. But you have now received papers for the next board meeting, which include papers relating to Poole’s proposed membership of the board. These include his CV. On looking through this you see that Poole’s qualifications include a BSc in economics from Casterbridge University and you recall your conversation with your nephew. Your papers also include a mock-up of the advertisement for the new fund where you notice that Poole is described as “Brian Poole BSc”.

At first, you are tempted to try to rationalise the situation. You say to yourself that your nephew must be mistaken. Poole probably returned later to complete his degree. Or, that it was nearly 20 years ago, was only a youthful indiscretion and what really counts is Poole’s performance for the firm. Yet such thoughts represent a soft option that should leave you feeling very uncomfortable.

Some response is required. The correct course must be to take your concerns to the chairman, who is in a position to set in motion appropriate action.

These actions, or inactions, could include:

■ Ignoring the matter as being of no material concern

■ Asking Poole for clarification and, depending on his response, carrying on as planned, while making sure that any literature does not show Poole as being a BSc

■ Acknowledging the “mistake” and imposing a financial penalty, such as withholding Poole’s bonus, or asking him to pay it to charity

■ Asking Poole to resign

■ Sacking Poole

What would you choose? Take a few seconds to think about it... and then read on. Here goes: from an ethical perspective, the correct course of action must be to ask Poole to confirm whether or not he was awarded his BSc degree and, assuming that he was not, asking him to resign. Arguments that his degree, or absence of it, is not material to his performance, and that lots of people “exaggerate” their CVs – the sort of arguments people often tell themselves in such cases – do not address the issue that the falsification of one’s CV represents a breach of trust, central to the proper functioning of the industry. For the firm to impose a financial sanction does not appropriately address this issue and may even be seen to condone it.

While the physical action of writing that one has achieved a qualification that one has not may not seem like a major issue, particularly many years after the event – indeed, it may be regarded as a victimless crime – it is no such thing. Qualifications are awarded by bodies who are stakeholders in and trustees of the standard displayed. To hold out that you have achieved that standard, when you have not, represents a fraud upon the awarding body, students who have achieved the standard and on all those who expect holders of an award to have actually achieved it.

Whether this represents the end of Poole’s career depends upon how he responds. With his established track record it is probable that he will rebuild his career, but based upon what he has achieved, rather than what he has not. In fact, once the truth comes out, it may be only a very short time before he is offered another job. But that does not mean you should have any regrets: always, always do the right thing.

Andrew Hall is head of professional standards at the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI).