Sherron Watkins, whistleblower, on the truth about Enron
Accounting , Areas of Study , Event Recaps Stories | Feb 09, 2012 | Nicole Gesualdo
Elizabeth Anderson (FCRH ’13) provides this account of Sherron Watkins’ speech at Fordham about uncovering the accounting deceptions that brought Enron down.
As a Jesuit institution, Fordham emphasizes the development of each student’s personal ethics, both in the classroom and outside the campus gates.
Father McShane summarizes this core value in a quote on the university web site: “We believe that students have to be invited to wrestle with the great ethical issues of their time. We want them to be bothered by the realization that they don’t know everything and be bothered by injustice.”
Bringing new perspective to this sense of being “bothered” was Sherron Watkins, a former vice president at the energy corporation Enron. She is the woman who bravely stepped forward in 2001 to report Enron’s serious manipulations of its books — which led to its infamous collapse.
Ms. Watkins visited Rose Hill on February 2 as part of a business ethics speaker series co-sponsored by the Gabelli School of Business and the accounting firm Ernst & Young. Students filled Keating 1st and listened intently as she walked them through the events and decisions that led up to the Enron Corporation’s demise.
Ms. Watkins reflected on the part that she played in Enron’s unprecedented decline and bankruptcy in October 2001. Today, she is publicly recognized as a “whistleblower” — a nickname she earned after voicing her concerns over the company’s financial instability to then-CEO Kenneth Lay. More than 10 years later, she recalled her decision to speak up and the repercussions that followed, including her harassment and demotion by Enron and a public defamation in the press. Despite the difficulties that she faced, the point that Ms. Watkins reiterated throughout her lecture was the importance of holding true to one’s own ethical standards.
After a show of hands indicated that that the majority of the students in the audience were seniors, Ms. Watkins spoke of the ethical challenges that they will most likely face within the first five years of their careers after graduation. She especially cautioned against working for companies where ethical transgressions are almost expected by supervisors, recalling the pressure at Enron to pad expense reports. Ms. Watkins concluded by emphasizing the significant role that ethics plays in one’s career, and the need to safeguard these ethics by speaking up — even if it means taking the risk of becoming a whistleblower.
“Listening to Ms. Watkins share her experience at Enron brought to life the realities of corporate greed and the dangers of unethical behavior in business,” said Sandie Habib (FCRH ’12). “It is inspiring to hear her story and know that one should always try to be as ethical and moral as possible in today’s corporate environment.”
Photographs courtesy of Angela Giovine.