THE HUMAN FACTOR: Had any individual who did not like what he saw at Enron blown the whistle at the audit committee, Lord Wakeham would have woken up

THE HUMAN FACTOR: Had any individual who did not like what he saw at Enron blown the whistle at the audit committee, Lord Wakeham would have woken up - As governments around the world ponder how they might change the rules so as to avoid an Enron-size cor

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As governments around the world ponder how they might change the rules so as to avoid an Enron-size corporate collapse occurring on their patch, business people are taking a more personal view of the problem.

How, they wonder, can they avoid ending up in the sort of situation that now engulfs Lord Wakeham? His successes in politics have been almost erased from public perception of his career; instead, he will be forever remembered as the man who was chairman of Enron's audit committee.

It is dangerously easy for successful business people to walk into situations that will result in a nasty blot on their record. Sir Brian Pitman left Lloyds TSB with a well-earned reputation as Britain's best banker. Having joined the bank straight from school, he worked tirelessly to build Lloyds, and to stop it walking into the elephant traps that seem to attract big banks. Yet in April he found himself among the bunch of people reviled for putting the future of many of Britain's football clubs at risk and threatened with legal action.

When he joined the board of Carlton Communications, Pitman could not have imagined that the move would lead him into the public stocks, at risk of being pounded with rotten tomatoes and worse by the nation's football fans. But when Carlton and Granada pulled the plug on ITV Digital, it was the directors of the parent firms who were targeted as responsible.

Self interest on the part of the football clubs and Carlton and Granada is likely to encourage a compromise and save Pitman and his colleagues from legal action. But the threat must have left this senior member of Britain's business community wondering whether there was anything that he could or should have done to avoid being put in such an uncomfortable position. Those involved may conclude that they fulfilled their roles impeccably. They might, however, decide that, with the benefit of hindsight, they would have served the company, and their reputations, best by holding up a warning light to the executives of the companies as they poured almost pounds 1 billion into ITV Digital and assigned astronomical values to the rights to screen football matches.

Recently, I listened to two senior business figures discussing the Enron affair. Both had had dealings with the energy trader and decided long before it imploded that this was not a company with which they wanted to be associated. Neither had been aware of the scale of the skulduggery now being exposed. But each had concluded that the different Enron operations that they had sampled were unsustainable.

One of the pair was sufficiently concerned about the implications to contemplate telling Ken Lay, the Enron chairman, but not to actually do so. Yet others did notify Lay of their fears without having any obvious effect. Whispering in the ear of the chairman, who has been instrumental in creating a company and its culture, that his business is rotten may not be the way to achieve change. Loud whistle-blowing is required in the direction of those who will have to respond to what they hear.

Had the individual who did not like what he saw at Enron given a shrill blast in the direction of the audit committee, Lord Wakeham and his colleagues would probably have woken up and taken a look. What they were being paid would have made it worth their while heeding a warning that they would soon be held partially responsible for one of the biggest corporate scandals to erupt in the modern world.

Efforts to establish a culture of whistle-blowing in Britain are young and have concentrated largely on the public sector, with the Government urging colleagues to report doctors or policemen whom they suspect of dangerous incompetence or corruption. The charity Public Concern at Work aims to provide confidence and support to those who blow the whistle.

It requires great strength of character to speak up when the pressure is to ignore any qualms and go along with the crowd. In business, the people who reach the top often manage to mix steeliness with charm, a combination that discourages any challenges from those who work with them.

It took a degree of bravery for one of the managers at Wickes to warn charismatic chairman Henry Sweetbaum about the inventive approach to booking sales, which amounted to 'mortgaging the future'.

But, having told the chairman, the manager got on with his work and shareholders were left unaware of his fears. So the practices continued until the inevitable happened and Wickes' finances crumbled.

However, if Pitman had decided to speak out at a board meeting and voice his concerns over the money Carlton was risking through ITV Digital, it is hard to imagine that he would have been ignored.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

When spying on your staff backfires

As Barclays' recently-scrapped tracking software shows, snooping on your colleagues is never a good idea....

A CEO’s guide to smart decision-making

You spend enough time doing it, but have you ever thought about how you do...

What Tinder can teach you about recruitment

How to make sure top talent swipes right on your business.

An Orwellian nightmare for mice: Pest control in the digital age

Case study: Rentokil’s smart mouse traps use real-time surveillance, transforming the company’s service offer.

Public failure can be the best thing that happens to you

But too often businesses stigmatise it.

Andrew Strauss: Leadership lessons from an international cricket captain

"It's more important to make the decision right than make the right decision."