Rogue Workers

Whoops! Committed an at-work blunder? In this feature, we'll recount some well-publicized career gaffes, then talk to author and recruitment consultant Stephen Viscusi, host of nationally syndicated radio show "On the Job," about how to keep similar mistakes from ruining your career. And since selling the movie rights to your story is the ultimate American recovery tactic, we asked film and television director Julian Petrillo to discuss the potential Hollywood demand for such career-killer tales.  -- By Stephanie Beer, washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

Revelation of Resume Lie

He never claimed to be a saint, though he did make up a theology degree. Former Radio Shack CEO David J. Edmondson's resume said he had a degree from Heartland Baptist Bible College, a falsehood that went unchallenged as his career marched forward. Edmondson resigned when a newspaper uncovered his degree deceit earlier this year.

Viscusi decries: "If one lies about having a BS, they should be accountable for their 'BS.' Higher education is a significant determinant of success in our culture. Even though it may seem unmerited, prestige is attached to each degree -- and sainthood all but bestowed on elite college grads.

"Don't have a degree? Emphasize practical work experience, and avoid drawing attention to holes in your resume. Also, accentuate strengths such as diversity of work experiences and list courses you have taken. Though an employer may prefer that a degree has been conferred, they may be willing to foot the bill for a great candidate to finish college."

Petrillo posits: "Schadenfreude is an enduring American characteristic. Almost everyone loves watching a fall from grace, particularly when that fall is hastened by the weight of a silver spoon tucked neatly in the mouth of the person falling.

"But what [stories like these] really need to send them into the box office stratosphere is an appeal to another deeply American trait: the desire for revenge. It's not enough to see the man at the press conference lectern, contritely confessing his misdeeds in hushed tones; a compelling movie of Edmondson's life would best end as he strolls off into a jumpsuit-clad sunset, with a prison gate slamming shut in the foreground of the last shot."



Frozen Assets

U.S. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) is under investigation for bribery, having been caught on film accepting $100,000 from an FBI informant at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Va. last summer. Agents later found $90,000 of the cash in his home freezer.

Viscusi suggests: "If the alleged charges against Jefferson are found by a court to be true, then his career should be put on ice just like the cash. Debt and malfeasance may also get you promptly impeached from a private sector position. It can be difficult to mitigate a poor credit record, since employers view it as a weakness and a distraction.

"As far as wrongdoing, if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar or petty cash apologize and beg for forgiveness. Do not quit, but wait to be fired. Resigning exempts you from gathering unemployment benefits or to sue later. Keep your credit clean and 'CYA', or cover your assets, as we say in the business."

Petrillo elucidates: "The misdeeds of those in public office are like distractions on the streets of New York City: It takes something really big to get people's attention these days. Jefferson's story is a little bit interesting, because the Congressional Black Caucus is trying to bring race into the coverage of it, and Jefferson himself is playing what can only be called the Katrina Card; but there's not really much 'there' there.

"Ninety thousand dollars in cold cash isn't something most of us keep in our freezer. Still, adding a nicely preserved dead body alongside the Benjamins would have made the story into something a screenwriter could really sink some teeth into."



False Claims of Clones

Disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk is standing trial in Seoul in connection with charges that he and his resaerch team fraudulently announced the cloning of human embryonic stem cells, claims that excited the research community and the world. He denies faking data; if convicted, he and five other colleagues face prison sentences.

Viscusi warns: "Falsifying data is disgraceful if it adversely affects others. Whether you are a research scientist or an accountant, consider the effects of your professional actions, since they may resonate further than your own career-driven life. Whether it is a medical breakthrough, a pro-forma profit-enhancing move or an omission on your personal tax return, a lie is a lie. The ultimate punishment for lying in many jobs results in one's termination or loss of license.

"Trust is the basis of many professional interactions. Violating that undermines social your capital and can tarnish a stellar career. Apologizing and making efforts to alleviate harm should be your first move."

Petrillo expounds: "Although it's a subtle one, I think this could be a great story. The pressure in the Korean culture on public figures such as scientists to succeed is something that could be spun into a compelling biological science biopic with the right nuances either dug up or invented as necessary. Science fiction in the last 10 years has increasingly turned to genetics and cloning for sources of made-up material. Here's a real-life mad-scientist, obsessed with success and willing to lie to the whole world about it. Tell us more!"



Reining in Hubris

For John Meriwether, founder of the infamous Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund, financial leverage and basis points were a recipe for wealth. The reclusive wizard of the bond market bet big on derivatives for the fund, destabilizing exchange rates around the world in mid-1998 when he misjudged the market. The Federal Reserve had to step in and mitigate the effects of the fund's high-flying gamble.

Viscusi observes: "Because of the oversight responsibility that we entrust in government, large-scale, reckless actions are less likely to result in a Great Depression scenario. Smaller-scale mistakes may not disrupt currency markets, but do not forget that manager oversight in the office is intended to keep employees from acting irresponsibly. Avoid operating unilaterally at work. Mistakes may not haunt all cocksure professionals, though hubris can be one's ultimate undoing, as any student of Shakespeare can attest."

Petrillo explains: "'Syriana' was a complicated film about financial markets and the men who attempt to plunder them. But in the end, it was too labyrinthine for its own good. Also, Hollywood often feels far from Wall Street, in the sense that good creative ideas come from the minds of individuals, whereas the business world is run by boards who decide by majority rule and conservative tactics.

"Meriwether's story might have some interest in the fall-from-grace genre, but the audience might tune out if there wasn't anything more to it than some risky investing gone bad."



You Can't Do That on Television

When State Department press aide Emily Miller decided "Meet The Press" host Tim Russert had spent enough time discussing the war in Iraq with former Secretary of State Colin Powell during a May 2004 recording session, she jumped on camera to declare the interview over. Russert was incensed, declaring "I don't think that's appropriate"; so was Miller's boss, who admonished her on the air.

Viscusi notes: "Even if a superior isn't being raked over the coals on national television, but is simply being confronted in a conference room by his boss, it never hurts to express loyalty. Even if you are initially admonished for protecting your boss or your team, you may be ultimately rewarded.

"Acting inappropriately, however, or acting above your position can be seen as insolence. Also, protecting your boss has its limits and does not apply to indiscretions that you deem unprofessional, or that are generally considered illegal."

Petrillo interprets: "For me, there is a line connecting 'Fahrenheit 911' and 'Brokeback Mountain.' The former was a partisan film that achieved financial success, generated a lot of hot air on all sides of the political spectrum and ultimately meant little or no change to the status quo.

"The same could be said for 'Brokeback.' Gay cowboys were the talk of the town for about 10 minutes, and then we all went back to doing what we were doing before the movie came out. A partisan shot at a minor government official stands little chance of resonating if there is nothing in the story that makes for higher stakes."



Very Personal Computer

Ex-Capitol Hill staffer and part-time blogger Jessica Cutler wrote prolifically about her sex life, documenting her encounters with defamatory flare. When her online diary was discovered, she was summarily dismissed from her with U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) for inappropriate use of office equipment.

Viscusi advises: "An online diary can do more harm than good. One kept at work is professional suicide unless you are trying for a book deal. If you need to write your very personal thoughts down for catharsis, do it at home and keep it at home.

"Also, realize that what is written online can be downloaded at work by your boss; if it involves work-related issues, it may be viewed as a dismissible offense. Cutler acted with naiveté, but also with a certain made-for-TV savvy. I may not have a job for her, although I may have a date for her."

Petrillo confides: "Producers often look for ways to weave the titillating tabloid headlines into bona fide feature films. We all have an urge to know what other people write when they 'tap tap tap' late at night on their computers. Also, bad girls sell tickets, period."



Dishonor Code

"How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," the novel written by Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan and published by Alloy Entertainment was withdrawn from shelves for its plagiarized passages. Viswanathan, the 18-year-old author, borrowed from other works of the same genre. When intrepid readers unearthed the similarities to another author's, her book deal was rescinded and "Opal" was yanked from shelves.

Viscusi reminds us: "Plagiarizing is easier to do with Internet access to books, journals and articles. Sometimes I wonder if there really are any original words, or thoughts. Even as I write this, I wish I could cut and paste something more cleverly written by someone else.

"But taking another's ideas for your own is stealing. For those who are rightfully held to a higher standard, such as journalists and writers, plagiarism is in violation of their professional ethics. Nevertheless, in the business world ideas are oftentimes the result of a collaborative process -- how's that for business culture relativism? Take credit for your work in a group, otherwise someone else will in today's cutthroat marketplace of jobs and ideas."

Petrillo reflects: "I think most filmmakers would agree that the fine line between plagiarism and homage is one worth walking. I can't tell you how many times I've been on a set and heard some blowhard say, 'This is my Woody Allen walk-and-talk shot' or 'This is how they shoot it at "Scrubs."'

"Unlike the written media, a moving picture sequence can't be Googled. If you come up with something clever that's a twist on something done before, you can't be held accountable in the same way as an elected official or writer. Kaavya's story might interest some for its neophyte's-fall-from appeal, but without something else at stake, like a scholarship or a parent's approval, there is not enough to captivate a crowd."



Slurring His Words

Radio host David Lenihan called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a "coon" on air. His explanation: As he was discussing her prospects as NFL commissioner, he ran the words "coup" and "NFL" together. This utterance occurred twice, unfortunately, and Lenihan lost his job. (He has since found work on another station.)

Viscusi says: "Lenihan's comment was racist, even if accidentally. He was rightly fired. In the workplace, off-color comments concerning race, religion and sexual orientation are damaging to a professional reputation and can dog one for a lifetime.

"Workers should be conscious of even seemingly tame statements in the workplace. The soapbox should be kept at home. Uneducated or bigoted comments set a toxic tone at work that can preclude collaboration and can upset collegiality."

Petrillo notes: "One of the most popular shows ever produced on cable television was the brief, incendiary 'Chappelle Show,' written and starring the eponymous Dave Chappelle. A white screenwriter or comedian couldn't get away with the lampooning that Dave does, but we all laugh because the show holds a mirror for public attitudes and shortcomings.

"Although I know nothing about him, Lenihan sounds like another inflammatory voice on the dial. I think the screenplay of his life would need a compelling third-act A-bomb … like the shocking discovery of his digital fingerprints in [unsavory] online chatrooms."



Editorial Ethics

Former Harvard Business Review Editor Suzy Wetlaufer's journalistic integrity came under scrutiny when her affair with interview subject Jack Welch, then Chairman and CEO of General Electric, was revealed. HBR was sent reeling by the chatter of the affair involving its star editor and the prominent business leader, and Wetlaufer was forced out for mixing her relationship with her work.

Viscusi cautions: "This scenario speaks for itself: if romance impinges on your professional life too much, your superiors will take note. I must add that when this relationship became public, I started to think about work and romance. Networking can benefit your personal as well as your professional life. People who work together already have a lot in common, and it is absurd to pretend that romance will not and should not occur.

"You may think of it like a free match.com, but use it as such with discretion. Work romances may be awkward for co-workers, displeasing to higher-ups and just plain wrong if one of the office Romeos or Juliets is married. Prioritize your professional responsibilities on the job, and do not use e-mail."

Petrillo considers: "Wealth and privilege mingle in this one. Keeping the story small might help it appeal to an audience not saturated with the specifics of its subject matter. The story would be helped if either of the protagonists either willingly offered or was subpoenaed for something fun like a trove of e-mails and text messages that read like school kids thinking they'd never get caught.

"Infamous e-mail messages from former Enron CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling about taking the money of the little old ladies in California, or of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff about making off with gobs of dough from Indian 'savages' remind us of real human hubris that makes the fall from grace even harder to tear one's eyes away from."



On-the-Job Drinking

ESPN analyst and former Chicago Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe dropped into the announcers' booth at PETCO Park in May. In the middle of a San Diego Padres game, he put on his headphones to say hello. Seemingly drunk, a slurred, rambling monologue having nothing to do with the game followed. Attentive national news outlets aired the clip, underscoring the importance of clean, professional behavior in the communication age.

Viscusi emphatically pleads: "When you consume anything stronger than a Shirley Temple, put away your PDA. If you have had even one drink: do not send an e-mail, leave a voicemail or cross the threshold of your office lobby. Do not misjudge how you will appear to others; assume you will be a jerk and that you are not at your professional best. No matter how many beers you could consume in college, your superiors' tolerance is much lower."

Petrillo suggests: "There might be something compelling to Suttcliffe's story on the level of the carefully contained capacity for misbehavior that almost every human shares. I've always loved the delightfully short and powerful story of Mr. Hyde and his alter ego; there is a little Dr. Jekyll in all of us. Of course, one misdeed isn't enough to run with, unless the perpetrator inhabits the Oval Office and is reviled by almost exactly one half of the country."



Whistle While You Work

Tattling isn't necessarily bad, but it can be risky. In an August 2001 memo, Enron's Sherron Watkins reported concerns about the company's accounting to founder Ken Lay, She was decried by some as a purveyor of office gossip, but her words were resuscitated for the trial of Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Their convictions for conspiracy and fraud redeemed Watkins.

Viscusi warns: "Whistle-blowing is a form of professional catharsis, but it should be considered carefully since it does not result in popularity or promotion. If the crime is serious, exposing a wrong may protect the innocent, but it will not advance a career of the whistle-blower. I can't think of single whistleblower who ended up on top of anything but the fold of a newspaper. If you decide to report professional malfeasance, consider yourself out of a job -- albeit integrity intact."

Petrillo acknowledges: "When I think about the Enron story, I go back to the public's not-too-subtle desire to see not only downfall, but revenge. Telling the story from an intramural perspective like Watkins' could be very compelling, since Enron was a company large enough for its gross domestic product to dwarf that of most Third World countries. Let Watkins be our principled protagonist host as we navigate the waters of corporate scandal. But if I were making the story, the guilty verdict would provide my closing act."



Getting Over Exposure

The idea that any publicity is good publicity applies to politics and actors alike, but maybe not to Charlie Sheen or other common Google victims. Sheen's recent divorce has brought to the fore his staple of strippers and prostitutes, and tabloids have allowed the public to devour tales of his relations with Heidi Fleiss's girls.

Viscusi counsels: "Public people, such as actors or members of congress have diminished expectations for privacy because they willingly work and profit from being in the public gaze. Indeed, the Supreme Court has deemed it so. An ordinary person has a higher expectation that personal issues should be, well, personal."

"There are steps you can take to ensure your privacy. Limit your personal divulgences at work, and do not treat your co-workers as confidants. If the personal becomes public, conduct your own public relations campaign by addressing the issue and putting it to rest so that you can get on with being a professional."

Petrillo reasons: "Well, the Hugh Grant analogy is apposite; I think sexual misdeeds (or what are seen as misdeeds, even) captivate a part of the public eye that is somewhat under-tapped by the Hollywood mainstream. When a celebrity pops up in the headlines for doing something even vaguely dirty, his or her Google count soars. All we want is to see it validated by visual, and Charlie Sheen would be no exception.

"Also, bad boys who are handsome celebrities will always create work for themselves around that persona, unlike the mid-level staffer or the whistle-blowing rank and file employee."



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