David Edmondsdon, the former CEO of Radioshack, was fired because he falsely claimed to have a theology degree from an unaccredited Bible college.
At least, that’s what Radioshack said. There may have been other reasons, but newspapers took the college story seriously, even though it was ridiculous. Why does learning about your CEO’s lack of a theology degree matter, once you’ve seen him perform decades of competent work?
But even that story isn’t as crazy as…
The MIT Scandal
Marilee Jones was the director of the MIT admissions office until 2007, when she resigned after her employer discovered that she’d lied about her education, pretending to have two degrees from colleges she’d never attended and misrepresenting her time at a third school.
At the time, she’d worked in the MIT admissions office for twenty-nine years. She wrote a book. She toured the country. By the end of her tenure, she might have been the most famous admissions director in the world. And yet, no matter how successful she became:
Ms. Jones knew that coming clean would mean losing her job and her career. She also feared that the news would harm her husband, who was a faculty member at MIT before working at the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center.
In some fields, a degree represents necessary professional training. Other fields — like college administration — don’t have “necessary” degrees, but still demand at least some degree. This makes sense: Attending college is a reasonable requirement for working in an admissions office.
But once MIT had proof that Jones was good at her job, how should they have reacted to the news that she didn’t have as many degrees as they’d thought?
Certainly not with a firing.1
By 2007, Jones had given MIT the last three decades of her life. She was a completely different person than she was in 1978. (If she’d been caught shoplifting in the ’70s, would MIT have cared?)
Perhaps MIT was angry that Jones hadn’t revealed the falsehood when she applied for the director position. That at least places her last active lie in the ’90s, rather than the ’70s. After all, they did make the following claim:
“This is a sad and unfortunate event,” Daniel E. Hastings, the dean for undergraduate education, said in a statement. “But the integrity of the Institute is our highest priority, and we cannot tolerate this kind of behavior.”
But should MIT have cared about “integrity” in this case? Did Jones’ lie matter?
After all, some lies don’t matter. If I tell my boss I had waffles for breakfast when I actually had oatmeal, I wouldn’t be fired from my job. What makes Jones’ situation more serious than the waffle situation?
Reasons To Fire Marilee Jones
She might not have been hired if they knew from the start that she didn’t have a degree.
True. But that’s because MIT wouldn’t have known whether she could do the job. If you’d told the hiring committee in 1978 that Candidate Jones, degree or not, would eventually run the admissions office with great skill, would they really have refused to hire her?
She lied about something college-related, and she works as a college administrator!
True. The irony is clear. But me lying about waffles doesn’t seem to matter much even if I work at a waffle company, so long as my lie doesn’t affect the company.
Lying is wrong. You don’t want a liar to run your admissions office.
Maybe. Then again, almost everyone tells lies, even at work. (“Sorry, Janet. I already bought Girl Scout cookies this year.”)
The only lies that matter are lies which affect the company in some way, or which reflect so badly on the liar’s character that you’d consider them an active threat to the people around them or the company’s reputation. Lying about a murder conviction or heroin smuggling could easily be a firing offense — but lying about the lack of a piece of paper on your record? Lying, as Jones did, about having attended medical school? Does MIT expect her to provide first aid alongside her administrative duties?
Lying is still worse than being honest. But if Jones can succeed at MIT without a professional degree, her lie seems like a mild moral issue at most: something which demands an apology, or a salary freeze, instead of the destruction of her career.
Having an admissions office directed by someone with no advanced degrees is wrong.
Maybe. It could be true that the best administrators are those who’ve spent a lot of time in college, at various levels of the system (undergrad, graduate, etc.). But when she resigned, Jones had spent 30 years working full-time at a college. She knew about as much about college as anyone.
It looks bad to the public if the story becomes known.
Maybe. But if Jones was really such a respected figure, there has to be some chance that a public apology would suffice. Or even some kind of professional probation. Why skip right to a forced resignation?
I have another reason you didn’t mention.
Awesome! Let me know in the comments — I could easily be missing something, and I like changing my mind when I’m wrong.
Two more reasons to fire that I can think of:
– It sets a bad precedent. Letting her keep her job might make it easier for others to lie about their background in the future since they know they might get away with it
– It’s bad for organizational morale. Imagine the second-in-command in the admissions office thinking “I worked my butt off to put myself in a good position to get this job, then my boss lies about her degrees and is making more money than me.”
Imagine that Bob is applying for a job and he considers lying on his resume. In World 1, he thinks “If they hire me then I just need to make it through the first few months. If I do my job well and keep the truth secret, after a few months they’ll mostly be basing their evaluation of me on what they’ve seen, not on my resume, so they won’t care about the lie any more.” In World 2, he thinks “If they ever find out about this lie then I will be fired in disgrace. So if I do get the job, I’ll have this secret looming over my head the whole time I work there, and at any time it could all come crashing down.”
Obviously, Bob would be more willing to lie in World 1 than in World 2. And companies will tend to hire more qualified workers in World 2 than in World 1, because in World 1 they are getting less accurate information about job applicants (and they will especially get inaccurately positive information about unscrupulous people who are looking out for themselves and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead). But we can’t live in World 2 unless companies actually follow through on that threat.
Disclaimer- I was an MIT student in the early 2000’s. I did not like her. She was very condescending to the students and contributed to a corrosive if not boarder-line corrupt administrative environment. She was also the public face for MIT admissions. She wasn’t some back office staff member. How much of the respect she was held in was related to her position of extreme power as opposed to what she herself was able to contribute (see her post MIT career for evidence). MIT degrees hold value because of their prestige. Her lying directly undermines the value of university degrees. It also questions its relevancy.
What is the value of ANY degree, to an employer? It is merely evidence that a person can or should be able to do the given job. Marilee could do the job, was doing the job, the (ancient history) 1970’s degree that was on her resume would have been completely and utterly irrelevant to the 2000’s role.