In your wildest imagination can you ever envision being a computer programmer sentenced to imprisonment by a judge for "keeping in place the essential backbone of the infrastructure that perpetuated the Bernard Madoff scandal"?
In a million years, can you ever place yourself in the shoes of a former teenage beauty queen turned hedge fund analyst facing a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a Wall Street insider trading probe and being labeled by the press as "The Woman Who Sank Galleon"?
Even families, perhaps living in your neighborhood, aren't immune to scandalous front page headlines: Just ask the CEO of a father-and-son owned electronics retailer accused of masterminding one of the largest securities frauds of its time. The CEO was called "The Darth Vader of Capitalism" by a US Attorney.
These crimes have cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars, cost many people their life savings, jobs, and careers, cost creditors hundreds of millions of dollars, and caused suffering beyond measure for many people.
However unimaginable these scenarios might be for the majority of us, these dangers may in fact be closer to home than we think. As a New York City based headhunter, I'm not proud to state that (not knowing what they were up to at the time) I knew some of the above mentioned individuals personally, and I'm one degree removed from the rest.
Have you considered that among your first-, second-, and third-degree connections on social networks like LinkedIn that six degrees of separation doesn't apply any longer to a great deal of the professional community? Many of us are now at most three degrees separated from the world's most notorious white-collar criminals. Scary thought, isn't it?
Even more frightening is that you or someone reading this might one day actually be the next so-called "Darth Vader of Capitalism."
As a pragmatic realist, while I think that it's important to have faith, I don't put a lot of stock in belief. One thing that I do believe however, is that most of us are much closer to the threshold of fraud and scandal than we think.
Those who have "crossed the line" have clearly lost their objectivity. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," isn't always a rational explanation; sometimes it's the title of a real-life horror movie of which we are the producers, writers, directors, and stars.
My warning is for all of us to look deeper if and when we're ethically challenged in our professional lives. If you're reading this, you possess the power of choice, and the choice to do the right thing is always a very real option.
Might doing the right thing cause some short-term suffering? There's no doubt about it. But if it feels wrong, I urge you to hit the pause button and not to go with the flow because you're expected to -- or because "everyone else is doing it."
As a new year looms before us, I'm asking you in advance to take full responsibility for your actions and the potential future white-collar crime and fraud that crosses your path. I'd ask you to consider the impact on other human beings that you personally might bring into a fraudulent situation and persuade to lie in order to keep your fraud going.
Please consider the government lawyers, plaintiff's lawyers, government investigators, and plaintiff's investigators whose efforts in uncovering the truth are met with deceit. Consider the lives of shareholders, employees, creditors, public accounting firms, Wall Street firms, financial analysts, the press, loved ones, and so on.
Most important, if you're still reading this: Please consider the long-term impact of fraud and scandal on the man or woman you look squarely at in the mirror every day.