On October 24, 2023, the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative welcomed a special guest, Michele Edwards, to speak with students about her experience as a forensic accountant and the importance of keeping one's word.
Edwards began her presentation with the story that marked a turning point in her career. It all began with a routine audit of a company's financial statements. As the company prepared to go public, Edwards uncovered a "roadmap" detailing what the company intended to tell investors about their earnings versus the actual, truthful revenue figures.
This moment became one of the early experiences highlighting the importance of keeping one's word for Edwards.
The "Let’s Talk" program for the fall 2023 semester analyzed the ethical principle of keeping one's word and reputational management through the lens of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. This scandal exposed how Volkswagen had deceived both the U.S. government and the public regarding the emissions output of their "clean diesel" cars, putting both their customers' health and the environment at risk.
After eventually admitting to their deception, Volkswagen was ordered by the Department of Justice to undergo a corporate monitorship.
Enter Michele Edwards. Edwards and her team were brought in by the DOJ to ensure that Volkswagen was cooperating with the government after their conviction. As the former Chief of Staff for the Volkswagen monitorship, Edwards was able to provide those in attendance a firsthand account of all that occurs when a company undergoes monitorship.
While she was not able to disclose confidential information about the case, Edwards highlighted valuable lessons about the importance of complying with laws and regulations, fostering a culture of integrity where employees can speak up without fear, setting realistic business targets to avoid undue pressure, and taking personal responsibility for one's actions. She emphasized the need for courage in ethical decision-making, avoiding willful blindness, and practicing intellectual honesty when facing ethical dilemmas.
Edwards concluded her presentation by reminding us not to look the other way when the facts contradict what we want to hear. She encouraged us to keep asking questions and strive to learn more by asking the right questions:
What are the ethics and integrity of the company? What actions has the company taken when things have gone wrong? What is genuinely important to you?
We extend our gratitude to Michele Edwards for taking the time to come and speak with our students and share her valuable insights!