Check out this amazing and terrifying story in The Intercept about a lawyer whose life is being systematically destroyed by a large corporation.
“Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him. As a result, Donziger has been disbarred and his bank accounts have been frozen. He now has a lien on his apartment, faces exorbitant fines, and has been prohibited from earning money. As of August, a court has seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $228 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.”
What did he do to piss them off? He helped tens of thousand of Ecuadorian farmers to successfully sue Chevron over contamination of their lands. They were fined $18 billion – and then refused to pay up.
It’s a stark warning about what can happen if you try to take down a corporation by yourself.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying these people are psychopaths. But this is the kind of behaviour we should expect from psychopaths and psychopathic organisational cultures.
This morning I did a lengthy (75 minute) interview with Richard Dugan, host of Tell Me Your Story out of Santa Barbara, CA. You can listen to it here or below.
I mention in the book that the way a company treats whistleblowers is a good indication of how psychopathic its culture has become. Investment fund Blue Sky allegedly fired one of their managers when he spoke out internally about shady practices.
People who speak up about their ethical concerns should be highly valued by organisations, not punished. They are the canary in the coal mine. But to a psychopathic culture, they are perceived as a threat, not a tuning fork.
We need legislation that makes it extremely difficult for organisations to punish whistleblowers. One way to limit the power of psychopaths is to make it less dangerous for the rest of us to call them out on their bullshit.
In my book, The Psychopath Epidemic, I talk about how psychopaths in power can influence entire organisational cultures to become psychopathic. Even societies can become psychopathic (for example, Germany in the 1930s and the United States today).
Organisational cultures can become psychopathic to such an extent that the behaviours that should be shunned in fact become something they are proud of.
John Stumpf, the ex-CEO of Wells Fargo, presided over massive consumer fraud. The bank opened two million checking and credit-card bank accounts without the consent of its customers. He didn’t go to jail. But he did get a fine that he could easily afford and a “strongly worded critical letter“… so that’s something, I guess.
As a young man, one of his first jobs was as a repossession agent. Having worked as one of those myself when I was about the same age, it’s a profession well suited to psychopaths. I hated it. It was soul destroying.
Stumpf was known for his folksy sayings:
“When we hire somebody around here, we want to know how much you care, before we care how much you know,” he says, without the slightest hint of irony as we sit with him at his San Francisco office. “We call our employees team members, not employees. Employees denote an expense to be managed. Team members are an asset to be invested in.”Wells Fargo: The Bank That Works, Forbes, Jan 25, 2012
In this same Forbes article from 2012, they talk about what a heartwarming departure he was from other banking executives:
All of Wells Fargo’s 264,200 “team members” receive a 37-page book, Vision & Values signed by Stumpf, full of warmed-over prescriptions for how to behave, treat customers and, above all, increase revenue. But in a field where sayings like “every man for himself” and “eat what you kill” have led to blunders of historic scale, it’s also a welcome departure. Wells Fargo: The Bank That Works, Forbes, Jan 25, 2012
Which I guess just goes to show that we should never believe corporate PR.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting Stumpf or any Wells Fargo people are psychopaths. But this is the kind of behaviour we should expect from psychopaths and psychopathic organisational cultures.
PS: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway are the biggest shareholder in Wells Fargo. Charlie Munger, Buffett’s partner, calls what happened at Wells a “blind spot”. Warren referred to it as a “big mistake“. As listeners of our investing podcast, QAV, would know, I’m a big fan of both Buffett and Munger, certainly as investors, and they have a reputation for very high ethical standards. And I don’t expect investors to be responsible for corporate culture of the companies they invest in. But it’s disappointing to hear them dismiss this kind of behaviour as just big mistakes and blind spots.