The case we want to talk about today is that of a Stanford MBA graduate who approached us to see if he (let’s assume it is he and let’s call him Sam) could join our case interview coaching program, given he had been fired with cause from a prestigious investment bank.

Sam wanted to join our coaching program with the intention to pursue McKinsey, BCG and Bain.

I will talk you through how we made the decision on whether or not this candidate could be in our program.

What it means to be ethical

The easiest thing in this situation would be to say, “Well, the candidate was fired with cause and, therefore, we should never engage with this person”. And in my opinion this is unethical behavior.

Ethical behavior is thinking through the consequences of your actions. If we choose to alienate this potential client, we are basically making a decision to leave him out in a cold, and by making that decision we are essentially limiting his options in life. We have a 74% success rate so to leave him out means his odds for success drop pretty dramatically.

Being ethical means you think about how your actions impact other people. We have to think about how our decision, either to let this Stanford MBA into the program or not, is going to impact the choices this candidate will have in life.

Candidate’s profile

A few facts about this applicant. Stanford undergraduate. Stanford MBA. An astonishingly outstanding resume. When I looked at this person’s resume I was a little bit surprised because when you have a resume like that you pretty much have a golden ticket to change the world. With a resume like that you are going to be a CEO one day.

And this Stanford MBA goes out there and he makes a mistake at one of the most prestigious investment banks in the world in their London office. He messes up so badly that the bank basically says, “We have to let you go”.

The mistake this Stanford MBA made was common for investment bankers – insider trading. He invested in stocks of a company the bank was representing. He should not have done that because he had access to insider information. The bank sent out email guidelines about this, not targeting him at all. Sam responded to email guidelines and admitted that he had done it and the bank let him go. He volunteered the information.

When I received the email I was a little bit surprised, to be honest, because in over four years of running the Firmsconsulting we never had to deal with a situation like this. So I had to think very carefully about this.

First question we asked: should this Stanford MBA go through our assessment process?

The first decision we had to make is whether or not we would put him through the application process for our case interview coaching program.

The one thing that I disagree with in the US and the West in general is when someone commits a crime we tend to punish them in perpetuity. They commit one crime, they do the “time”, whatever the punishment may be, and then for the rest of their lives we continue to informally punish them.

I think that if someone does something wrong and shoulders the burden of the crime, they should be forgiven and they should go on and earn their way into whatever life they create for themselves.

Therefore, I made the decision that we will look at this candidate’s profile. I wanted to understand if the circumstances are such that we could never trust Sam for the rest of our lives or is it something that we can forgive him for and that the candidate deserves a second chance.

If we let Sam in, I am confident that we could help him. And I will explain to you why I am confident enough after knowing all the facts. But if we don’t let this Stanford MBA in, the person’s circumstances are so unique that he most likely will never be able to get the right kind of guidance to reboot his career.

Therefore, it is a very big decision we had to make and there is an opportunity cost as well. If we let this Stanford MBA in and we are wrong about him, it means we denied another, potentially more worthy, candidate a spot in the program, since we take between 5-8% of all applicants. We cap it. If we let Sam in, someone else will not get in. 

The 5-part decision making process we deployed

We ultimately decided we would look at his application because we made the decision that we don’t know all of the facts. Therefore, it is possible that once we know the facts we will decide that we have came to a different conclusion from the bank and that this Stanford MBA has not done something unforgivably wrong.

Now lets look at a 5-part decision making process we applied here. Each part consists of a test that applicant had to pass to move to the next stage of the process.

Stanford MBA McKinsey v4

Test 1: can we trust this Stanford MBA?

The first thing we had to determine is whether or not we could trust this candidate. There is nothing else to consider if we cannot trust Sam. If we don’t trust him there is no way we are going to allow this Stanford MBA into the program.

The initial screening calls we had were brutal. The way we handle things at Firmsconsulting is we borrow a lot of techniques from the law firms: the way we analyze issues, the way we look at liability and the way we examine an event from multiple angles.

And I can assure you those screening calls with the applicant were not pleasant. We wanted Sam to run through the sequence of events multiple times. We wanted to see if there is consistency in the story.

Every time Sam would tell us things like, “Well, there is two ways to answer this question”, I would say, “Actually, I don’t want to know the two ways to answer this question. Just tell me the facts. Remove the interpretation”.

For example, if Sam did not do something because he was tired, I asked to leave out the tired part. That is subjective. I can’t know if he was tired or not. Instead I asked him to tell me, “Michael, I was working from 3am to 1am every day for 4 days” and I will determine if he was tired based on the facts alone.

What I was trying to do is zone in on the sequence of events that led to this mistake and I wanted to understand what happened. I was trying to figure out if this Stanford MBA did it on purpose or not.

Sam would go into discussion telling me, “Well, I think”. And I would stop him and say, “I am not interested in what you think. Tell me what happened. Just tell me the sequence: did this at 2am, did this at 2.15am etc”. Sam would tell me the story once and then I would have to go back and ask him to strip out more emotions so I can get the facts.

Once I got the facts on the table, I could then attach a time period. Once I could attach a time period I was trying to figure out if the event that happened occurred before this Stanford MBA was told he could not trade stocks that the bank represented or after.

And then what I was trying to do is zone in on those few moments when Sam made the decision to go ahead with the investment. I wanted to understand why he made that decision.

I would ask Sam the question in multiple formats to see if the story is consistent. So I would ask him the questions like, “Tell me what happened from your viewpoint”, “Tell me what happened from the viewpoint of legal counsel for the bank” and “Tell me what happened from the viewpoint of your friend who was advising you”. And eventually, when you get the multiple viewpoints, time periods, and you superimposed them, there needs to be consistency.

Realistically there not going to be a perfect consistency because memories are not perfect. But you expect reasonable consistency. Once I see that, and it is a result of a painful process, trust is generally established.

After going through this process, I concluded I could reasonably trust that what Sam was telling me is the truth. I am not saying that I can trust he has done the right thing, but I am trusting that the facts are correct even if he is admitting to having done something wrong.

Test 2: is it malice or negligence?

After allowing Sam to go through the selection process, the first test was, “Can I trust him?”. I wanted to see whether there is a consistency and whether the facts meet and mesh from multiple angles. And that is generally the way I establish trust.

Next I asked myself, “Did this Stanford MBA commit this act due to malice or due to negligence?”.

As you know, malice is when you do something to hurt someone or you doing something and you know its wrong. Negligence is when you are doing something wrong but you just don’t realize its wrong.

That is what I was trying to determine next. Did this Stanford MBA know he was doing the wrong thing or did he just get swept up in the moment, and forget, because he was under pressure and didn’t realized what he was doing.

The way I established this is twofold.

Firstly, I looked at the times he had done things correctly and I looked at the way he made decisions when he had done things correctly. Then I looked at the time he made this mistake and I looked at the way he made that decision. Then I asked myself, “Is the thought process the same?”.

If the thought process was always the same when he had done things correctly and diverted when he made this investment, then I can reasonably conclude that the thought process that was used when he had done things correctly allowed him to filter out things that were unethical or in this case criminal.

And I can reasonably assume that if he applied that same correct thought process when he was making a mistake, that thought process would basically raise a red flag that he was making a mistake.

I was looking for a deviation in the decision making process. Because if there is no deviation and the decision making process worked before, there is no reason it would not work in this case.

I will give you an example of a deviation in the decision making process. The deviation in thought process for Sam was that he was buying and selling stocks and, while he had a process for vetting stocks very carefully, it became very clear to me that when he made the mistake of purchasing the forbidden stock, he failed into what is known as trap of hubris.

He initially applied his vetting process to few stocks very carefully and he just ramped it up and started buying a lot of stocks. At one point trading 100-150 different equity investments. That is the deviation.

The decision making process was working very well when he had the time to vet a few stocks. But he was working long hours, with no time to sleep, it is reasonable for me to conclude that he was not applying the due diligence that is required, which most likely led to this mistake.

Secondly, it was unlikely that Sam benefited from insider knowledge. Sam did a due diligence assessment for this company few months prior to buying the stock, he worked on it for just 2 hours and no deal went ahead.

To me this looked like negligence. And if it is negligence then we go to the next step of the assessment process.

Test 3: if it is negligence, is it an acceptable negligence?

Lets recap the thought process up to now. First we looked at whether we could trust the candidate. Then we looked at deviation in the thought process. The deviation in the thought process allowed us to determine if it was a negligence or malice.

This brings us to the next step. If it was not malice, an intention to deceive, then we ask, “Is it acceptable or unacceptable negligence?”. Would a reasonable person consider this to be an acceptable negligence?

An example of an acceptable negligence is when I used to travel as a consultant and forgot that the hotel charges a 50% premium when you ask them to do your dry-cleaning. I sent it off and the client got over-billed.

An example of unacceptable negligence is when you are not thinking about the amount of alcohol you had and you get behind the wheel even though you could kill someone.

Next I asked myself, “Is this the kind of person who should be in management consulting?”. This Stanford MBA worked in the banking industry where, from what I heard, they have constant reminders about compliance. Yet he still forgets and makes this mistake.

The central tenet of investment banking is that you get access to client information and you don’t do anything with it, especially after the financial crisis. The core tenet of management consulting is that you don’t abuse your clients’ trust. They are roughly similar. If this Stanford MBA made this mistake in a field that is more aggressive about compliance, what would happen in management consulting where we are not as aggressive about compliance and we basically give people the benefit of the doubt?

Yet this Stanford MBA never benefited from this trade. He came forward and admitted this happened when he realized he made the mistake. He also made no excuses and volunteered the information. If he was trying to make money from this he probably would have made money, he would probably tried to hide it, he would not have come forward. It is not as if the bank knew what he was doing. This Stanford MBA volunteered information about the mistake he made.

Overall, to me this seemed like an acceptable negligence.

Test 4: if it is acceptable negligence, is there a pattern of negligence?

Do you punish someone for making a mistake and coming forward of their own free will as much as you punish someone for making a mistake and hiding it?

In Sam’s case there was no pattern. We all make mistakes. If there was a pattern, if there was more than one deal done, if we could see that throughout his life Sam pushed the limits then we could say it is unacceptable negligence because it basically reinforces a pattern of negligence. But we could not see that.

Test 5: is it manageable and could we manage it?

This Stanford MBA passed the trust test, he showed a deviation in his decision making process which allowed us to conclude that it was negligence and we could say it is acceptable and there was no pattern. The fact that he made no money from it, the fact that he came forward of his own free will was a big decision factor for us.

But we are not done with this analysis. The next question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is manageable and, if so, could we manage it?

Yes we can reasonably assume that it was a mistake, but it does not mean it can now be managed. There are a lot of times when you make an honest mistake but your reputation is completely damaged. The question we have to ask ourselves is that now that we are concluded that he deserves a second chance, can he actually get a second chance?

There are 4 factors to consider here.

We understand the reference checking system at McKinsey, BCG and Bain pretty well. So we know how they will check his background. And we have to ask ourselves, are we helping Sam to game the system? Is it ethical for us to do that? Are we encouraging him to lie? Should we be doing that? We also have to talk about collateral damage or liabilities that he has created in the process. And finally, what I call the ivy league envy effect.

Lets examine each in turn.

Gaming of the system

When McKinsey, BCG and Bain do a background check, they don’t call your boss and ask him a bunch of questions about you because the firms think that their partners are so brilliant that the opinion of someone outside McKinsey, BCG or Bain should not matter.

Therefore, when background check is done, it is usually a credit check, whether you have the degree you claim to have and whether you worked at a certain places. But that is about it. In fact there are quite a few offices now that don’t even check whether you worked where you claimed to have worked. But if they did, they definitely do not interview your former boss. That is a policy.

The McKinsey implementation group is trying to change this because they feel they need to know this about someone. But it is certainly not McKinsey, BCG and Bain policy. I know this sounds bizarre, since these firms handle so much crucial information about their clients yet they do such limited background check for new hires.

That is an example of hubris. They just think they are so brilliant at assessing you in the interviews that they will be able to pick out problems and don’t have to ask anyone about you. I think it is a flaw but it is the process so we are not going to game the system here because we are not altering the process.

We will be simply explaining to Sam the process and explaining to him that he does not have to worry too much about his past mistake because when McKinsey does the check on you they are going to not know this happened because their check does not allow them to find this out.

And we are comfortable with that because we are not assisting him to game the system. We are not actually doing anything.

Encouraging to lie

Now lets talk about lying. This is a big one.

We are not going to allow him to lie if we admit him into the program. That is the prerequisite. We are going to find a way to explain this to McKinsey and BCG when it comes up in such a way that he does not lie but he explains the logic in a way that is perfectly acceptable and we believe we can do that. So we are not going to allow him to do anything unethical anymore and we think this can be explained.

When we first got this email from this Stanford MBA and when we first spoke to him, Sam was a little bit of a panicked person. He had overreacted and he had explained the incident incorrectly. But once we went through all the details and understood it a lot better, we think that this is a mistake that can be explained.

As long as we are comfortable we are not encouraging the candidate to lie, or omit important information about his profile, we are comfortable with this.

People deserve a second chance if they made a mistake. We are not trying to misrepresent him. We are going to present him in the best possible light and if he can convince a partner, and we feel reasonably confident he can, he will have a second chance and he deserves it. We simply going to have to think about how to explain what happened and we think we can do it. So it passes that test.

Liabilities created through the event 

The next test we looking for is a post-event liabilities test. This is one test I am most concerned about. Sam created liabilities as a result of this event because when this happened he went and told quite a few people about it and that is I think the big mistake he made. The biggest mistake.

When you get into a lot of trouble, it is human nature to ask many people for advice. I always tell people, when you get into trouble you keep your mouth shut until you get proper legal counsel. You should not tell anyone anything because you don’t know who your friends are. And even if you can recognize your true friends, they can still be pretty dumb.

Based on the way he communicated what happened to us it is clear he is not good at communicating what happened because he made it sound a lot worse than it really was. Yes he was fired with cause but when you lay the facts on the table it can be reasonably concluded that it was just a mistake.

When he explained to other people what happened, to get advice, my worry is that he painted a very negative picture or misrepresented what happened and he has left a misrepresented impression in the minds of all those people. And there is no guarantee he can trust those people. They basically know a story about this Stanford MBA that can destroy his career in the future and they can tell anyone about it because there is no NDA in place.

Even if he got into McKinsey, even if McKinsey knows what happened and they agree to hire him, somewhere down the line in his future someone could come forward and say, “You know this guy I did Stanford MBA with? I heard what happened. How can he be such a senior person now at McKinsey?”.

And the issue is not whether or not Sam did the right or wrong thing. The issue is that once there is a rumor around your profile, it is human nature to cut off all the links with you, whether the rumor is right or wrong. To err on the side of caution.

I think that is a big issue for us here. Do we go through this entire process of getting Sam in, being completely ethical, explaining what happened, getting the offer. But in the future when, at the apex of Sam’s career, it breaks out in the newspapers, it does not matter how ethical Sam was in explaining this during the interviews. Many people will still say, “He made a mistake, he is a criminal forever and why did McKinsey or BCG hire him”.

So that liability for us is a big thing and we don’t know how many people he has told. We made it very clear to Sam, “The first thing you have to do is stop talking to people about this because you don’t know what you are saying and you make a situation that is actually not that bad, once you explain it to us, sound a lot worse”.

Ivy league envy effect

The last factor to consider is, what I call, the Ivy league envy effect.

Getting into an outstanding Stanford undergraduate computer science program, working with some of the most amazing professors who worked at Google and created all kinds of exceptional things, having the privilege of interning at one of the most distinguished hedge funds in the world, accepting an offer from one of the most prestigious investment banks in the world which then pays for you to go through Stanford MBA program, the most selective business program in the world, and then you go to the London office which is arguably the most prestigious office for that bank in the world, do very well, get promoted rapidly, work on key energy accounts and you get fired.

There is a lot of envy from people who want you to be punished because they are envious of the life you had and they can’t punish every other Stanford MBA or graduates of other prestigious programs so they will take it out on you. That is the problem our Stanford MBA faces.

He told some people what happened, while painting a very dark picture. And even though those people are his friends now, he does not know if they will be his friends in the future. I can assure you that people who seem to have an easy life receive brutal punishment when tables turn.

That is the Ivy-League envy effect. There is no pity for those graduates who stumble since the world assumes they have an unfair advantage.

Our decision to admit this Stanford MBA and how it is related to ethics

Going through this entire thought process, which was not easy, we made the decision to admit Sam into the program. And if you look at my thought process you will understand the amount of thinking that went into this decision. It was not an easy decision to make. We could have just as easily have denied this Stanford MBA a place and given it to some safe candidate. And our decision could still be wrong.

But it comes down to what is the definition of ethics. Being ethical does not mean you do what is popular. Being ethical does not mean you overreact. In fact, people who overreact to ethical problems are typically the ones who are not ethical.

Stanford MBA McKinsey p3

Being ethical means that you look at the facts and it is reasonable to conclude based on those facts that the candidate actually did not do anything unforgivably wrong. He just made a mistake and all of us make mistakes. And it does not matter what the bank may have said. We think the bank overreacted or it was badly presented. Companies do overreact at times. Companies are run by people and people tend to protect their jobs and reputations. And firing someone who made a mistake is the easiest way out in this type of situation.

We thought that, at the end of the day, do we deny someone a chance to reinvent their lives, assuming they deserve a chance to reinvent their lives, just to play it safe or do we do the ethical thing and practice what we preach? We always say that people deserve a second chance. We always say look at the facts and make a decision. And Sam passed all the tests.

The final question we asked was, “Could we manage this?”, and we thought we could. We felt we could manage this because it passes two out of four other tests for us. It passes the test where we are not being forced to game the system. We are not forced to manipulate McKinsey, BCG and Bain interview process because we don’t want to do that. We understand the process and we will talk the candidate through it, how to put his best foot forward, but we are not going to game the system.

We also not going to ask this Stanford MBA to lie but we definitely will have to find the way to explain what happened.

The liability test and ivy league envy effect are my biggest concerns. I don’t think we have that under our control but I feel that we can find the way to control it. It may take us some time but we will get there.

And that is why we admitted Sam. At a later stage, once the dust has settled a little bit, we will tell you where he ended up. What happened to him.

If you have blemishes on your resume, apply the same tests to your profile

A very difficult topic. I think everyone can agree. But I like sharing this type of information because everyone is unique and there are people reading this right now who have blemishes on their resume and think, “Oh my God, this is going to torpedo me”.

If you do, go through the same test:

  1. Can I be trusted again?
  2. Was it malice or negligence?
  3. If it was negligence, is there a pattern of negligence?
  4. If there is no pattern of negligence, was the event acceptable?
  5. If the event was acceptable, can it be managed? If the event can be managed, could I manage it?

Think about this very carefully as you examine your profile. You have to pass all of these tests if you want to get a second chance in a corporate world. You could have done something quite reckless in your career but you still have a chance to join an elite consulting firm and reinvent your career if you can pass these tests.

The positive note here is that a lot of people are too hard on themselves for very simple mistakes. And the point I want to make here is that it is ok to make mistakes provided the mistakes fall within the boundaries of the filters we set up here and they pass these filters.

As always, I will be happy to answer questions because I think it is a very interesting topic.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Does Sam deserve a second chance at McKinsey? Please let us know in the comments.

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26 responses to Stanford MBA fired with cause. Can he pursue McKinsey?

  1. You are welcome and good luck.

  2. OK, thanks again for the good follow-up!

  3. Hi Ross,

    There was no obligation to report this client to any regulatory body and it was not the policy of his firm to disclose his reason for leaving. Moreover, he was not allowed to disclose why he had left, as per firm policy.

    It comes down to the partners conducting the interview. In a partnership, partners make the final decision. Of course, they take into consideration everyone’s views, but they can always override a decision.


  4. OK thank you kindly for the commentary… I have some follow-ups regarding Sam’s story and hiring practices in general within consulting:

    Was Sam’s dismissal from the IB the only result from his actions? Or did he face penalties from any regulatory bodies or lose any license privileges?

    Also, who ultimately makes the hiring the decision – the interviewers or HR?

  5. Hi Ross,

    I am going to assume you do not mean something low level like a parking ticket or the like, since criminal is not a formal classification and means different things to different people.

    It depends of the type of crime. In most cases a formal criminal record like a felony record is not going to pass the screening process if an offer is extended.

    I cannot ever recall having a discussion with the recruiting partner if an applicant was ever flagged for having a DUI or misdemeanor, but that does not mean no one had it. I think some judgement is applied by the HR team.

    It will really come down to the record you do have and the culture of the office where you are applying.


  6. Do you have any experience with individuals who have a criminal background? Or do you know of any examples where individuals were indeed given a second chance?

  7. That is fine.

  8. Thank you Michael!

    Instead of “internal company changes” can I just write “to pursue other opportunities”?

    I ask because “company changes” still sound a bit negative compared to “other opportunities” which I still believe to be accurate.

    Thank you


  9. Hi Sara,

    Thank you and you are most welcome. The background check papers are not an affidavit and all you need to say is “Left due to internal company changes.”

    Remember, by law, even if you were fired for stealing paperclips but have signed an agreement not to mention your reason for leaving, you cannot mention the reason.

    The above reason is 100% correct but does not violate your company agreement by mentioning the specific reason.


  10. Dear Michael,

    As a newcomer who has only began to discover the vast treasure trove of information here, I sincerely wish I could have seen your site earlier!

    I have been reading through these comments and would like to know if you could elaborate on thing in particular.

    I myself have left a previous employer and signed an “NDA.” Therefore, as you have suggested, I am legally bound not to mention reason for leaving.

    Mechanically, however, what shall I do in the papers I need to fill out for the background check when it specifically asks me for reason of leaving? Should I just leave it blank? Or should I write something else?

    Apologies if this is a very specific question, but I am slightly concerned about what to do.



  11. Hi Peter,

    This is easy. Sam has signed an NDA which means he cannot disclose why he left. If a background check is done his firm will also not say why he left. They will simply confirm he worked there. This is standard policy. By not disclosing why he left he is actually obeying the NDA he signed and that is a legal issue, not an ethics issue.


  12. Thanks for the response Michael.

    Personally, I’ve found that one learns more from mistakes and failures than a string of successes. There are few successful people in this world who never failed or screwed up.

    That being said, despite the powerful real life advantages of learning from one’s mistakes, it is probably not Sam’s best option to disclose this during an interview no matter what important life lessons he may have drawn. Interviewers are too risk-averse, and are not in the business of caring.

    Therefore, we can concur that Sam absolutely should not disclose this during the interview, as he will not likely be given the chance to explain. Nor, however, should he lie about it if the interviewers find out and confront him about it.

    But, then, what shall he do when he’s being extended an offer and has to fill out the background checks? What should he fill under the section: reason for leaving London Investment Bank?

    That is a direct question, and could pose a dilemma:
    1. Sam writes something else about reason for leaving.
    2. Sam writes the truth, and thus discloses the reason
    Option 1 is the realistic way, since Option 2 will not get him the job, ever.

    But would Option 1 still reconcile ethics with reality?

  13. Hi Peter,

    An EM is still relatively junior and a rumor remains a rumor no matter who may bring it up.


  14. Thanks Michael for that interesting insight.

    However, considering Sam has graduated from MBA, his peers who knew him aren’t going to be analysts. They will be associates and lower-level managers.

    I’d imagine their voice carries more weight than that of analysts, but still would need to pass the test of “substantiation?”

  15. Hi Peter,

    We would prefer to not hire someone if there is a belief there is a problem in their past. That said, if a business analysts told me, as a partner, about a rumor I would want some substantiation before simply passing on the candidate.

    There is proof that consulting firms do not simply listen to external rumors. For example, we do not do reference checks on the opinions of past employers. If we take so little stock in a formal past employer reference check, we you can sure the only reason we are even considering the possibility of looking at a rumor is because a consultant raises it. Yet, that is not sufficient by itself.

    So, the gossip would need to be more than gossip. It would need to be substantiated. I have personally hired people in these situations so I know more than a rumor is needed to tank the applicant.


  16. Dear Michael,

    This is a very interesting case and I give my best wishes to Sam. He deserves a 2nd chance and it’ll be a pity for the corporate world to lose talent over 1 manageable mistake.

    You bring up an excellent point of liabilities/rumors. Given that top notch students often know each other (superficially or not) and the gossip grapevine can operate at warp speed in firms and MBAs, what will happen if Sam interviews with these top 3 firms and one of the “junior” consultants either knew him or heard about what happened?

    No matter how well Sam interviews, will it be likely that junior consultants spread the gossip to senior-ranked people?

    Therefore, my question boils down to this:
    What is the BBM’s unspoken office policy of managing the rumor mill?

  17. Hi Hannah,

    I agree with you. With the enormous amount of information available today we typically do not take the time to carefully analyze things before rushing to judgement.

    It will likely not get easier as even more information comes online.


  18. Hi Michael,

    A very honest and complex article indeed. I was impressed that you were able to dissect a complex ethical issue into actionable tests. I look forward to learning how to do this as well.

    One comment: I do believe that Sam deserves a second chance based on the provided information. And I highly applaud FC for giving him a chance instead of quickly brushing him off. FC keeps impressing me with your high values.

    Another related comment: it seems that with the spread of social networking, everyone is turning into “moral police” but actually they are becoming more like cyber bullies. There are stories of people who got fired from comments on Twitter/Facebook? You can read this article here:

    I’m amazed that people just rush into judging others from an out-of-context phrase. And I’m even more amazed that companies are so quick to let go of their employees just to protect their images, instead of investigating the situations and defending their employees if necessary.

    I personally feel that online social networks are eroding our ethical standards since people tend to flock to the loudest voices, without understanding the context. But I believe that with enough transparency and reasons, everything will be fine in the end.

    So I believe Sam should not worry about his future. If it becomes an issue in the future then he can discuss honestly with McK (public letter if necessary). Otherwise he has not committed any malignant crimes so I agree that not volunteering the information is a wiser move.



  19. Personally speaking, I am very fortunate because of the second chances that I have been afforded – Sam sounds like someone that is deserving of the same.

  20. Hi Femi,

    Thanks for the question and consistent contributions to the site!

    Given all the issues with the financial crisis and perceptions of fraud, the behavior of the bank is normal. All banks would act that way.

    To answer the other question, let’s think about a situation where an investment banker leaves GS because she knows she will soon be fired. That is a real client situation that we deal with quite often. When she gets through all the hurdles at McKinsey, does she mention to McKinsey she left because she was going to be fired?

    In that situation, would we consider it wrong if she withheld that information?

    In fact, we would ask her not to volunteer that information. Every single person in the entire world is withholding something that makes them look bad. The question is, if it is not a legal obligation to discuss something, should it be disclosed for ethical reasons?

    Sam’s situation is no different. We have already determined it is a mistake. On that measure, there is no more need for him to mention it versus the GS lady mentioning why she left or anyone else volunteering negative facts.

    Why does someone jumping ship before they get fired, jumping ship since they do not get along with colleagues, jumping ship before they make a mistake have any less a need for disclosure?

    The difference here is that we are wired to hear “insider trading” and jump around with shock but we have reasonably concluded that is not the case. There are degrees of wrong and this was the lightest shade if even a real wrong at all.

    McKinsey is also going to contact his previous employer to check his employment status. If the previous employer will not disclose this information to McKinsey, why does the obligation need to fall on Sam to disclose it?

    In some companies, employees are actually forbidden from stating the nature of their departure. Sam’s contract is similar. Therefore, he is simply following the terms of his contract.

    Here is the moral dilemma: Should Sam break his contract with the bank to disclose information to McKinsey? There is no basis for doing that. Because to do that implies you assume McKinsey is more important than the bank and that is a subjective view.

    As you can see, what looks like a simple and easy answer, is not that straightforward.

    Sam will not need to lie. There are ways to manage this.

    Hope that makes sense.


  21. Hi Aylwin,

    I sincerely doubt employers care that much. They are not concerned about taking on the role and risk of helping anyone. They simply want the best and least risk employees.

    I am not sure if that is necessarily a bad thing since companies simply reflect what the majority of society and shareholders want. I think society needs to alter our expectations of companies and they will change.

    It will take time, but it needs to change. We have a far to conservative and black/white view of things.


  22. Hi Michael,

    First, I must thank you for your commitment to openness on these issues! It’s highly commendable. You really could have chosen to not share this and you wouldn’t be wrong.

    Second, I want to quickly express my dissatisfaction with the inability of the IB to “temper justice with mercy.” Not because I condone such matter as this but because, if indeed the candidate had not come forward, the bank may never find out. As such, they could have examined intention. Here is a an individual who has worked with your firm for some time: you have significant “historicals” on the individual and his/her history can be examined for patterns. Such approach may even send a more positive signal to other traders rather than the sack which would most likely communicate the “perils” that lurk in honesty and truth-telling. I think the bank lost a faithful employee who was on his way to loyalty! Clearly, (s)he should be punished, but the punishment ought to be somewhere along a graduated scale and not on the end of the scale. Whatever happened to 6 months suspension with or without base salary? etc. There’s a reason why the criminal justice system rewards criminals who “cooperate.” Could it be that this firm is trying “to prove a point?” Because it doesn’t seem intuitive to me that someone could be fired, given the narrative.

    Third, I have a question. I indeed pray this candidate gets an opportunity to “re-incarnate” and I believe (s)he would. What happens if (s)he is not questioned on why (s)he left the IB? Pretty much of an unlikely assumption but the slim chance is a chance. In such case, would you advise that (s)he be upfront about the situation? and say… “well, while you think I am an awesome candidate and have planned to make me an offer, I believe there’s one more thing you should know…”

  23. From the viewpoint of future employers,the term “fired” it raises red flags and could paint a negative first impression. This falls onto the employer to see through the candidate’s short fall and realizing that (s)he does have ethics and values that aligns with the company. I am keen to see how FC position the candidate for future role.

  24. This would require future employers to have insights to see through the obvious. Not an easy one. Good luck.

  25. Thanks G Stephen!

  26. A very interesting post Michael. I think with what you have discussed, Sam definitely deserves a second chance. It’s very hard for many to own up their mistakes specially when they know they would be fired for it. Sam made this bold move and I am happy that you have selected him in this program. Good luck Sam!

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