Greed ... is good. -- Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street
Sorry, Gordon. You may be a great financier who, in the movie, has more money than I can ever imagine, but greed is not good. Greed leads to some very bad behavior in the business world. And this is year is no exception. So greed is going to the top of the Naughty List.
Greed has led to the downfall of lots of people over the years. Remember Kozlowski from Tyco (NYSE: TYC ) ? What about Lay, Skilling, Fastow, et. al. from Enron? Essentially, greed got in the way of better judgment and led to some bad outcomes.
This year is no exception, with the whole options backdating problem. The surprising thing is that this behavior, via greed, spread like a cold virus through an elementary school. No one was immune. Executives at great companies like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Bed Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq: BBBY ) , and even Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) got caught in the web. (Here is a very nice list from The Wall Street Journal of other companies involved in this debacle. It's grown since the last time I checked.)
As a result, some executives lost their jobs and tarnished their reputations. Not all of them, but some of them. And for some of the very top, like ultra-rich former Chairman McGuire at UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH ) , you just have to wonder, why? This guy had so much -- I'm surprised he felt he needed that much more.
OK, maybe I shouldn't be that surprised. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason.
There is another serious problem in business that will make scandals like option backdating continue to happen, and it starts in business school. I was surprised to learn that MBA candidates are the biggest cheaters in graduate school. (If you haven't figured it out yet, maybe I am a little naive about how things really work in business.)
So we have an institution that attracts some of the best minds in the world, and they cheat? Frankly, that's stupid. And you can't tell me that their penchant for making as many dollars for themselves as possible without regard to consequences doesn't move from the classroom, where the stakes are low, to the corporate world, where the stakes are high. Frankly, as an MBA, I am a bit disgusted. I learned that cheating was wrong in kindergarten.
I know that I am pointing to a few bad apples that have spoiled the barrel, and I also know that I am not immune from the power of greed. There are many, many upstanding executives who do a great job of managing their businesses. And the desire to make money is not always a bad thing. In fact, in the Gekko speech, he is saying that good things can sometimes happen because of greed, like change and innovation that brings about improvement. But when greed makes people do bad things in order to get ahead, that's when it becomes a huge problem.
And that's why it's going on the Naughty List again.
For more on options backdating, check out:
There's a whole world of naughty and nice out there! Take a lookat the rest of the bunch.
Retail editor and Inside Value team member David Meier is ranked 261 out of 17,180 in CAPS and does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. You can view his TMF profile here. The Fool takes its disclosure policy very seriously.