With each passing news cycle, the story of Enron’s collapse becomes more sordid. Conduct that ranged from questionable to quite possibly illegal has tarnished the reputations of nearly all of Enron’s senior management.
But there’s one notable exception. One vice-president did the right thing — and did it because of her faith and the worldview it produces.
The February 2 issue of WORLD magazine reports that Sherron Watkins never aspired to be a hero. And she certainly never imagined that there would be T-shirts reading “Thanks, Sherron Watkins, Our Hero.”
Watkins was an Enron vice-president who worked for the company’s chief financial officer. It was there that she became aware of the questionable accounting practices that Enron used to hide the extent of its losses and the lie about its bottom line figures.
Watkins was initially afraid to confront senior management about the irregularities. But after talking to a friend and her mother, Watkins drafted a six-page memo to Enron CEO Kenneth Lay. In it she expressed her concern that the company “will implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” She went further calling Enron a “crooked company” whose profits were “nothing but an elaborate hoax.” She expected to be fired and was surprised when she wasn’t.
Watkins not only had the courage to risk her job, she — unlike other Enron executives — refused to use her insider knowledge for personal gain. Despite seeing the company coming apart, Watkins never sold her stock.
Now, why, in the midst of what TIME magazine called “a failure of character,” did Watkins stick her neck out? Would it surprise you to learn that she’s a Christian? As her mother told WORLD magazine, Watkins’ “strong Christian background” made her want to do the right thing in situations like the one she confronted at Enron.
And to discern what the right thing was, she didn’t turn inward or to business ethicists. Instead she sought the counsel of her pastor and the people in her Bible study group.
Watkins’ behavior has made her, in the London Guardian’s words, “the toast of America.” But as her Sunday school teacher told WORLD magazine, her Christian friends sometimes wonder what the big deal is. After all, she was only doing what a Christian should do.
Sherron Watkins’ actions are not only an example of the difference Christian faith can make in a person’s life, although they certainly are that. Her actions are — more than that — a reminder of the cultural impact that a Christian worldview can have.
When our post-Christian culture rejected Christianity, it rejected the belief system that makes behavior like Watkins’ possible. Today few, if any, business schools teach their students the difference between right and wrong. There are no courses in business ethics, as I discovered when lectured at Harvard Business School some years ago. So, absent a worldview that thinks in terms of moral absolutes, rather than next quarter’s earnings, there’s no reason to expect people to act against self-interest and do the right thing. That’s why Watkins’ actions stand out.
We’ll hear more about Sherron Watkins. And Christians ought to be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity to tell our neighbors the real significance of her story: That doing the right thing starts with believing the right thing.
For further reading:
Bob Jones, “Reluctant Hero,” WORLD, 2 February 2002.
BreakPoint with Chuck Colson, “The More Things Change: Enron,” 17 January 2002.
Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale House, 1999).