How Following Orders Can Harm Your Career

Asked by her bosses to make false accounting entries, a midlevel accountant balked, then caved. Her solid career took a sudden turn in a very sorry direction.

Betty Vinson has always kept her life well ordered. She posts one list on the refrigerator of what she needs to buy at Wal-Mart and another for the grocery store. She keeps a list of the clothes she wears to work so she doesn’t repeat outfits too often. The daughter of the former owner of a small typewriter shop, she is known among her friends for her spicy Texas chili.

In 1996, she took a job as a midlevel accountant at a small long-distance company. Five years later, her solid career took a sudden turn in a very sorry direction. Today Ms. Vinson, 47 years old, is awaiting sentencing on conspiracy and securities-fraud charges. She has begun to prepare her 12-year-old daughter for the possibility that she will go to jail.

The long-distance company grew up to be telecom giant WorldCom Inc., which melted down last year in an $11 billion fraud, the biggest in corporate history. Asked by her bosses there to make false accounting entries, Ms. Vinson balked — and then caved. Over the course of six quarters she continued to make the illegal entries to bolster WorldCom’s profits at the request of her superiors. Each time she worried. Each time she hoped it was the last time. At the end of 18 months she had helped falsify at least $3.7 billion in profits. Ms. Vinson refused to talk about her work for WorldCom or the case against her.

Ms. Vinson and two colleagues ended up confessing their accounting sins to federal officials in a Courtyard Marriott hotel room. As the investigation got rolling, she hoped to be considered a witness. When the Justice Department shifted the case midstream from Mississippi to more-aggressive prosecutors in New York, she became a target.

Ms. Vinson’s story is a cautionary tale for good corporate soldiers everywhere who find themselves ordered to do something wrong. In a recent speech to Wall Street executives, James Comey, the U.S. attorney prosecuting Ms. Vinson’s case, said that “just following orders” is not an excuse for breaking the law. As Ms. Vinson’s experience at WorldCom shows, sometimes it’s hard to tell right from wrong in the heat of a workplace battle. And when an employee’s livelihood is on the line, it’s tough to say no to a powerful boss. Ms. Vinson wasn’t alone in these predicaments. In a report issued this month, investigators hired by the company’s new board found that dozens of employees knew about the fraud at WorldCom but were afraid to speak out.

Love of Math

Ms. Vinson played on the high-school tennis team here in her hometown and translated her love of math into an accounting major at Mississippi College. She lived at home and spent the summers working in her father’s typewriter shop, which eventually closed after computers came into vogue.

Shortly after she graduated in 1978, she married Tom Vinson, her college sweetheart. Ms. Vinson took a series of positions at a small savings bank in Louisiana and then the Resolution Trust Corporation, there and in Kansas City. The couple moved home to Jackson in 1996, when Ms. Vinson got a job in the international accounting division at WorldCom making $50,000 a year.

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