INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - 'Andersen employee demos turning tide of opinion'

Staff at troubled accounting firm Andersen are leading the company's most successful US PR campaign, writes leading American commentator Paul Holmes.

Andersen's US employees appear to have better PR instincts than its PR professionals. If sources close to the embattled accounting giant are correct, recent demonstrations in support of the company - or more accurately, against the US Justice Department - are entirely spontaneous, conceived and organised by the employees themselves.

Those demonstrations have done more to turn the tide of public opinion in favour of the company than any formal pronouncements, and the employees are to be applauded for seizing on the only message that could conceivably save the company from dissolution.

Now Andersen supporters in the media have taken up the message - that a break-up will hurt tens of thousands of innocent parties.

It's a message that resonates and evokes sympathy. But it's the wrong message in terms of public policy - assuming you believe that discouraging corporate malfeasance is a legitimate policy objective.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial argued that the innocents injured by the Justice Department lawsuit should be considered 'collateral consequences', echoing the 'collateral damage' that is inflicted on innocents during wartime.

Let's look at these innocent parties, starting with those Enron shareholders.

Whenever regulators sue a corporation, corporate apologists point to the 'innocent' shareholders.

That suggests a model of governance in which the owners of corporations bear no responsibility for the actions taken in their name by individuals they select to run the company.

But perhaps forcing them to do so would encourage them to take a little more interest the next time they are asked to elect a new board director or vote on an activist's proposal.

What about Andersen's partners? While only a few participated in the shredding of documents, all of them will be punished if the firm collapses.

If you are a partner in a venture, you have a responsibility to ensure there are policies in place to prevent illegal activities.

If you're not comfortable with ethics policies, you either walk away or accept the consequences when this occurs.

Ordinary employees are collateral casualties, just like the children of murderers are collateral casualties of society's decision to punish their parents - except no-one ever suggests we should let murderers go free for their kids' sake.

Corporate crime is a serious problem because owners and managers are rarely held accountable for what is done in their name. Perhaps, in the wake of the charges against Andersen, they will take a little more responsibility.

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