Why Scott Thompson’s “inadvertent error” is a big deal

Some people interpreted my piece calling out Silicon Valley’s snobbishness about computer science degrees as a defense of embattled Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. It’s not.

Thompson’s mistake is a big issue. It reflects his own ethical lapses as well as serious problems at Yahoo.

Let’s start with Yahoo’s problems.

They didn’t check out the credentials of their future CEO? I know it’s not uncommon for CEOs to lie about their credentials, but a company with as much stink as Yahoo has had around it for the last five years has to be extra careful.

Before my last corporate role at a big company, I had to sign off on a background investigation. My hiring was delayed because of an error in Northwestern’s records that had me attending for only three months. When I’ve hired at large companies in the past, candidates have been subject to investigations before I could make a formal offer. At one company, the investigations could come back in one of three ways: OK to hire, OK with reservations, or no hire. Presumably the “no hire” was based on security risks; don’t want an ax murderer joining the team. If someone had falsified their academic credentials, I could hire them anyway. (Though I likely wouldn’t.)

The other big problem I see here is Yahoo PR’s initial response that this was an “inadvertent error”. You just don’t make statements like that so early in the news cycle. You either duck reporters’ questions or say “no comment.” There is just too much that can go wrong if you haven’t confirmed all of the facts. At that time, they likely didn’t know about the recorded interview that Kara Swisher dug up in which Thompson fails to correct an interviewer who prominently notes his computer science credentials.

A company as troubled as Yahoo needs competent PR. And competent PR or legal wouldn’t approve a statement like this until it’s been thoroughly investigated and found to be true. So far, all evidence suggests that it’s far from true — especially the fact that eBay’s financial statements didn’t make mention of Thompson’s supposed computer science degree.

When it comes to Thompson, there are serious questions about judgment. There’s a difference between marketing and lying, although there are often shades of gray.

When I send out resumes, I customize them for each employer. That’s just good marketing. I’ve done a lot in my career and I try to highlight things that are most relevant to the job I’m applying for. I often omit things I’ve done because they just add clutter and would distract the reader from what makes me a good fit. I frequently collapse things; for example, at one company I was promoted four times in three years (#humblebrag), but I just list the highest title I had. Is that a lie? I don’t think so — I did hold that job. If anyone asked, I’d happily give all of the details. [Correction: I was promoted three times in three years. (I had four jobs.) I regret the inadvertent error.]

The stupidity of Thompson’s case is that it’s easily disprovable; even more so because Stonehill College didn’t start issuing computer science degrees until well after he graduated.

You can’t go back in time and get a degree that you don’t have. If Yahoo doesn’t take serious action against Thompson, every applicant who has to sign the form certifying that what they put down on their application is true is going to notice the hypocrisy.

The SEC should also look into this because the erroneous information was in official filings. If it doesn’t, it gives other CEOs the license to ignore certification requirements.

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