No Apology Necessary: Jobs Where Mistakes Don't Matter

By Meghan Casserly

This week JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon apologized for the losses that cost the company more than $2 billion and as much as $5 billion, citing a failed strategy that he said started as an advantageous hedge that would make the firm a lot of money in the event of a credit crisis.

"This particular synthetic credit portfolio was intended to earn a lot of revenue if there was a crisis. I consider that a hedge," Dimon told the Senate Banking Committee. "What it morphed into, I will not try to defend."

Will he be held accountable? Will he be fired? Probably not: He said sorry. Sorta.

"I'm sorry I've taken up so many people's time with this loss," he said. "Because it is not significant in the global scheme of things."

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But apology or no, Dimon's reputation, which my colleague Nathan Vardi notes was partly earned by successfully guiding JPMorgan through the credit crisis, has taken a serious hit. Dimon now is telling investors that he forecasts a "profitable" quarter for the bank, but given his recent track record, can they be expected to trust him? Left shaken by the reported losses six weeks ago, investors and stock-watchers will have to sit tight until July 13th when the bank next reports its finances. It could be a few very long weeks.

Still, the recent Dimon saga, which came on the heels of another (much less problematic) CEO screw up, in which Yahoo! CEO was outed for fudging his resume, has us thinking about positions or occupations in which no one seems to be held accountable for his or her decisions or actions.

And so, Forbes staffers mind-melded to come up with a comprehensive listing of career-paths with little to no accountability. "Meteorologists!" was first on my list, only to be shot down by my colleague Matt Herper, who reminded me that besides weathermen of the television, radio and Web variety, weather experts do play a serious role in keeping airline travelers safe and protecting the public from natural disasters.

Candidates ranged from cult leaders and op-ed columnists to the Pope, and it quickly became clear that positions with little-to-no accountability fall into three distinct camps: those positions that make predictions (i.e. anyone who could be described as a "guru," whether of weather, economics, health, star signs…) and those positions that are protected by an umbrella organization that keeps its members safe from speculation (see religious figures and union members, including tenured teachers). Oh-and guys at the top who believe themselves to be beyond reproach (from CEOs, investors, you name it).

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The "-ists"

TV Meteorologists. "I recently saw a weather report that showed the outlook for Saturday described as 'hit or miss.' It's impossible to screw up that forecast." (Me)

Op-ed columnist. "If the government does what you want it to, it shows your influence. If it doesn't, you get to say "I told you so" when everything doesn't turn out perfectly." (Jeff Bercovici, Media reporter)

Therapists. "The lie-down-on-the-couch variety. You don't hear much about them being sued for malpractice." (Clare O'Connor, Wealth reporter)

Economists. "Take Harry Dent. In 1999/2000 he predicted a Dow by 40,000 by 2009. In 2010 he predicted the Dow 2,000 by 2012. Amazing versatility." (Rich Karlgaard, publisher)

The Protected

Priests. Much of the child sex abuse scandal surrounding the Catholic church has focused around members of the hierarchy who failed to report abuse accusations to authorities. See also: Penn State football coaches.

Tenured teachers. Tenure, a type of job protection afforded teachers who pass a level of experience that varies between school districts and universities, was created as a safety net protecting instructors against political reprisals, but is often considered a hammock for bad actors. NYC residents familiar with the so-called "rubber-room" system will agree.

Union employees. What do baseball umpires and construction workers have in common?

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The Godfather Effect

CEOs. You're only held accountable if there's a typo on your resume. Losing billions with bad strategy? Just apologize.

The Pope. If you've got God on your side, you can't lose.

Judges (appointed, not elected). "Also, juries: They decide guilt or innocence, but if they're later proved to be wrong (say if defendant is exonerated through DNA testing), they're not held accountable." (Kashmir Hill, Privacy reporter)

In talking with ethics expert Diane Swanson, the founding chair of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University, the problem is this: without accountability, employees are left (gasp!) to their own moral reasoning. And that's not always a good thing. "Left to their own devices most people reason on a very conventional level," she says. "Which means they look to both the rule of law and their peer group to make decisions." When that peer group has loose morals or a dubious code of ethics, (Bankers? CEOs? Journalists?), decision making can be skewed towards the risky, careless or morally bankrupt end of the spectrum.

According to the Ethics Resource Center, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit, there is very little doubt that accountability is a major factor in ethical behavior at work. In the group's 2011 National Business Ethics Survey they compared the numbers on accountability against those who report ethical misconduct on the job and those who experience retaliation after reporting. Results show a lack of accountability can have an extremely negative effect on a workplace.

An upcoming NBES report on retaliation due out in July from the center will illustrate that when managers are not held accountable, retaliation on employees who report ethical problems more than doubles. "Accountability in organizations is a key component for setting an ethical 'tone at the top' that drives good behavior," said Dr. Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center.

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