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The seven deadly sins of corporate dysfunctionality

A significant percentage of executives and their boards are dysfunctional. If you knew what really goes on out there, the countless ways you can get screwed, you'd need Ambien just to sleep at night.

This blog's supposed to be about corporate dysfunctionality, but somehow we've gotten sidetracked. We've never really looked at the big picture. The big picture is this: a reasonably significant percentage of executives and their boards are dysfunctional.

What do I mean by that? I mean they shouldn't be doing some of the things they're doing, and those things can get them in big trouble with a variety of law enforcement agencies. Why do they do it? Who knows.

As for you good folks--investors and employees--well, I don't want to be an alarmist, but if you knew what really goes on out there, the countless ways you can get screwed, well, let's just say you'd need a good dose of Ambien to get any sleep.

The good news is you can protect yourself; we'll get to that in a minute.

Until then, here are the most common ways that dysfunctional executives and directors can mess up. I've included a few well-known examples, but the scary part is that, for every big-name scandal, hundreds fly under the radar screen.

The seven deadly sins of corporate dysfunctionality

Creative accounting
Most of the biggest scandals of our time have included some form of creative accounting: shell companies, offshore accounts, creative expensing, or just your run of the mill accounting fraud. That's what did in Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia and a host of others.

Conflicts of interest
One of the biggest scams in history was the conflict of interest between investment banks and their research analysts leading up to the dot.com bust. The top ten investment banks coughed up $1.4 billion to get the SEC, the N.Y. attorney general and a host of others off their back. A few analysts were banned, but amazingly, nobody went to jail.

Insider trading
If you really think this is just the domain of Martha Stewart and ImClone ex-CEO Sam Waksal, then I've got some nice used cars from New Orleans to sell you. I'd be willing to bet that at least half the executives who say they've never traded on inside information would be lying. The other half have so much money they don't need to.

Dysfunctional families
I don't care if it's IBM in the old days, Motorola all too recently, Adelphia, Wang Laboratories, or Atmel. If you're considering a company with any family relations on the executive management team or the board, forget it. And if a family actually controls the stock's voting rights, as was the case with Adelphia, soon enough you'll read about it in the newspaper.

Rubber-stamping boards
Behind every dysfunctional executive and company is a board that fits nicely into the CEO's back pocket and rubber-stamps everything put in front of them. Tyco was a great example, but there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of boards that are blindly loyal to their company's CEO.

Generic SEC filings
10Ks have to be the biggest waste of paper since An Inconvenient Truth was published. The risk factors are generic and watered down while the business sections do more to hide than highlight competitive challenges. The lawyers and Sarbanes-Oxley consultants are in charge. That's really scary.

Ludicrous compensation
How many CEOs and other officers have been sacked as a result of stock option backdating scandals? Must be 30 or more in the technology space alone. Besides the sometimes ludicrous equity and monetary compensation, CEOs can sometimes make even more money by quitting or getting fired. Sure, some deserve their pay, but many don't, and there's everything in between.

Well, that's the seven, and I'm not even talking about the rare psychopath that can take down an entire sector. Take Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom. How smart do you have to be to ask a simple question: in what universe does it make sense for a guy who was a motel owner, a milkman, and a gym teacher to somehow be competent at running one of the world's largest telecom companies? Just thinking about it makes me feel delusional.

With all these ways to get hosed, what's an investor to do? Simple, diversify. If you have more than five or ten percent of your net worth in any one stock, you're asking for trouble. As for employees, you need to manage your own career. Don't expect anybody or any company to do it for you. Trust and protect yourself and you'll do fine.

The only person you can be sure isn't dysfunctional is yourself. If you're not sure if you're dysfunctional, take this quiz and find out.