PROVO, Utah — The woman known as the Enron whistleblower gave BYU business students a three-M test to use when they make ethical decisions in the workplace during a campus seminar on Wednesday.
"If you'd be embarrassed to discuss the transaction with a mentor you most respect or admire, or you'd be embarrassed to have it in the media or you'd be embarrassed for your mother to find out, you know it's a troublesome transaction," Sherron Watkins said.
Watkins was one of three women whistleblowers named Time Magazine's persons of the year in 2002. She spoke Wednesday night to 175 students in a lecture hall at BYU's Jesse Knight Building as part of a Wheatley Forum on business ethics.
Enron was American's seventh-largest public company and controlled 25 percent of the nation's energy before it failed in 2002. Its stock plummeted from $90 a share to 9 cents a share in a matter of months after fraud was uncovered.
Watkins discovered the fraud when she changed positions at the company, typical of how whistleblowers learn of problems within a business. She took her concerns to CEO Ken Lay, but he ignored the information and attempted to discredit her.
During a Congressional investigation, the documentation she provided Lay became public, and she became famous for trying to right the company.
Watkins compared the Enron disaster both to the Titanic and a drug user.
"My warnings were really too little too late to save the company," she said.
Enron was using the business fraud equivalent of gateway drugs in 1996, Watkins said. If it had been discovered then, the company could have gone to rehab, been slapped on the wrist and recovered. By 2000, Enron was like a full-blown meth addict, and it was going to die anyway.
Lay's predecessor, Jeff Skilling, had steered the company into an iceberg and bailed out.
Watkins has made six visits to BYU in the past seven years.
"I love talking at BYU because I can talk about my faith," said Watkins, a Lutheran steadied by the teachings of Hebrews 12:1-3 when TV camera crews surrounded her Texas home, "but I can also applaud that ethics is a core part of the curriculum, and that you're getting the right toolkit to know what to do to in an ethical challenge.
"Don't stay silent. Don't be passive. My strongest message is to realize that you are likely to face an ethical challenge. To stay silent, to remain inactive because you don't know what to do, means you go along. The best thing to do is to speak up, find peers that feel the same way and put it in writing. Hopefully you'll be taken off the transaction, but you'll at least safeguard yourself."
She told students to look for businesses with leaders who love their companies products and services. Skilling, she said, only ever talked about Enron's stock price, a motivation that can lead to fraud.
Most whistleblowers face intense pressure. Many lose their jobs, their marriages, their homes and their friends.
Watkins said God had her back. Enron failed quickly, and once Congress revealed her role, "I was really unfireable," she said.
One major key was that she hadn't fudged her expense reports, as many colleagues had.
"If you want to take a courageous step, you've got to feel like you don't have skeletons in your closet," she said. "In hindsight it was very, very important that I did not have anything funny on my expense reports."