Do The Right Thing

In June 2002, Cynthia Cooper, an internal auditor at Clinton, MS-based telecommunications giant WorldCom, identified some accounting irregularities in the company's books—actually, it was $3.8 billion worth of accounting irregularities. Cooper immediately reported the discrepancies to the company's board. One month later, WorldCom declared the largest bankruptcy in United States history and became an emblem of corporate corruption, greed, and fraud.

But it wasn't always that way. Until then, WorldCom had been the pride of Mississippi. "It was the only Fortune 500 company based in the state of Mississippi," says Cooper, herself a Mississippi native. "People were always impressed when you said you worked at WorldCom." So when Cooper discovered the fraud, she understood at once the magnitude of her decision to report it. "We found ourselves standing at a crossroads, but we knew there was only one right path to take," she says. "We felt a duty, and there was really never any question about whether or not we'd fulfill it. The decision to come forward was easy. It was the aftermath that was hard."

Overnight, Cooper says, she went from private citizen to public figure—and not a very popular one. "I awoke one day to find that I had been bestowed with the not-so-flattering name of whistle-blower. The press was everywhere, Congress was calling me for testimony that would be broadcast live across the nation, FBI agents showed up at my door to take away and copy my hard drive and download all my voice mail." In other words, Cooper's privacy was instantaneously and entirely gone. As she watched, company executives were taken away in handcuffs. "These people were not just figureheads to us. They were real people with children, husbands, wives; they were colleagues with whom I'd worked for 10 years."

Cooper says exposing WorldCom's fraud was "the most difficult thing I've ever been through in my life. Sometimes," she adds, "doing the right thing has a cost, and that cost can be severe." But Cooper says she learned invaluable lessons from the experience. "Each of us has an opportunity to ensure that the moral fabric of our country is strong, whether it's as parents teaching children, teachers incorporating ethics into the curriculum at universities, or professionals in corporations who set the right tone at the top of the company."

After leaving WorldCom, Cooper formed Cynthia Cooper Consulting and started speaking to corporations, associations, and universities about ethics and leadership through the prism of her own difficult experiences. She was named one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year in 2002.