Episode 9: Story of a scandal

A co-production by Words & Actions and en clair

Episode 9 is a co-production by the Words & Actions and en clair podcasts, kindly sponsored by the Aston Institute of Forensic Linguistics. The way we decided to work together is by having the usual parts of a W&A episode ‒ introduction, interview and analysis ‒ bracketed by the en clair host, Claire Hardaker, tell the story of the rise and fall of Enron. Her narration is based on the following published works on Enron:

Fusaro, P. C., & Miller, R. M. (2002). What Went Wrong at Enron: Everyone’s guide to the largest bankruptcy in US history. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Healy, P. M., & Palepu, K. G. (2003). The fall of Enron. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(2), 3-26.

Markham, J. W. (2015). A Financial History of Modern U.S. Corporate Scandals: From Enron to reform. Abingdon: Routledge (chapters 2 and 3). 

McLean, B., & Elkind, P. (2004). The Smartest Guys in the Room: The amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron. London: Penguin. Director Alex Gibney made this book into a documentary which is available on Netflix. Here is the trailer: https://youtu.be/-w6duQhWuVk 

Enron’s company tagline…oh the irony

In the introduction part after Claire’s first narration, Veronika reads out parts from an email that a former employee wrote to Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, a few months before the scandal broke. Here is the full email: 

On Behalf Of Pamela.J.Allison@dynegy.com
Sent: Wednesday, August 15, 2001 5:39 PM
To: Lay, Kenneth 
Subject:  Jeff’s Leaving

Mr. Lay, 

I am not writing this in malice but in hopes that it helps get Enron back the way it used to treat their employees and makes it the number one employer of choice again. I hope you can get back the feeling that I had when I first started there and get the stress level down in your organization for the sake of your employees. I am a former employee who worked at Enron for 10 years – my husband was,at one time, in charge of A/P.  My one big disappointment was that I never got to meet you. During that time, I made a lot of friends who I continue to see from time to time.  I left last year and have missed the company since I left but would not contemplate coming back unless several people have been replaced.  (Joannie Williamson and Sheri Sera know my story.) I “knew” Jeff but I don’t think he knew me by name, only by sight, even though I worked in ENA when it only had 400 employees with 3 of us in HR. He was NOT what I would call a people person! Unless you were in an upper level position, he did not take the time to find out your name. (Ron Burnsis still one of my favorite people because of his talent with people – we need more like him in the business world!) As you can see, I am now working for a competitor and since I work in HR, I continually run into former Enron workers who have also left – most of their reasons are the same. It is not that they have lost faith in Enron as a company but because of the way they were treated by their managers. During the last 5 years I was there, I noticed a change in direction in the way employees were treated by upper management – and upper management was getting away with it.  Not only were they getting away with it, these people were being rewarded for this behavior.  I have heard stories of lower level employees being screamed at and in one instance, one of the VP s who was brought down from Canada was heard in his office screaming and pounding his telephone on his desk. Heaven only knows how he treats his subordinates. Believe me,the way employees are treated at Enron is being talked about on the streets of Houston and on the different college campuses.  You might also at some point take the time to find out why so many good people have left the HR community at Enron and it is not because they wanted to. I don’t know if you will see this, but I hope so.  Good luck on bringing Enron back to way it was – I still own stock!!

Thanks for listening…Pam Allison 

We then go on to interview David Wright, a forensic linguist who has worked with the large collection of publically available emails from inside Enron. His most relevant publication on it is:

Wright, D. (2013). Stylistic variation within genre conventions in the Enron email corpus: Developing a text sensitive methodology for authorship research. International Journal of Speech, Language & the Law, 20(1), 45-75.

After the interview, we mention this book to refer to a communication strategy that we saw at work with Enron, but that is also used frequently in politics:

Spicer, A. (2018). Business Bullshit. Abingdon: Routledge. 

We can certainly detect this kind of communication in the email that Ken Lay sent in reply to the message above. Here is the text of the full email that we analyse: 

Dear Pam,

thank you for your e-mail of August 15th.  It is always a pleasure to hear from former employees.  Thank you also for calling attention to instances which, on the surface, do not appear to be representative of our expectations of Enron leadership. Part of our continuous improvement involves an on-going review of our management and the diversity of styles therein. True, not everyone is agreeable to Enron’s culture or the many different management styles at Enron. We do, however, expect all of our employees – not just management – to adhere to our core values of respect, integrity, communication and excellence. These values become even more significant as we continue to grow and expand our scope of business, and more critical as we become a more culturally diverse workforce.We enjoy our status as one of the best places in America to work according to Fortune and other sources thanks in part to our willingness to examine our organization and make needed change. Our employee surveys, belief in open communication, and exit interview process for employees choosing to leave Enron are examples of our efforts to seek out feedback and scrutinize the way we do business.  Your feedback will help play a role in that process.

Sincerely,

Ken Lay

This email features many of the ways in which companies often respond to complaints (even though the first email, by Pam Anderson, was intended as a warning). Research on how companies respond to complaints includes the following: 

Hopkinson, C. (2018). Oppositional stance and footing shifts in response to customer complaints on TripAdvisor. Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis, 135(1), 15-27.

Johnen, M., & Schnittka, O. (2019). When pushing back is good: the effectiveness of brand responses to social media complaints. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 47(5), 858-878.

Trosborg, A., & Shaw, P. (1998) “Sorry does not pay my bills”: The handling of complaints in everyday interaction/cross-cultural business interaction. Hermes, 21, 67-94.

In the second part of her narration, Claire mentions the “‘this is fine’ dog’s coffee meme”. You may well have seen it on social media, where it is often used to indicate denial in the face of a crisis:

And finally, if you haven’t had enough of the Enron scandal yet ‒ and it is a fascinating story! ‒, here is some further reading: 

Swartz, M., &  Watkins, S. (2004). Power Failure: The inside story of the collapse of Enron. New York: Doubleday. 

Listen to the episode here

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