CEOs Less Ethical Than in the Past

The job of a chief executive officer at a large publicly held company may seem to be quite comfortable — high pay, excellent benefits, elevated social status, and access to private jets. But the comfortable perch is increasingly becoming a hot seat, especially when CEOs and their employees cross red lines.

As this year’s CEO Success study shows, boards of directors, institutional investors, governments, and the media are holding chief executives to a far higher level of accountability for corporate fraud and ethical lapses than they did in the past. Over the last several years, CEOs have often garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons: for misleading regulators and investors; for cutting corners; and for failing to detect, correct, or prevent unethical or illegal conduct in their organization. Some high-profile cases, involving some of the world’s largest corporations, have featured oil companies bribing government officials and banks defrauding customers.

To be sure, the number of CEOs who are forced from office for ethical lapses remains quite small: There were only 18 such cases at the world’s 2,500 largest public companies in 2016. But firings for ethical lapses have been rising as a percentage of all CEO successions. (We define dismissals for ethical lapses as the removal of the CEO as the result of a scandal or improper conduct by the CEO or other employees; examples include fraud, bribery, insider trading, environmental disasters, inflated resumes, and sexual indiscretions. See “Methodology,” below.) Globally, dismissals for ethical lapses rose from 3.9 percent of all successions in 2007–11 to 5.3 percent in 2012–16, a 36 percent increase. The increase was more dramatic in North America and Western Europe. In our sample of successions at the largest companies there (those in the top quartile by market capitalization globally), dismissals for ethical lapses rose from 4.6 percent of all successions in 2007–11 to 7.8 percent in 2012–16, a 68 percent increase.