Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Deep dive on what happened at Enron

Almost 16 years after Enron declared bankruptcy in December 2001, questions about the root causes of the financial fraud and ensuing publicity of the corrupt business practices there persist. Despite the subsequent years where other major bankruptcies and the global financial crisis may have somewhat desensitized the public to these scandals from the greater business world, the many answers to the “why” of Enron’s fraudulent business practices are still fascinating to contemplate.

  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: This 2005 documentary, based on the 2003 book of the same name written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, and directed by noted filmmaker Alex Gibney, is the seminal work on the Enron scandal. The film goes back deep into Enron’s history to unpack why its success of the 1980s and 1990s and its desire for sustained growth and competitive edge in new business areas, drove its fraudulent practices ever deeper into the corporate culture. Great attention is paid to those “smartest guys” – Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow – and their sometimes philosophical, occasionally political, and always profit-motivated, views of management that contributed to the fraud.


  • The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron: This television movie from 2003 is based on the book Anatomy of Greed by Brian Cruver.   Cruver was an ex-Enron employee and detailed his personal experiences there in addition to those of several anonymous colleagues, some very senior members of the organization. The movie shows how the lack of organizational integrity made an impression on Cruver, a good person who found himself doing bad things because of the unethical environment and processes in which he was working. The excesses of the corporate culture are shown in great detail and in contrast to the suffering of shareholders, including many employees who had their retirement funds entirely invested in the company, that followed the company’s collapse in 2001.


  • Enron Explained: An Insider’s Account: On a similar, but non-dramatized note, this 2006 C-SPAN American Perspectives program provides a deeper look at the workings of the accounting practices and corporate culture at Enron. This time it is from Robert Bradley, who was the Director of Public Policy Analysis at Enron. Bradley provides detail into the technical aspects of the accounting fraud as well as his personal perspective on Kenneth Lay. From Bradley’s point of view, Lay’s actions should be viewed in light of the narrow framework in which he had worked, achieving great success in his years at Enron by focusing on profit-driven business strategies that promoted driving for financial gains and did not emphasize strategic ethical decision-making. While certainly not an excuse for lack of personal accountability, or a legal defense, this is a powerful lesson for how strong organizational contexts and heuristics can impact employee integrity.


  • Bigger than Enron: The PBS documentary series Frontline took on the Enron story in 2002. This program suggests presciently that the bankruptcy of Enron, which immediately became one of the largest scandals in the history of American business, could actually have the harbinger of the deeper systemic weaknesses. From the current standpoint, of course, this points directly to the subsequent economic and regulatory crisis in the global financial markets that began to unfold in public in 2007-2008. From this perspective, the root causes of that crisis go much deeper than the fiscally unsustainable growth of the sub-prime mortgage market and subsequent securitizations. Instead, epic failures in the oversight system – from management, from government, and from outside business partners such as auditors – exposed investors to huge losses and enabled corporate fraud such as occurred at Enron and other major companies before and, indeed, after its 2001 collapse.


  • Sherron Watkins at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School: Sherron Watkins was Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron and is known to history as the author of the August 2001 memo to CEO Kenneth Lay detailing the questionable accounting practices she noticed in the company’s financial reports. Five months later her memo was made public, and she is therefore thought of as the Enron whistleblower. Watkins was criticized in the aftermath of Enron’s bankruptcy for not going public sooner and not immediately escalating her suspicions of the fraud to Enron’s regulators or law enforcement. The speeches Watkins has given in the years since Enron’s bankruptcy, such as this one, focus on how complicated acting as a whistleblower is in reality – not what you would do better than someone else in a hypothetical situation, but what you would or could actually do if it happened to you. This is a challenging ethical dilemma and one that organizations must consider in order to create a reporting system in which whistleblowers are encouraged and protected.


The Enron business case remains one of the most famous examples of modern corporate fraud and corruption. Studying the root causes behind the fraudulent accounting and business practices provides insight for why an effective controls and reporting framework is so important for investor protection and markets integrity.


The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers

For over 150 years, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. was one of the largest financial services organizations in the world. In the United States it had far-reaching business operations in investment banking, securities sales and trading, research and analysis, asset and wealth management, and private equity investments.

Despite this long history, in the early 2000s Lehman Brothers was deeply impaired by the firm’s involvement in the subprime mortgage market, the impending bursting bubble of which precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis. Losing clients, market value, and rating status rapidly, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 16, 2008. This date is often seen as the impetus of the subsequent financial crisis, when widespread, sustained market collapse commenced.

The Lehman Brothers businesses were almost immediately taken over by Barclays in North America and Nomura Holdings elsewhere in the world. However, the impact of the bankruptcy was seismic. It had a strong effect both in concrete terms of losses in the financial markets and stress to the economy as well as a symbolic effect in representing the “too big to fail” categorization that troubled the global financial system and the many large firms within in that suffered great losses during the ensuing crisis.

  • A Colossal Failure of Common Sense – Also a best-selling book by Lawrence G. McDonald with Patrick Robinson, this lecture goes into great detail of the events leading up to, during, and following the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy during the years 2007-2010. The study goes even further back as well, to unpack the changes in financial regulation and banking industry laws from the 1990s which allowed the business conditions under which products like the subprime mortages and resulting securities were created and sold.
  • The Last Days of Lehman Brothers: Moral Hazard – This film dramatizes the events of the weekend leading up to, and in hopes of preventing, the eventual bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The subtitle “moral hazard” refers to the situation in which precarious risk calculations are made by individuals who do not face the liability and/or loss if the decision was the wrong one.   This sort of risk-taking was prevalent during the lead-up to the financial crisis and in the subprime mortgage securitization market. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers served as both a reminder that the risk could come home to roost after all, as well as a cautionary tale for financial firms and governments in the future to continue to try to mitigate this exposure.
  • Wall Street Crash of 2008 – This is the real-time video from CNBC on the evening of September 14, 2008 which reports the unfolding story that Lehman Brothers was going to collapse and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the next day (followed by a bankruptcy filing the day after that).
  • Did Lehman Brothers Cause the Financial Crisis & Stock Market Crash on Wall Street? – This interview between Maria Bartiromo and Yves Smith analyses the effects of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy to ask whether the firm’s collapse contributed to the causes of the global financial crisis or simply signalled the beginning of a trend.
  • Five Years After Lehman Brothers – This discussion on The Agenda with Steve Paikin from 2013 looks into what has changed, or not, in the global economy and financial services sector since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008 and the markets and industry began their prolonged collapse.


The story of the rapid decline and fall of Lehman Brothers, and the collapse of the global economy and markets that followed, is one that will remain captivating to students of the 2008 financial crisis for years to come. Furthermore, the events of that weekend in September 2008, and their causes and effects, serve as an interesting and important measure against which compliance professionals and decision-makers in the business should judge their assumptions of risk and expectations for liability.