Ethics Quiz: The “You Stink” Farewell Retirement Party Speech


As reported by Bloomberg and Above the Law, James Kidney, an SEC enforcement lawyer who had worked at the agency since 1986 (with a four year hiatus in the private sector) favored his retirement party with a fiery speech telling his colleagues what a lousy job they do.

The SEC has become “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors,” Kidney said“On the rare occasions when enforcement does go to the penthouse, good manners are paramount. Tough enforcement, risky enforcement, is subject to extensive negotiation and weakening.”

Kidney accused SEC manager of being  focused on getting high-paying jobs after their government service rather than on bringing difficult cases. “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses, whose names we all know, who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket,” Kidney said. “They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances.”

He accused his soon-to-be former employers of having little interest in “afflicting the comfortable and powerful,”and condemned the agency for massaging  statistics to burnish its reputation. There was more. We only know of Kidney’s comments from notes; there was no video or formal transcript.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz today:

Was Kidney’s farewell speech ethical?

My position: Of course not.

To the contrary, it was rude, inappropriate, self-indulgent, wrongly timed, late and cowardly. What did Kidney do to change the culture in the 14 years he worked at the SEC? If it was so bad, why did he hang around so long? If he wanted to blow the whistle, why did he wait? Why didn’t he have the guts to go public when there might be  a personal cost, rather than doing this hit-and-run stunt?

It doesn’t justify his conduct to say that he is right in the details his critique; he probably is. This wasn’t the time or place to raise them. His friends and colleagues came to his retirement party to honor him and say good-bye, and he thanked them by exploiting the event as a cheap opportunity to vent his frustrations and settle scores, while simultaneously insulting some of the guests, if not all of them.

They should make him give his watch back.


Sources: Business Week, Above the Law

20 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The “You Stink” Farewell Retirement Party Speech

  1. It seems fairly self-evident to me that your point in this instance is correct. He had all kinds of chances to change things and vented his spleen at the end of his career.

    I’d like to pose a slight twist, though- suppose your problems with your job aren’t big criminal things that you can whistleblow on or otherwise bring in the big guns, but systematic problems that just aren’t right. You work within the system to change them but are stymied by those entrenched within the current rules- when you finally quit/retire, what’s the ethical impact of finally vocalizing all those things in a manner similar to this guy? Does your failed attempt to make the changes justify the vocal dropping of the problems in the remaining employees’ laps?

    • I think, in such a case, that you are the failure, and are just using a farewell party to make everyone else feel guilty because you failed. Even if that’s not true, the party is not the place to do it. You do it in an exit interview, you do it on a blog, you do it in an op-ed for the Times or WSJ, or someplace else. And 14 years? And he came back after being out for four? He’s a hypocrite.

      • 14 years, yes. As I said, I was speaking more in a generality, the details of his case make this particular call an obvious one.

  2. Spot on Jack. Just reading the headline my comments formulated around:

    1) criticism of bad practices is not unethical, his points may have even valid.

    2) waiting until there are minimal personal repercussions to do so is cowardly. (But is cowardly unethical? I think not, but rather it is unethical not to voice criticisms in a timely manner)

    3) using an moment when your colleagues are honoring you does deliver a small amount of social harm. (Minorly unethical).

  3. Probably much better to write a tell all book afterwards if you’re really pissed off about how the agency failed in its job. Probably there would be few readers but much less self indulgent than ranting at a retirement party.

  4. I have a lot of sympathy for whistleblowers, but also for potential whistleblowers. And, I regard the timing of their blowing with leniency that gives them the benefit of doubt. (At the same time, dually I give myself benefit of suspicion that a blower might be up to something besides fixing a rotten organization, and is seeking undeserved affirmation and rewards for blowing, no matter his timing.) One guy blowing against a whole rotten outfit is not a fair fight from the start. I think what this guy did was clearly unethical in its timing. But I will not presume that he “failed” by not blowing while he was on the inside, or during the time he was on hiatus, or not until he was free and clear of obligations to the entity he wanted to blow about. I want him to be free to blow, free from reprisal. But, I don’t want blowers to have full immunity, either; one should not be insured against, or be allowed to think one is entitled to be fully insured against, the price/cost of moral luck.

  5. I disagree. It was the perfect time to get maximum exposure.

    There have been many articles in newspapers by retirees saying the same thing with exactly zero effect. There have also been people within the SEC saying the same thing who have had the wrath of God visited on them, whistleblower laws be damned, and no-one’s noticed.

    This was an act of desperation.

    I think it will fail. There’s too many vested interests making sure this situation continues.

  6. If one has given a career’s worth of time to a company- and that company has not only retained you all that time, but seeks to honor your service at a function- you owe them a small, parting courtesy… even if you harbor mental reservations. That’s a pretty modest exercise in ethics. If this company was of an unethical foundation and, while knowing this, you still remained in their employ, you have no basis for criticism, as you thereby share in their iniquity. Either way; accept the testimonial. offer a few polite sentiments and then shut the @#$%^&! up. Wotta moron.

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