Graffin, Bundy, Porac, Wade, & Quinn (2013). Falls from Grace and the Hazards of High Status: The 2009 British MP Expense Scandal and Its Impact on Parliamentary Elites

Scott Graffin, University of Georgia
Jonathan Bundy, Penn State University
Joseph Porac, New York University
James Wade, Emory University
Dennis Quinn, Georgetown University

Derron Bishop, Penn State University
Pengcheng Li, Penn State University

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Question 1. You mention two hazards associated with high status, elite opportunism and elite targeting, whose relative impact has not been disentangled in prior literature. Then you disentangle those hazards using the scandal that ensued in 2009 following the disclosure of British Parliament members’ confidential expense claims. Tell us the story of how you recognized this as a research opportunity, identified the two hazards needing to be disentangled (e.g. literature review process, formal or informal discussions among co-authors), and transformed a study of this scandal into a successful academic paper relevant to organizational scholars. What were your thought processes, key events, and important considerations and steps along the way?

Several members of the author team had been interested in the hazards of status for a while, stemming from earlier work on celebrity CEOs (Wade et al., 2006 – AMJ). Through ongoing conversations we began to wonder whether the negative effects of high status resulted because these individuals tended to behave badly (elite opportunism) or because they were scrutinized more heavily (elite targeting). The prior literature was somewhat unclear on the subject, with many authors at least implicitly assuming opportunism, but a number of others considering the possibility of targeting (Merton and his Matthew Effect being perhaps the best example). We were also inspired by a number of media narratives surrounding different scandals. In many cases the media seems to highlight elite opportunism—likely because the associated drama sells more newspapers—while well-known wrongdoers (particularly Dennis Kozlowski) often argue that they were unfairly targeted. There was actually a book published (Neal, 2014 – “Taking Down the Lion”) that argues Kozlowski’s fall from grace actually resulted from intense media targeting.

We first considered doing this study with CEOs, but we quickly realized that we would not be able to identify all wrongdoers, only those who were caught. This meant that we could not distinguish between opportunism and targeting. So, we started thinking more generally about alternative scandal contexts that might not suffer from the same sample selection issues faced when studying CEOs. We considered a number of alternatives, including different celebrity, sports, and political scandals. Through our searching it became clear that the Parliamentary expense scandal provided us with the best opportunity, particularly because it was a natural experiment in which the entire sample population was implicated and subsequently investigated. We also knew that the British Honours system would allow us to easily distinguish high status individuals.

Question 2. What difficulties did you encounter when conducting this research project? How did you overcome them?

The hardest part of the project was combining data from many different sources. There is no central database for members of Parliament. Instead, we drew data from at least ten different sources. Additionally, each of these sources referred to the Parliamentarians using different naming conventions. For example, some sources might refer to MP Jennifer Willott from Cardiff Central while others refer to the Right Honourable Jenny Willott from Central Cardiff. So, we had to be extremely careful about our data. We also had to study research from a number of different disciplines, including management, sociology, history, and political science to ensure that we incorporated the appropriate literature into our study. Status and scandal are phenomena that influence all areas of life, and we even found relevant studies from biology and animal science!

Question 3. Your paper has five co-authors. What was that like, and what do you find most important or helpful to successfully complete projects with several team members, such as this one?

It was honestly a lot of fun. All five of us come from different research backgrounds and had different ideas on how to do the project. Often this meant disagreements, but they were the good kind of disagreements that resulted in really positive outcomes. Sometimes progression on the project was slow going but we all knew that we had something really exciting, which kept us all engaged and motivated. We also met almost every week for nearly two years as we worked on the project. Obviously the whole team was not always present for every meeting, but we felt that continuous iteration was a helpful way to keep the project moving forward. We also would meet regularly at conferences, and even started a dinner tradition at Academy, which we still keep today.

Question 4. Given the topic of your paper, what suggestions for mitigating hazards of high status can you offer to people who have or are developing status? (Perhaps, you can even think of how your research applies to a field of management scholars who are all working to be well-published and respected academically?)

The biggest take away from the research is that high status actors should be aware that any wrongdoing, even a minor offense, is likely to be highly scrutinized and publicized. Indeed, high status actors might even be targeted for something that is seemingly innocent but can be shaped by the media to appear scandalous. We really liked a quote from Dennis Kozlowski that summarized this scrutiny well: “I should have been content with far more modest growth in the company…with staying off of the radar…and to be a more pedestrian CEO…. I don’t think there were any rewards, only penalties, associated with getting on everybody’s radar….” (Hosslie, 2009: 1).

This is not to suggest that high status actors do not reap benefits, but that those benefits often come with associated costs. We are also hesitant to conclude that elite actors do not engage in opportunism. We found no evidence for opportunism in our context, but we recognize that status might very well lead to a feeling of entitlement and a tendency to take advantage of the position. Regardless, our research suggests that even the most pious high status actors are at risk of additional scrutiny.

In terms of suggestions for mitigating the hazards of high statuses, there was some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the high status MPs who were more transparent about their spending prior to the scandal may have been spared from excessive scrutiny. Whether or not transparency or openness truly mitigates the hazards of high status, however, is likely an excellent opportunity for future research.

Question 5. You’ve now been on a number of successful projects and papers. What did you find most unique and important about your experience completing this paper? For example, what are your top two takeaways you learned from the experience (whether content-related or process-related)?

In terms of content, we learned that identifying areas in which there are clear competing perspectives provides an excellent opportunity for research. However, sometimes you have to be persistent. The opportunism versus targeting debate was not exactly explicit in the prior literature, but careful reading and consideration revealed that there was uncertainty surrounding the mechanisms that lead to high status falls from grace. After identifying this opportunity, we really had to think outside the box about how to study it. It was only after a few failed attempts investigating alternative scandals that we found the right context for the research question. Had we given up after the first failure we would never have had the chance to conduct this really interesting study on a context that was quite unfamiliar to most of us.

In terms of process, we learned that working with good people yields good outcomes. We may have not always agreed, but we were always collegial and open-minded, which ultimately led to better research.

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