McKinsey's Rajat Gupta and the sorry state of his apology

The text of Gupta's apology did not match the context of his indictment

bvrao

BV Rao | October 26, 2012


Rajat Gupta
Rajat Gupta

When a career goes from distinguished to extinguished in the blink of an eye, you feel sorry. I feel sorry for Rajat Gupta, the former McKinsey boss who received a light two-year sentence in a New York court on October 25.

I also feel sorry for Gupta’s wife, his daughters, his relatives, his colleagues and all his mighty friends in the corporate constellation.

But I will not cry for Gupta. Not because he doesn’t deserve my sympathy or empathy, but because he didn’t ask for it.

Moving as his pre-sentencing statement was, it fell way short of a full-fledged apology for what he did. He said a lot but he did not say what he needed to. While he used words such as regret, apologise and  responsible repeatedly, he avoided looking the problem in the eye.

The first sentence he spoke before the judge was off-cue. He said: “Your honour, I want to say here that I regret terribly the impact of this matter (emphasis added) on my family, my friends and the institutions that are dear to me.”

The reference to his corporate crime as “this matter” suggests that he has not yet come to grips with his indiscretion and, worse, that he was regretting only the “impact” of this matter on his family and friends, not the “matter” itself.

Following this, he sprinkles the statement with words and phrases that sound like remorse (such as “regret/feel terrible/apologise to them/extremely sorry/great disappointment/feel responsible/deep sense of letting them down) but don't add up to sentences that meant remorse because he avoids talking about what he did. Talking touchingly about friends and their continued support he says, “but they have endured a sense of loss as a result of what has happened and for that I feel responsible.”

There it is again. He feels responsible not for what he did, but what happened. It is not like his cell phone auto-dialled Raj Rajaratnam the moment he walked out of that Goldman Sachs board meeting.

It is when he is talking about his immediate and extended family that he comes closest to taking responsibility for “doing” rather than letting things happen. “Every time I look at their faces, I get overcome with a deep sense of letting them down” he says in one place and in another, “It is unbearable to me to see how much they have suffered. I just feel terrible that I have put them through this.

After this brief hint of near-owning up, in the concluding paragraph, he is back to avoiding his problem. “Your honour, as I come before you to be sentenced, the overwhelming feelings in my heart are of acceptance of what has happened, of gratitude to my family and friends, of seeking forgiveness from them all….”

Acceptance of what has happened, instead of acceptance of what "I did".

That is as awkward and half-hearted an apology as you can get. Imagine, if Gupta had said this somewhere in the statement: “I take full responsibility for what I did.  I am not proud of this grave error of judgement.  This does not define me. I’m sorry and apologise to my family, friends and the institutions I served.”

It wouldn’t have mattered what he said either before it or after it.

Trial judge Jed S Rakof f was not insensitive or unresponsive to the “good” man in Gupta. After handing him a sentence which is only 25% of the legal maximum, Judge Rakoff said this when Gupta asked for bail pending appeal: “My heart wants to grant but my head says no.”

Maybe, a full blown apology would have worked on Rakoff? Or it could work on the next judge when Gupta goes in appeal? We will never know. But I think it is safe to say it would have worked on millions of us.

 

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