FEATURE: Once a cheater…

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Most people think that getting ahead in business requires brains, hard work or good connections and sometimes more than one of them. But if you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed or you’re just plain lazy, there are ways to cheat your way to the top.

The biggest advantage to cheating is that there is a lot of freedom in how you do it. This means that virtually anyone can engage in the fine art of deception, not to mention that it’s a perfect outlet for pent-up creativity.

If you like to write, make up parts of stories like Detroit Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom, or if you’re really ambitious, imitate former New York Times writer Jayson Blair. After lying about his education to get himself hired, he filed dozens of articles containing false information. In some pieces, the fake details were small, but at other times he made up entire interviews or stories. After being fired, he wrote a book in which he accused the Times of racism.

If numbers are more your thing, fiddle the books a little bit. Accounting scandals have been all the rage in the last few years. Enron dazzled us for years with new and innovative ways to make money from the oil and gas industry before going bust when it turned out that it was all a sham, but even boring old telecom companies like Qwest and Worldcom have gotten in on the game.

Many people find accounting boring, but still like money. In that case, there’s nothing better than playing fast and loose with other people’s dough. Citigroup recently announced that it had fired a trader a few years ago after she cost the bank $20-million (all figures US), but that’s peanuts compared to Nick Leeson. Leeson is the man to beat in this area after spectacularly-and single-handedly-bringing down Barings Bank in 1995 by losing $1.4-billion speculating on the Singapore International Monetary exchange. Barings had been in business for nearly 250 years, so this was quite the feat.

If you would rather be spending other people’s money than losing it, there are a number of great role models out there. Take Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco International. He treated the company like a piggy bank, using it to pay for things like $6,000 shower curtains and a $1-million birthday party for his wife. There’s also former newspaper baron Conrad Black, who is currently the target of a $200-million lawsuit from Hollinger International­­-one of his former companies-after allegedly taking millions of dollars to pay for things like his Florida mansion (currently on the market for over $30-million).

Unfortunately, there is a downside to all of this cheating. Should you happen to be caught, the consequences can be quite unpleasant: Former Enron CEOs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling were recently convicted on several counts of fraud; Leeson spent six and a half years in jail in Singapore; Kozlowski was sentenced to eight years in prison; and Black is awaiting trial on over 20 criminal charges.

Going to prison does not exactly qualify as getting ahead, so if you plan to win by cheating the system, the trick is the same in the business world as it is elsewhere-don’t get caught.