Lapse in conscientiousness leads to \$10 million error and a classroom intervention idea

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If I were a manager or business owner needing to hire someone, the number one characteristic I would want in a new employee is conscientiousness. That Big Five trait predicts job performance in, well, just about every job (Wilmot & Ones, 2021).

I was reminded of this after reading a recent Ars Technica article about spreadsheet errors (Thorne, 2024). More accurately, the article is about humor errors in spreadsheets that led to, well, bad things. While the article cited several examples, the one that made me choke on my coffee happened at Crypto.com in 2021 (Taylor, 2023). Thevamanogari Manivel moved from Malaysia to Australia in 2015 to escape “controlling relationship with her husband.” By 2018, she had saved up enough money to bring her oldest of three children to Australia. In 2020, she met Jatinder Singh who became her boyfriend. He was interested in cryptocurrency. He signed up for a Crypto.com account, but used Manivel’s bank account information to transfer \$100 (AUD) into his Crypto.com account. Crypto.com said—and rightfully so—because the name on the bank account does not match the name on the Crypto.com account, we can’t accept this payment. So far so good. A Crypto.com employee was tasked with issuing the refund.

Before I continue, please put down your coffee or other beverage. You should also swallow that bite of biscotti. Ready?

In the Excel spreadsheet, instead of entering “100” in the refund box, the employee entered Manivel’s bank account number. Now, let’s all take a minute to look at our bank account number. Starting from the right and working left, count in two numbers and enter a period. Count in three numbers, and enter a comma. Repeat. Read that number out loud.

Manivel woke up one day to find approximately \$10,470,000.00 AUD in her account.

This discovery triggered a number of events.

When Manivel asked her Singh some version of WTH, he said he won the money in a Crypto.com contest. Singh then said let’s move this money out of this account into an account with a different bank. (Perhaps the other bank had a better interest rate?) And then they begin spending it. Well, sure.

Seven months later, during a routine audit, Crypto.com discovers the error. This probably says more about how much money is flowing through Crypto.com than anything else. Over 10 million dollars goes missing, and no one notices. For. Seven. Months.

So, what does Crypto.com do? They contact Manivel’s bank asking for the money back. The money’s not in that account anymore. (No, I don’t know why Manivel’s bank didn’t ask questions earlier, like when the \$10 million suddenly appeared in an account that likely had no more than maybe a few thousand in it at any given time.) Manivel said she thought scammers were trying to get their mitts on the dough. (Not her wording. But maybe she enjoys a good 1940s noir detective novel like I do. Or maybe not. The sexism can make for a challenging read.)

Long story short, Manivel and Singh were arrested and the money was recovered.

Manivel was sentenced to 200 hours of community service for her “opportunistic crime” plus time served (209 days). She had been held in custody awaiting trial because she was deemed a flight risk. Given that she was arrested at the Melbourne airport carrying \$10,000 cash and a one-way ticket to Malaysia, that wasn’t a difficult call (Beatty, 2023a).

Singh, the now-former boyfriend, pled guilty to the theft charge and as of early February, 2024 is awaiting sentencing (Beatty, 2023b).

There is no word, however, on what happened to the Crypto.com employee who made the \$10 million error. I bet they are no longer employed by Crypto.com. Maybe they are a highly conscientiousness employee who made this error while temporarily distracted. Mistakes happen. And there should certainly be processes in place to catch errors of this magnitude. I cannot even quit MS Word without being prompted to ask if I’d like to save my file before closing it. Having a little pop-up that says, “You’re about to refund \$10 million dollars. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” wouldn’t be hard to program. It also seems that for refunds of any size, a second person should have to approve it. Unless Crypto.com is continually shuffling millions of dollars around accounts. And they may very well be.

In any case, all of this* could have been avoided if an employee with a high degree of conscientiousness had—after entering the account number in the refund amount box—reviewed their work before submitting it.

Only if they had reviewed their work before submitting it—just as we ask our students to do.

There is some evidence that we can up our conscientiousness game. In one study, Nathan Hudson (2021) gave participants a list of 50 challenges and asked the participants to choose up to four challenges for the week, such as “organize and clean up your desk” and “show up 5 min early for a class, appointment, or other activity” (p. 5). (For the complete list of challenges, see the appendix in Hudson et al., 2019). At the end of 16 weeks, those who completed more challenges had a greater increase in conscientiousness.

Could such an intervention work with our students? Create a list of, say, 20 course-based challenges that target conscientiousness, such as “show up 5 min early for a class,” “submit a class assignment 24 hours early,” “complete the assigned reading before class,” “attend every class session this week,” “do not look at your phone during any class session this week.” If you’d like to involve your students in creating the list, give them Nathan Hudson’s list of 50, and invite students to work in small groups to choose items off his list (verbatim or revised) and create one or more of their own. Each week, ask students to choose two challenges and report those to you. At the end of the week, ask students to report if they successfully completed one or both of their challenges. Repeat each week.

As a dependent measure, you could do a pre-test/post-test conscientiousness score from the Big Five Inventory. Or if you want to go for behavioral impact, choose an assignment from early in the course—before you implemented the challenges—and record when each student submitted the assignment as it relates to the assignment deadline. For example, if an assignment was due at 5pm, assignments that were submitted an hour would get a +60 (minute) score. Assignments that were submitted a half hour late would get a -30 (minute) score. For the week that your last assignment is due, do not run any challenges and calculate the “deadline score” for each of our students. Next, calculate a “deadline progress score” by subtracting the first assignment’s deadline score from the last assignment’s deadline score. A student who submitted their last assignment two hours early (+120) but submitted their first assignment 10 minutes early (+10), would have a difference score of +110, meaning they picked up 110 minutes worth of conscientiousness from the start of the challenges to the end. Similarly, a student who submitted their first assignment 15 minutes late (-15) and submitted their last assignment 15 minutes early (+15) picked up 30 min worth of conscientiousness.

If you decide to do this research in your class, follow your institution’s IRB guidelines and report your findings in the Teaching of Psychology, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, or at conference, such as the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Annual Conference on Teaching.

References

Beatty, L. (2023a, September 8). Thevamanogari Manivel: \$10m landed in mum’s bank after Crypto.com bungle. News.Com.Au. https://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/courts-law/thevamanogari-manivel-10m-landed-in-mums-bank-a...

Beatty, L. (2023b, December 18). Jatinder Singh: Crypto enthusiast ‘knew’ \$10m windfall was a mistake, court told. News.Com.Au. https://www.news.com.au/finance/jatinder-singh-crypto-enthusiast-knew-10m-windfall-was-a-mistake-cou...

Hudson, N. W. (2021). Does successfully changing personality traits via intervention require that participants be autonomously motivated to change? Journal of Research in Personality, 95, 104160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2021.104160

Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. (2019). You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 839–857. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000221

Taylor, J. (2023, September 24). A crypto firm sent a disability worker \$10m by mistake. Months later she was arrested at an Australian airport. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/sep/24/a-crypto-firm-sent-a-disability-worker-10m-by...

Thorne, S. (2024, January 28). We keep making the same mistakes with spreadsheets, despite bad consequences. Ars Technica. https://arstechnica.com/science/2024/01/we-keep-making-the-same-mistakes-with-spreadsheets-despite-b...

Wilmot, M. P., & Ones, D. S. (2021). Occupational characteristics moderate personality–performance relations in major occupational groups. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 131, 103655. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2021.103655

*”All of this” includes—but is not limited to—the hours spent by employees at Crypto.com and Manivel’s bank trying to recover the money, the hours spent by the police tracking down Manivel and Singh, the resources spent to keep them in jail while awaiting their time before the judge, the hours spent by the employees of the court system.