Thursday, October 25, 2018

Who Comes First?

Ethical dilemmas are often posed in the scenario of a crisis situation.  If there are only so many seats on a lifeboat, or so much space in a bomb shelter, whom do you take in and whom do you turn away?  It is presumed that the choices people make in a difficult situation reveal their true values.

The same is said of companies who face a crisis, and people watch to see “who comes first?” as a way of gauging the company’s ethical values.  Propaganda aside, whose interests does a company seek to protect when a crisis arises? Do the managers set up golden parachutes from themselves?  Do they seek to protect profits?  Or do they take care of their customers and employees?

There is a strong distaste for firms that put profits first, and the widespread perception that when companies are faced with a product recall, this is an opportunity for the firm to show their true colors and demonstrate whether they care about customers.  Particularly in industries where human life is at stake, people expect firms to put profits aside and do the right thing – as almost every firm will claim it does when there is no crisis at hand.

Unfortunately, the traditional approach of companies is first to attempt to cover up the incident so that no-one will ever realize that a mistake was made.   If it cannot be hidden, to maintain a stiff upper lip and show no sign of panic so that people think that they are well in control of the situation.   This sort of cold reserve that gives battlefield commanders the mien of valor comes off as being cold and unconcerned, or even ignorant or in denial, in non-emergency situations.

There is some merit to the notion that people will recall companies that have to issue defects as being incompetent, but survey results do not bear that out.  No-one expects perfection, and the majority of people recognize that even the best-run companies can make mistakes.

And if this bears out, then it is correspondingly true that very few people will assume that a company that makes a mistake is entirely incompetent.   Accidents will happen, and the true competence of the firm is not in producing perfection, but in responding competently when mistakes occur.

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