INTRODUCTION

A terrible abuse of position and power has been in the news recently.

There are a number of things you can do when there has been a terrible abuse of power and position.  However, they are all hard.  As one ethics consultant stated “it takes effort to be ethical. He made the point explicitly that Lemont made implicitly, that is, it’s hard to bring about ethical change. It can make you unpopular. It can require changes in yourself. Ethical change is hard and it’s a long process. It is not a matter of simply reading a book on Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

BACKGROUND

File:MTC Provo (33025242700).jpg
MTC Provo from Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I used to teach a little dispute resolution, and I used to publish articles in the area.  I also lectured a bit here and there on ethics and was interested on how the two meshed.  Three books really stood out.

The first book on Mistakes deals with cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and other cognitive biases.  It uses these psychological theories to illustrate how the perpetrators (and victims) of hurtful acts justify and rationalize their behavior. It describes a positive feedback loop of action and self-deception by which slight differences between people’s attitudes become polarized and how things go off the rails.

The second book on Collapse explains how well intended organizations end up crossing the line from ethical to unethical.  It notes that heavily hierarchical organizations are especially prone to problems of this sort because of problems in allowing for pushback and how positive points in one area are used to justify failures in another.

In the third book it is explained that Anger is a typical reaction to governments’ or companies’ attempts to cover up mistakes, conceal evidence of risks, make misleading statements, or lie — to avoid saying “I’m sorry.”

FRAMING

If a wild bear was wandering your city and eating someone two or three times a year, would you ignore it just because there were more hand gun deaths or more drunk drivers killing people than were eaten by bears?

That is how the public reacts to efforts to portray the abuse that slips through the cracks in a church or other organizations.  Yes, the organization does good.  Yes, abusers are scattered across every part of society and in every social class.  Yes, other groups have sex scandals too.  They are in the news everywhere (even in my backyard).

None of that matters.  All of that is like saying that other cities have problems or that wolves sometimes eat people just like bears eat some people, or that sometimes lightning strikes out of the blue or people die from other causes like falling out of bed.  So what?  It doesn’t mean that a bear running around loose eating people isn’t a problem or that the public is going to ignore the two or three people eaten a year by the bear just because more people die from other causes.

Just like people won’t ignore the bear, people won’t ignore a sexual predator in your church or your hierarchy or your school.

SO WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT A PREDATOR IN THE NEWS?

First you have to express care for those hurt, and then explain steps you will take to solve the problem and never attempt to reassure people that you deserve trust.  If you have to say it, instead of show it, you’ve lost.

He adds they should always start by expressing care for those affected, and then explain how they plan to solve the problem.

“Many chief executives start by trying to reassure people their company can be trusted, and that’s a huge mistake,” he says.

Take Eileen Downey, a manager at Britannia Hotels, who appeared on the BBC’s consumer affairs programme Watchdog in 2011, following criticism of Pontins holiday parks.

The show had received more than 100 complaints over issues such as stains on bedding and mould in apartments.

But Ms Downey went on the defensive arguing that “99.9%” of Pontins apartments were of a high quality, and refused to say sorry.

“It was a master class in how not to deliver the message that you care about your customers,” Mr Mason says.

from “How to Handle a Scandal

Second, do not delay.  Those who have survived scandals often agree with Peter Fankhauser, who, as noted: “Chief executive Peter Fankhauser later said delaying the apology was his “biggest mistake”.”  Delay is as bad as going on the defensive.

Third avoid half measures.  That includes public relations statements that include “insipid self-congratulation—using pasteurized, sanitized words that don’t mean anything.”

From How to Survive a Scandal.

All delay and insipid responses do is confirm to outsiders that you don’t care and are the cause of the scandal, not the solution.

Fourth, then you do something meaningful (again, from How to Survive a Scandal).  That is, you have to explain steps you will take to solve the problem and then take those steps.

Most crises are not resolved through rhetoric. They are resolved through operations. What’s more ethical, doing what Exxon did and recognize after Valdez that the PR war was over—and then they spent 25 years investing in double-hulled ships and radically overhauling their safety procedures, and they’ve never had a major incident since … 

SEEMS SIMPLE? — JUST BECAUSE IT IS SIMPLE DOESN’T MEAN IT IS EASY OR OBVIOUS

Remember:

it takes effort to be ethical. He made the point explicitly that Lemont made implicitly, that is, it’s hard to bring about ethical change. It can make you unpopular. It can require changes in yourself. Ethical change is hard and it’s a long process. It is not a matter of simply reading a book on Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

QUESTIONS

So, in response to Sexaual Assault scandal involving Mr. Bishop, how would you:

  • Express care for those hurt?
  • Explain the changes you will take to solve the problem and keep it from happening again?
  • Avoid delay or half measures or things that look like you are trying to divert attention or attack the victim?
  • Do something meaningful — implement changes?

It should be interesting to compare what our readers speculate about in their comments with what the professionals in this case actually do.