A few weeks ago, I sat down with my book publisher and agent in New York to talk about my upcoming book on the power of brutal honesty in achieving massive business success. This wouldn’t be extraordinary, except for the fact that we are all living in a metaphorical rainstorm of dishonesty, with (unfortunately) plenty of terrible examples all around us.
With Wells Fargo’s opening fake accounts and deliberately overcharging customers, and with Uber’s paying off hackers to keep quiet (among a truly astounding number of other horrifying actions), there is enough dishonesty out there to debate for a long while.
Last week when we learned that NBC had allegedly been covering up Matt Lauer’s deplorable behavior for years if not decades, I finally reached a breaking point of disgust at how shortsighted these companies can be in their inexplicable, internal battle with integrity.
But the key insight for NBC, Uber and Wells Fargo as brands — and the lesson we all must learn when it comes to crisis communications — is that their scandals wouldn’t have blown up in such spectacular fashion in the first place if they had simply decided to pursue a policy of honesty.
What would have happened if those companies had simply been honest?
What would have happened if Wells Fargo had come out ahead of its original fake accounts scandal and outed itself, saying they had recognized the error, were appalled to have seen it, laid off the offenders and were now making amends by providing everyone free checking for the next five years?
What would have happened if Uber had realized there was a data breach and came out publicly with a united front against hackers everywhere and the establishment of a dedicated fund to help develop anti-hacker software — not only for their own customers, but to share with other organizations, too?
And what would have happened if NBC came out years ago with the truth about Lauer, immediately terminated him, and moved boldly forward with workplace safety initiatives that were newsworthy, admirable and future-scandal-proof?
All of these honest reactions would have been better than how the realities played out — not to mention, they would have been far more controllable and less costly.
Here’s how your organization can avoid being the next front-page scandal story.
In order to have an honest organization, you need to fill it with honest people.
Creating a culture of honesty where people feel open to communicating perspectives and sharing their mistakes goes a long way towards preventing an unforeseen circumstance from cropping up.
To help, create town-hall forums in which the executive team promises to only listen to feedback about what’s going on, giving the workforce an opportunity to vent frustrations across the entire company.
In fact, at GEM, everyone who is not on the Leadership Team gets a dedicated weekly time to share issues and talk about whatever is on their mind at work. With that dedicated forum for sharing, we have gotten all kinds of helpful feedback that has changed our processes and culture for the better.
Then, make sure your people have a more private option to report unscrupulous practices. In a large company, you could accomplish this with company-wide access to a third-party counseling service, while at a smaller organization, it may be sufficient to weave bad behavior-reporting into the culture so everyone knows that speaking up and being honest is always the best option.
To that point, the real key is to create a culture where deceit is never even an option, and that starts at the top. When faced with a problem, your best bet is always to come clean about what has happened.
The truth is — and this is what most companies miss — mistakes are a wonderful opportunity to create awareness for an important topic, reinforce your brand values and make your people feel safe and well cared for.
Just imagine if any of the “honest” scenarios above had played out; the news stories would have been shorter, everyone would have seen how swiftly and sympathetically the companies reacted, and we would have largely applauded their morality.
Protecting your company and your people is actually really easy, and it’s great for business.
At this point, to say that a company should have better values or better HR manuals is simply naive. Values are useless if there’s no action; workplace safety regulations are ineffective if they’re not enforced.
So, take action to prevent a scandal. Get together as an executive team and walk through some disaster scenarios.
Practice reacting with honesty and sympathy, and consider how you would become the leading voice in helping to avoid future situations like the one in crisis.
Preparing to be honest now will make it much easier in the future when faced with a crisis at work.
Just remember: everyone makes mistakes. It’s what we do when we find those mistakes that defines who we are.