As a life-long ethics consultant, I have been in the middle of many ethics crises. You don’t hire an ethics consultant if everything is hunky dory. I have learned that ethics crises are different, and often more severe, than other corporate crises. An ethics crisis is about who you are as an organization and not just about specific actions that have gone wrong.
An ethics crisis is a crisis in which an organization is judged to have done something wrong due to poor ethics. Many business crises – whether it is the BP oil spill or the GM ignition switch – escalate into ethics crises. An initial unwillingness to accept responsibility is what turns a business crisis into an ethics crisis. The public will judge this unwillingness to accept responsibility as a sign of poor ethics. Most organizations eventually figure out that they won’t escape responsibility by denying it. But by then their credibility is shot.
Ethics crises are almost unavoidable for the simple reason that organizations are made up of people. Some of them will do unethical things in the organization’s name. If these actions have a significant impact, you have an ethics crisis. But even if ethics crises are not completely avoidable, there are things you can do to survive them. I will provide a series of tips on surviving ethics crises in coming posts.