Resetting the ethical compass

In 1982, a small number of people died in the US state of Illinois as a result of ingesting poison that had been illegally added to a common painkiller named Tylenol, which is marketed by Johnson & Johnson. As you would expect, an investigation followed and the determination was that a person or persons unknown removed individual bottles of the product from the shelves, inserted the poison and returned the product to the shelves.

The perpetrator of the crime has never been brought to justice however, partly as a result of the crime, we now have enhanced product safety including tamper resistant packaging. We also have an example of an excellent corporate culture that was immediately proactive in understanding and protecting society rather than its shareholders, which in the longer term has arguably increased corporate longevity and added considerably to the company’s ongoing shareholder value.

To make the point, we have to go back a tad further to 1979 when James Burke, then CEO of Johnson & Johnson, threatened to repudiate an internal document that had been hanging on walls at company offices and factories since 1943 as, in his belief, it was being observed more in the breach than the observance. The document, entitled ‘Our Credo’ promotes a list of principles to live by in Johnson & Johnson’s corporate world, with the initial sentence suggesting the company’s first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services . The meeting apparently reaffirmed their commitment to the Company’s Credo. In 1982 when it was clear Tylenol was the chosen carrier of the poison that was killing people in Illinois, Johnson & Johnson immediately made the decision to remove the product from store shelves across the USA and spent money asking people not to use any stocks of the product that had been already purchased. The decision is estimated to have cost them $100 million, but it is the textbook example of how to handle a crisis and come through it with an unstained reputation. According to The Atlantic magazine the actions by James Burke three years earlier to challenge his executives to live by the Company Credo paid off in spades as he was on a plane when news of the poisoning broke. By the time he landed, employees were already ordering Tylenol off store shelves.

While Johnson & Johnson do have a responsibility to adequately reward their shareholders (it is also in ‘The Credo’) someone a long time ago realised that looking after their customers was a particularly good way of ensuring that the staff, suppliers, agents and contractors as well as the shareholders all shared a sustainable future return.

Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson don’t seem to be a typical large company when it comes to fulfilling their responsibilities to the public. The Atlantic article gives the example of a number of large manufacturers where their responsibility to the public seems to be subsumed by other corporate objectives. In the case of Volkswagen, not only did they install devices in a generation of their vehicles of all sizes and types that actively cheated when the on board vehicle computer calculated that an emissions test was being undertaken, they corporately funded testing where diesel fumes were breathed in by monkeys and humans for hours at a time with a view to ‘proving’ that diesel fuelled cars do not produce harmful particulate matter as suggested by a number of scientific sources.

There are also examples closer to home. The current Australian Banks public relations campaign suggesting that around 80% of profit is paid as dividends to ‘everyday Australians’ who hold superannuation accounts is disputed by The Conversation’s fact checking unit, which suggests the ‘real’ number of Australians who benefit to be closer to 60%. It’s also very co-incidental that the campaign was launched at the same time as the Royal Commission into the banking and finance industry was launched at the insistence of the National Party (with some assistance from the ALP) who dragged PM Turnbull into announcing the ‘regrettable but necessary’ enquiry.

Sociologist Dr Diane Vaughn has a theory known as the ‘normalisation of deviance’. Briefly, the theory suggests that people within an organisation become so familiar with behaviour that deviates from societal norms, the deviant behaviour becomes normal within the organisation, which leads to people within the group no longer able to realise that the behaviour is incorrect. The US Government’s National Library of Medicine defines the problem In a medical context as Over time, even egregious violations of standards of practice may become “normalized and offers a number of examples as diverse as medical errors, the Chernobyl disaster and the loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbus.

Luckily, some companies have someone in authority within the company that can recognise the normalisation of deviance while others have to suffer an ‘hallmark’ incident, whether it be complications after surgery, damage to their public image or unfortunately deaths before the corporate ethical compass is reset. It seems that someone in authority has to suggest that the action is inappropriate, followed by the organisation actually processing the message and determining that their normal behaviour was clearly in error and then making a decision to modify it. In Volkswagen’s case they changed a considerable number of their senior management and in the bank’s case, they are attempting to modify perceptions of staff, customers and the public through advertising the benefits of the existing banking system.

Which begs the question – is the Australian Government generally also a victim of normalisation of deviance? The evidence would suggest so. The Australian Government, like all governments, is supposed to improve the society that we live in. We live in a first world economy and accordingly elect a government to supply services such as health, transportation, defence, education, welfare and support for those who need it. The other part of the ‘deal’ is that we pay for the provision of these services through taxes and user charges (such as vehicle registration, public transport fares, rates, development charges and so on). However, our governments over the past 10 to 15 years seem to have been more interested in deriving additional benefits for their support base, a general reduction in service provision to the community that elects them and victimisation of those who are generally disadvantaged. They do this by firing more scorn and disgust at those looking to come here for a better life despite this nation being populated by people who have themselves (or their ancestors) done exactly the same thing.

Let’s look at some examples. According to evidence at a Senate Estimates hearing last year, 42 million phone calls to Centrelink received an engaged signal in the first 10 months of the 2016/2017 financial year. It, according to the ABC is a significant jump on the previous two financial years. The reason offered by the Department of Human Services is that people are using auto diallers, redialling the number every few seconds. While that might be true, have Centrelink executives considered that people wouldn’t need to resort to auto diallers if there was capacity in the system to receive and handle the traffic that is the reality, rather than the obviously flawed estimation?

Admittedly, some would expect the phone to be picked up on the first ring, which is probably unrealistic, however Centrelink’s call waiting times are not getting better. It is also fair to suggest their process is obscure and difficult to follow, with different parts of the organisation apparently not talking to each other. If you are lucky enough to get through to Centrelink, please remember it is not the fault of the probably relatively lowly paid staff member on the other end of the phone that the system seems to be designed to discourage you applying for something that is probably your entitlement, it is the management and political masters that make the system what it is.

Another example is the treatment of refugees that attempt to come to Australia to claim what is a legal entitlement. While it is fair to suggest that Keating’s Prime Ministership saw the ‘processing’ of those with refugee claims in ‘detention centres’, the Howard Prime Ministership politicised the process during an election campaign by demonising the refugees picked up from a sinking boat by the Norwegian crewed Tampa and it is fair to suggest that since then both sides of Australian politics have been on a race to the bottom to introduce even more cruel and unusual punishments. If we though current Treasurer Morrison was inhumane, he had nothing on current Minister responsible Peter Dutton. Yet, Dutton according to his website is married with children so he must have some compassion and capacity to demonstrate affection (and dare we say it love). Logically, all his predecessors also would show care and compassion for those close to them.

The same could be said for the ministers of the Australian Government who are showing no care for the environment by ‘betting the farm’ on the use of climate change inducing fossil fuel (including coal); claiming that ‘trickle-down’ economics will assist those who are in the lesser paying jobs; reducing the effectiveness of programs such as Medicare, the NDIS or public schools across the country. The politicians all have families, relatives and you would hope friends. To do so, there is obviously an ability for empathy and care. If you met them on a one to one basis outside the political sphere, they are probably all quite approachable and pleasant people to be around. Yet, when it comes to assisting all potential and current Australians to access the services that this community has deemed necessary for all of us to maximise our potential (with the subsequent improvement to our society) they are involved in a penny pinching and mean government who seemingly makes it hard for those who need help while demonising them for political advantage.

In the case of Johnson & Johnson, the CEO had the foresight to see that deviance from the company’s Credo was becoming the norm and he reset the corporate ethics. In the case of Volkswagen and the Australian banks an external body with the resources and funding to break the cycle of deviance acted appropriately. There are two potential ways for the current Australian Government to break out of the cycle of normalisation of deviance, either the current leader realises what is occurring and actively stops it (as occurred at Johnson & Johnson) or an external body acts appropriately (in this case, the Government is voted out and the relevant political parties conduct a review of why that occurred rather than what when wrong with the election marketing campaign).

Unfortunately, it seems like the current leader of the government either can’t see or be bothered using the ‘reset’ button.

What do you think?

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Ad Astra

23/04/2018

Folks

If you missed the appalling performance of Kelly O'Dwyer on Insiders on Sunday last, you can see it all on the Featured Video further up this page.

Lawrence Winder

23/04/2018

As O'Dwyer  testily spat at Cassidy "...are we going to have a Tax system ed by a moral test?" Therein,  lies exposed, her and the ruling rabble's moral vacuum.. what a low level they have brought us to.

janice

23/04/2018

This rabble of conservatives presiding over us will never ever use the 'reset' button.  The so-called Leader lacks the will, the nous and the morals to pull the fascists into line, preferring to settle for the 'top dog' position as his ego demands.  

It is the voting public who need to push the reset button by kicking them all out of their cushy jobs.   I really cannot see it happening which is depressing because the plague of greed, disrespect and selfishness seems to have taken hold.   

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24/04/2018

Lawrence Winder

You are right – moral behaviour would be the last requirement the Coalition would insist upon as it deals out its tax cuts largesse.

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24/04/2018

janice

Unless the electorate hits the reset button, we are doomed to more of the same unethical behaviour from our government and its hangers-on.

Tom of Melbourne

24/04/2018

This site seems to have gone from strength to strength!  It must be due to the welcoming attitude of the admin

2353NM

25/04/2018

Lawrence Winder

Thanks for the comment.

O'Dwyer's last comment to Cassidy was 'Lets get real'. The obvious takeout is that O'Dwyer is a fan of Adam Savage from "Mythbusters" who when challenged on a prediction famously said (well it was in the opening title of the show for years anyway) 'I reject your reality and substitute my own'.

Janice

I've long been a supporter of minority governments points of view outside those of the major political parties have to be considered for legislation to 'get up'. And the Gillard Government as well as Palaszczuk's first term in Queensland demonstrate they can be just as 'stable' as majority governments.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Tom of Melbourne

I've always wanted to say this: 'I'll take that as a comment' - and a damn fine one at that!

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25/04/2018

Tom of Melbourne 

Welcome back to The Political Sword.

Thank you for your complimentary words. I'm glad you are enjoying the new format.

Do come again.

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27/04/2018

Folks

Take a look at the new Featured Video - the historic handshake of Kim Jong-un and Moon Jay-in today April 27.

What does two plus 1 equal?