This week three renowned figures – Angelina Jolie, Larry Page and Christine Quinn – disclosed their medical problems to the world. They discussed battle with breast cancer, paralysis of vocal cords, and struggles with bulimia and alcoholism. Jolie, a woman famous for her beauty bared her mastectomy details. They talked about fear of death and handicap, and frailty of human character. They risked high-profile careers by being candid. One word describes their actions – Courage.
However, the corporate world wants to hide behind lies and window dress their weaknesses. The corporate leaders sometimes threaten risk managers and auditors to tone down their reports. The messengers of bad news get shot. Risk managers face bullying, retaliation and threat to their jobs for showing courage to speak the truth. If they refuse to bow down to pressure, the business teams label them as politically dumb or difficult to deal with. Question is – should risk managers tone down their reports to please the business teams?
I want to discuss a couple of scenarios here and you decide the course of action.
Scenario 1- Don’t report correct facts to avoid giving bad news
Let us say, you are a CXO of an organization. You have a heart problem and visit a doctor who is a good friend of yours.
The doctor realizes your heart condition is bad. You require a heart surgery for four bypasses. The doctor doesn’t want to deliver the bad news to you, because he doesn’t wish to hurt your feelings.
The doctor tells you – “You just have too much stress. You need a vacation to relax and have some fun.” He prescribes you some vitamins and discharges you.
You follow your doctor’s advice, take a vacation. You swim and jog for a couple of days and have a heart attack. You arrive at the hospital with a survival chance of 5%.
Did the doctor do the right thing by not telling you the truth?
Scenario 2 : Don’t report correctly to protect a friend
A civil engineer responsible for doing quality and inspection checks of a bridge notices that sub-standard quality of material is used. There is a high risk of bridge collapsing. However, he issues a clean report to his seniors because the engineer-in-charge of the bridge is a friend of his.
An organisation’s senior managers drive daily across the bridge to reach their office. One day all of them are on the bridge and it collapses. All die.
Would the families of the senior managers be happy with the quality control engineer’s for not disclosing the risks?
My guess is most of the corporate readers would have answered no. You would have preferred the truth when it is a question of your own life being at risk.
So why don’t corporate citizens hesitate when they put other people’s life at risk. See the Bangladesh factory fire, Japan’s nuclear disaster or US banks home foreclosure and mortgage mess. Employees, customers and public lives or life savings were put at risk.
Wouldn’t a few honest risk management reports helped in fixing the problem in time to prevent the disasters?
The corporate world maintains double standards on reporting risks. They want full disclosure of the risks to them but not to others. Before setting these expectations, corporate citizens should answer these questions:
1) Isn’t it a risk manager’s job to identify the health problems of the organization, prescribe a cure, suggest amputation where required and nurse the organization back to health?
2) Is it right to compromise professional ethics and code of conduct to keep a few people happy?
3) Aren’t risk managers responsible for calculating the direct and indirect cost to others for non-disclosure of risks?
4) Shouldn’t risk managers hold their ground and stick to their independent advise as you will benefit from it in the long-run?
Moral courage is one of the most difficult qualities to acquire. Larry Page, as CEO of Google fulfilled his responsibility to the investors by publicly disclosing his medical problems. Now the investors can make an informed decision. One has to admire Page for taking such a difficult call. It takes guts. Disclosing personal weakness makes one feel vulnerable, exposed and fallible. He has shown the path for corporate leaders to follow.