When was the last time you heard a corporate officer unequivocally acknowledge a serious error?
Did it occur after United Airlines instructed police officers to assault a passenger who declined to surrender his oversold airplane seat? CEO Oscar Munoz eventually expressed regret, but only after his firm “seemed to go on the offensive when it circulated a letter in which (it) appeared to blame (the passenger), saying he “defied” the officers …”
What about BP’s declaration of contrition regarding its massive Gulf oil spill? Indeed, its Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg did express sympathy for residents of the region, but he was later compelled to apologize for his self-described “clumsy” choice of words when he referred to Gulf residents as “small people.”
So it is downright refreshing to hear a corporation clearly and unambiguously acknowledge a major blunder. When such an acknowledgment is honestly proffered, we may be able to encourage such behavior in the future by simply recognizing its ethical value.
Consider, for instance, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s recent comment that its consulting contract with President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen was a “big mistake.” Shortly after the election of 2016, AT&T agreed to pay Cohen’s firm $50,000 per month for advice regarding a “wide range of issues.” One such issue was its battle with the federal government to approve its merger with Time Warner, a battle that rages on today.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is now reportedly inquiring about the appropriateness of AT&T’s motivation for signing the contract. How has the corporate giant responded?
Stephenson could have simply stated that he would not comment about the matter. Or he could have noted that the contract concluded at the end of 2017, and thus is no longer a current concern of his firm. Instead, the CEO candidly confessed that “There is no other way to say it – AT&T hiring Michael Cohen as a political consultant was a big mistake.”
Was Stephenson’s behavior impeccable? No, not perfectly so. Instead of issuing his statement to the public, he included it in an internal company memorandum that was shown to the Reuters news service.
Nevertheless, if blunt and unvarnished honesty is an indicator of ethical behavior, then AT&T should be recognized for this example of appropriate action. Honesty is not always practiced throughout the corporate realm; thus, whenever we manage to find it, we should be willing to commend it.