Whenever a large organisation gets into public trouble, the search for a scapegoat begins and the organisations are often relived to serve one up. Institutional illegality is all very well, but it does not appear to be interesting until we can put a face to the crime and a name to the nastiness.
After all, a company can hardly be doorstepped or led out in court, head hung low, and it certainly can’t be jailed. Banks being slapped with a £6bn bill for Forex manipulation isn’t as satisfying as seeing banker in the dock for Libor fraud. A corporate fine, however hefty, just doesn’t generate the same sense of ‘justice done’ as personal hardship.
So when seven Fifa officials were being ‘rudely’ awakened by police in Zurich last week, there was a palpable sense of glee in the media. Football, fraud and the FBI – what could be juicier?
Sadly, the reality is that by making the story about people – rather than the systematic corruption that may lie at the heart of Fifa – the organisation may well get off lightly. A newly teflon-coated and re-elected Sepp Blatter has promised the removal of rogue operators, and the whole scandal will subside – at least for now. ‘Justice’ will have been done, with several individuals behind bars.
Or so they’d like to hope.
We’re increasingly aware of the damage that rogue institutions can do. Many of us no longer believe their story of ‘reckless individuals’ acting without mandates. Instead, we know that company cultures – focused on profitability and growth – are the root cause of individual action.
The end result is, I think, an inability for companies to grow long-term trust amongst consumers. Although in the short-term, companies may be able to limit the reputation damage in a scandal by offering up sacrificial lambs, we now know that post-scandal, often nothing really changes.
Although hot rage may subside, we will never really hold the organisation in high esteem again. Will anyone really think Fifa newly-cleansed with a few old men in jail? The short (and perhaps long) answer is no.
So what can an institution do when it is embroiled in scandal? They can – and should – take responsibility for their actions ‘as a company’ rather than foist it on to a few executives, who are doubtless culpable, but not comprehensively so. Being transparent and honest about failings, and clear about the route to righting the wrong – including cultural change, if necessary – is key to re-establishing trust.
When weeding in the vegetable patch, the temptation is to chop what you can see. It’s quick and looks effective. But as any gardener will tell you, to properly remove the weeds you need to undertake the more challenging task of removing the roots.
Rather than cutting off a visible dandelion head or two, and hoping that we all forget about a scandal, businesses caught in disgrace should take a look at their roots and dig out what’s rotten in their culture.
If they don’t, trust will wither and die – and scandal will surely bloom.