Integrity: how to become trustworthy

Service: Board Sparring Partner, analysis of policy and inspiration days (These include evaluation research, a foundations workshop, ethical test, interpretation of behavior, dialogue on integrity with employees, advice on integrity, second opinion, media policy and a communication calendar).

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How many people do you know that consider themselves dishonest, and publicly admit to that as well)? “Hello, I am John and I am completely dishonest.” That would be a weird text. One would expect someone who utters this sentence to be extremely honest. It is like the brain teaser of the Cretan who says that all Cretans always lie. An important cause of this is of course that the integrity of the one is not necessarily the integrity of the other. If this were so, then Law and Ethics would not have grown apart. Apart from criminal law, it is hard to detect who is right and who is wrong when it comes to integrity. Everyone is always right, depending on your norms and values.

A board member who is being grilled in public faces a professional and personal drama. The subject matters concerned are without any exception very complex and in the meantime there are many sides to a story. The side that is told and interpreted for the public is usually no more than a very tiny piece of the whole story. The moral interpretation can turn out particularly negative for the board member concerned, even if his or her integrity is not doubted by people that actually know these men and women.

Apart from the complexity, the academic truth doesn’t always correlate with popular empirical perception, especially when the case at hand reflects a difficult technological phenomenon. When this is the case, truth doesn’t adequately communicate. Someone, especially someone scientific or technical, who tries to communicate ‘the facts’ may find himself in this paradox and being found a liar and guilty of having no integrity.

Case: BP’s Deep Water Horizon and its CEO Tony Hayward

The New York Times, September 1, 2012 looks back at the BP oil spill desaster and the way that its CEO, Tony Hayward, was being judged. “On the night of April 20, 2010 — the early morning hours of April 21 in London — the Macondo well erupted below the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, ripping through the rig, killing 11 people and creating one of the worst environmental catastrophes in United States history. Tony Hayward was having breakfast in a London hotel when he got the news.

By now the events that followed are well known: the desperate efforts to cap the gushing well; the harrowing collapse in BP’s share price; the government inquiries; the multibillion-dollar cleanup”. What, meanwhile, happened to the CEO is quite something else however. Reuters, June 2, 2010. “BP CEO Tony Hayward, on the front lines of his company’s battle to contain the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, apologized on Wednesday for saying “I want my life back.” Hayward, who has been thrust into a media spotlight since an April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history, said in a statement he was appalled when he read his comment. The BP chief had remarked “I want my life back,” to several news organizations, including Reuters, in recent days. “I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment,” Hayward said in a statement. “I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy.”

The offending words are explicable if BP’s Press Office had Mr Hayward handle many thousands of press questions and interviews by himself. Then the man was problably just plainly exhausted. Whether the footage of the CEO sailing represented his current whereabouts or were actually pictures made before the accident long remained unclear. Then another wording shocked the world. Reuters continues: “Hayward’s “life back” gaffe was not the first by the plain-speaking and press-shy geologist at the helm of the oil giant. On May 18, he told Britain’s Sky News: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” Hayward and BP executives have been challenged with the comment, made before oil hit the Gulf shore, regularly since in television interviews in the United States, where the spill is dominating the national news. As much as 19,000 barrels of oil (800,000 gallons or 3 million liters) a day has been pouring into the Gulf off the coast of Louisiana, threatening fisheries, wildlife and beaches along a coastline that stretches to Florida. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper published on May 14, Hayward said: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”” That remark was typical of the technically accurate comments Hayward makes, which, particularly when abbreviated, have led critics to charge that BP is trying to play down the environmental damage. An abbreviation of the Guardian quote, where Hayward simply refers to the spill as “tiny,” also regularly features in news reports.”

On July 27, BP said that Mr. Hayward was out. He was replaced by Robert Dudley, the first American chief executive in BP’s history. Mr. Hayward was poleaxed. He’d spent his entire career at BP, slowly working his way up only to lose it all after three short years as chief executive.

Complication we gladly contribute to. How do you take care that non-professional audiences understand what you are saying, taking into account that your facts are too difficult and don’t ‘speak for themselves’.

Clients for whom we worked on similar cases:




Financial Institutions, Insurance Companies & Law Firms