Accountability is a four letter word that no one likes to display in public

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/03/29 17:31 -04:00, original URI:

Content of Michael Kaplan's personal blog not approved by Microsoft (see disclaimer)! 

A bit from Fast Times at Ridgemont High you may recall:

BRAD: May I help you?
BUSINESSMAN: Yes. This is not the best breakfast I ever ate {he gestures to the sign over Brad's head: TRY OUR 100% GUARANTEED BREAKFAST} and I want my money back.
BRAD: Well, I believe you have to fill out a form. There's a pad right around here.
BUSINESSMAN: No. I want my money back right now.
BRAD: Well, that's not the way it works, really. And you ate most of your food already, too...
BUSINESSMAN: See that sign? It says 100% Money Back Guarantee. Do you know the meaning of the word 'guarantee'? Do they teach you that here? Give me my money back.
BRAD: I can't do that. But if you wait a minute...
BUSINESSMAN: {as if talking to a child} Look. Just put your little hand back in the cash register and give me my $2.75 back. Okay? {looks at name tag} Please, Brad?
BRAD: I'm sorry, sir. Just let me find the forms here.
BUSINESSMAN: I am so tired. I am so tired of dealing with morons. How hard is it to...
{Brad looks up from under the counter. No amount of pay will make him take that kind of insult}
BRAD: Mister, if you don't shut up, I'm gonna kick 100% of your ass.
{The door to the Assistant Manager's office swings open, and Dennis comes hurtling out of the back)
DENNIS: Can I help you, sir? Is there a problem?
BUSINESSMAN: You bet there's a problem! Your employee used profanity and threatened me with violence! I'm shocked, frankly. I've eaten here many times and I've always enjoyed the service -- until today!
{Angle on bathroom door as it opens and Arnold starts towards the register. He quickly sees the incident with the irate Businessman and ducks back inside the bathroom}
BUSINESSMAN: All I wanted was my money back for this breakfast. It was a little undercooked. And this young man used profanity and threatened me with violence.
DENNIS: Did you threaten this man or use profanity in any way?
BRAD: He insulted me first. He called me a moron.
DENNIS: Did you threaten this customer or use profanity in any way?
BRAD: Well, yes.
DENNIS: You're fired. {to Businessman} I'm very sorry this happened to you, sir.
BUSINESSMAN Thank you very much.

I was thinking about this as I was reading over in TSA's Evolution of Security Blog, in particular at their TSA and Piercings blog (a response to the incident in Lubbock with a woman with piercings that had to be removed with pliers).

And I realized where public relations nightmares seem to happen most.

When no one either resigns or gets fired or gets transferred.

How different would the public perception of the incident be if the people involved (by which I mean not just the TSOs on the front line but the people in charge of the policies that drove them) had been either severely and publicly either reprimanded or fired, clear policy had been publicly stated, and sincere apologies been offered to the woman who was victimized here?

Hugely different.

I work for a company with over 80,000 employees, including a lot of executives like vice presidents, etc.

Years ago, my dad was the VP and managing tax officer of a bank as I mentioned before, and he explained to me that one of the reasons that companies have lots of vice presidents is so there are enough people of sufficient authority to act as fall guys when bad things happen.

Business units can have problems, lose even billions of dollars, and if you are a stockholder or an employee (or both) you want someone who is at a high enough level to either be fired or have them resign due to some kind of failure to do something. I mean, we know they have golden parachutes anyway, but the serious gesture means something.

It gives a sense of accountability.

It is all an illusion, but we just want someone to feel like a mistake was made, and that someone will pay the price....

Whether it is the person who cut loose and did not follow policy, the person who created or administered the policy, or the person who let the bad thing happen under their watch.

Now Microsoft is an at-will employer, which means if they want that they can fire you any time. By and large, conventional wisdom is that you won't get fired unless you are guilty of a) theft, b) kiddie porn, or c) both. For just about anything else they just kind of slowly push you out, or not.

But it is easy to feel dissatisfied from the outside if you deal with a company that does not make these gestures to indicate accountability.

You see the stars rewarded, which is half of that -- but you never see the villains suffer. That all get swept under the rug.

When people publicly choose to make the gesture, it means something; it makes a difference.

Like the VP who said he wouldn't take his bonus that year given how late Vista was. Very few people asked why he was getting a bonus at all, why anyone was that year. But a lot of people recognized that such a sense of accountability is a good thing, and a lot of employees who felt like victims of the politics of large products really liked when someone in authority over such a project would step up in such a way.

The public wants accountability, they want something or more to the point someone to blame when things go wrong. It may be unfair and scapegoats do not solve real problems.

But scapegoats put faces on problems, acting as gestures that the problem was noticed, is being dealt with, and will be dealt with.

And it solves a lot of PR problems when they come up....

Is TSA better off for publicly admitting the procedures had some problems in them, as they did in their Statement on Alleged Improper Screening at Lubbock, Texas?

TSA acknowledges that our procedures caused difficulty for the passenger involved and regrets the situation in which she found herself. We appreciate her raising awareness on this issue and we are changing the procedures to ensure that this does not happen again.

Yes, I suppose they are.

But on the other hand, I didn't hear much in the way of an apology in this "official statement of regret", or any word of what happens to the people who were so excessive in following the procedures as to cause the problems, or the people who authored or administered the flawed procedures in the first place. Speaking as someone who has been asked to stand along enough that I actually did fall down, those kinds of gestures mean something.


This blog brought to you by(U+2100, aka ACCOUNT OF)

# John Cowan on 29 Mar 2008 11:40 PM:

It's not an apology at all.  See the Language Log postings Pete Rose and sorry statements of the third kind and Air quotes and non-apologies to see a discussion of what is and isn't an apology.

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