“When Tragedy Strikes Our Workplace, We Want to do the Right Thing, but We are Running a Business After All!”

Each time I hear this statement or a similar one from an organizational leader, I am reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.—

“Never, never, be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

I know that, when I hear this, it is coming from someone who cares about doing the right thing, and I also know that these statements are made from a position of fear of some form of punishment i.e., loss of job, loss of money as in the case of increased legal settlements, and the like.  In nearly thirty years of interviewing both survivors of workplace tragedies as well as the leaders of organizations where tragedies have occurred, I have heard many examples where these fears were not substantiated and, in fact, the reverse is most often true.

A major part of what most survivors consider “the right thing” involves an apology that a tragedy has occurred, people have been injured or killed, or, in less harmful crises, people have been inconvenienced or property has been harmed. And yet, I still hear disagreements as to whether employees should say they are sorry when assisting families. “Is this an admission of liability?” some people will ask.

I recently conducted interviews with aviation plaintiff’s attorneys Mitch Baumeister and his partner, Thea Capone, of Baumeister and Samuels, P C.  I started with basic questions around the subject of apology. Mitch was most emphatic when he said that an employee cannot bind a corporation by responding in a “normal, human, compassionate” way, as in expressing sorrow over an accident.  He went on to say that, when employees are not proactive in assisting survivors, victims and families often come to his offices wanting to “bury the airline” for behaving in a cold, uncaring manner.

I asked plaintiff’s lawyer Jody Flowers of Motley Rice Law Firm the same questions. In particular, I asked her to comment on whether or not she has encountered a time when an employee apology had cost the corporation more money in a settlement or somehow increased their liability toward a plaintiff. Her answer was an emphatic, “No, never!”

In interviews with families where fatalities have occurred, I have heard more than one person express gratitude toward employees and even relate it to discussions with attorneys representing them in their claim.  It is understandable that, when death occurs, discussions of settlements must occur. However, one woman, whose son was killed in an airline crash where 229 died, told me that she discussed with her attorney her desire to get what was fair; however, she did not want punitive damages, as she did not want to hurt the employees who helped her so much.  One man told me that he settled sooner than he might have because of his gratitude toward the employees who tried so hard to help him and other survivors in the aftermath of the accident.

Similarly, in interviews with survivors of cruise line tragedies, I have seen numerous examples where survivors do not seek legal representation due to the proactive response by the company during the first few hours of a crisis.

In summary, I am optimistic that, as this paradigm shift continues to take place, defensive posturing in advance of a crisis, including statements that imply a business cannot “do the right thing” and remain viable, will disappear.  I close with one more quote from Martin Luther King, which I think furthers his original point—

“Cowardice asks the question: ‘Is it safe?’
Expediency asks the question: ‘Is it politic?’
Vanity asks the question: ‘Is it popular?’
But conscience asks the question: ‘Is it right?’

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one what is right.”