INSIGHT | DEPARTMENT
Telling People You Got It Wrong
Ten Tips for Coming Clean
BY PETER M. SANDMAN
Your factory’s emissions have been a problem for years, and
you’ve worked hard to protect employees from the potential
health effects. You have focused especially on workers in the
refinery building, where the risk is usually highest. This year a
new problem emerged that raised a lot of concern in your work
force. The early data seemed to show that workers in the polishing unit were more at risk this time, so that’s what you said and
that’s where you focused your precautionary efforts. You told
refinery employees their risk from the newly discovered pollutant was pretty low.
But new evidence is showing that you were mistaken. It’s
true that the new pollutant is a greater risk than your plant’s
other emissions to the polishing unit employees; it’s also true
that exposures to other emissions are more serious for refinery
employees than exposure to the new pollutant. Nevertheless,
the new pollutant poses greater risk to refinery employees than
to polishing unit employees. You’ve been urging precautions on
the wrong group. The problem is how (and whether) to tell people you got it wrong. Here are some dos and don’ts.
Don’t stick to your guns.
You may be tempted to keep saying the polishing unit employees
are most at risk, ignoring the emerging data that the risk is actually higher to the people in refining. There is a chance that you’ll
get away with it. But if you’re in a low-trust, high-outrage environment (for example, if you work for a polluting corporation),
the odds are against you. You have enemies who are motivated
to root out your misstatements and expose them.
Even if you’re in a comparatively high-trust, low-outrage environment (for example, if you work for a public health
agency), sticking to your guns is profoundly unwise. You’re
more likely to get away with it, perhaps. But you also have
more to lose. Your hard-won credibility is at stake.
In either environment—low-trust/high-outrage or high-trust/low-outrage—sticking to your guns will do harm to the
people you fail to warn. So it is ethically wrong.
It’s also dangerous to your organization, which will take a
small hit if you announce your error but a big hit if others prove
later that you discovered your error and decided to hide it.
Don’t think that quietly publishing the data protects you.
My clients—both corporate and government—typically produce
huge amounts of technical paperwork documenting the risk-related situations they’re managing. After 30-plus years as a risk
communication consultant, I am convinced that the paperwork
is usually honest. But my clients’ public statements about the
paperwork are frequently not so honest.
Telling the truth where no one will notice doesn’t protect
you from stakeholders’ outrage, if and when they eventually
notice that you said something quite different in more visible
venues. In fact, this is arguably the worst of both worlds. If