Reputation loss — the new scarlet letter

May 16, 2012

Reputation loss — the new scarlet letter

I feel like I have read this article before. The title in USA Today yesterday was “CEOs stumble over ethics violations, mismanagement.” Is it 2002 over again when Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia made headlines over ethical transgressions and wrongdoing? I agree that there seems to be a rush of these events recently but I am not sure it is vastly different than it has always been. The Internet has certainly added to the scrutiny of corporate executives but the spotlights were just as glaring and intense as they were years ago. In fact, I tend to think that wrongdoing on the part of CEOs stayed in the news for a longer period of time than they do now. I am waiting for headlines about JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon to be replaced soon.  Not sure what will substitute for him in the days ahead but I can bet $5 that something will surface in the next week to knock Dimon off the front pages (so to speak). And whistleblowers have been around for a long time.  It is not the first time I have heard about a note being sent to a board member about an executive transgression.
The real difference is that there is zero tolerance for these missteps and for a simple reason — “reputation.” It was interesting to me that the word “reputation” did not appear once in the USA Today article. Boards are making split-second decisions about CEO tenures because they know the downside of having their reputations tarnished, trashed, torn and tattered. Not only are their own personal reputations at risk but that of the companies on whose boards they sit (and that impacts their compensation which is often in stock).  As Lucian Bebchuk, director of corporate governance at Harvard Law School said in the article, “Boards do seem to move faster to deal with scandals and public failings that attract shareholder and media attention.”  Being in the headlines and chatted about online about reputation failure is the new scarlet letter. I hope that next time an article appears, the reputation damage that brings down share prices, dampens employee morale, attracts headlines and invites investor activists gets mentioned. The cost of reputation failings are higher than ever and the stain can be very deep. In fact, it takes years to wash out.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross
lesliegainesross@gmail.com

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of reputations.

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