So, Volkswagen cheated on its emission tests…
Not too long ago, photos of birds drenched in black oil generated public furor. Despite being responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has since moved on from the scandal almost unscathed. While we might still remember the image of the oil-drenched birds, most of us have probably forgotten the company responsible for the mess.
In 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1,000 workers died. About 2,500 were injured. Despite multiple factory collapses and a fire in the preceding years, neither rectifications nor preventions were instituted. Today, garment manufacturing in the country is business as usual in extremely unsafe buildings.
Prestigious Chicago accounting firm Arthur Andersen failed to extract itself from the scandal it helped create and went down with Enron. After changing its corporate name, it has since become one of the fastest growing outfits in the BPO industry. In 2014, reports said that it would revive the Andersen name under one of its services.
Most corporate scandals are “naturally” forgotten over time. What traces remain in our collective memory are those that these organizations have wanted us to remember.
Often, according to a 2016 study “On the Forgetting of Corporate Irresponsibility,” our collective memory of corporate scandals is a result of active and instrumental work. Organizations purposely attempt to “reconfigure, dilute and thwart the collective memory of an event.” When the past is edited for present ends, we are made to forget particular details of past events. And when this is successful, our collective memory becomes a remainder of what we have collectively forgotten.
Immediately after an event involving corporate irresponsibility, influence is exerted on media on how to report it.
The purpose of manipulation is to diminish the negative association between the organization and the event.
With the aim of “changing, influencing and managing stakeholders’ perception,” manipulation includes attempts to deflect the perceived harm that can be caused by the event. It may divert the attention of the public by shifting blame on an individual or a small group of people, usually the CEO or the team involved.
After a few months, the public interest on the event and issues would have subsided. Stakeholders who remain vocal and noisy are terminated, given substantial settlements, or assigned marginal roles in the organization. Silencing these people “disconnects them from the past event and from each other.” With the absence of first-hand accounts, second-hand versions of the scandal are deemed unworthy and downplayed.
In the long run, organizations undermine our collective memory by fabricating or destroying evidence. This is also done by “preventing access to evidences, distorting meaning and associated beliefs, and even fabricating alternative traces that promote a different version of a past event.” In practice, corporate names and identities are altered, involved subsidiaries are divested, and if necessary, documents are deleted and shredded.
This is not the first time Volkswagen has cheated emissions tests. In 1973, it was pursued by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA). Without admitting wrongdoing, it settled out-of-court.
The attempt to reconfigure our collective memory is not entirely bad. This results in positive consequences for the organization. The image and credibility of the organization are maintained and preserved among stakeholders.
And of our collective forgetting, do not despair. A similar scandal will happen again.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategy and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business (RVRCOB) of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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REAL CARPIO SO