Who takes the rap?

By looking at the way in which companies respond to accidents in Japan and the US, Professor Michael Morris of Columbia Business School has located two key differences.

by Columbia ideas@work
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

When an accident occurs in the US, people look for the individual who is the direct cause. So, in the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the oil tanker's captain, who had consumed more than a dozen shots of vodka before embarking, was considered to be responsible for the disaster.

Americans see the individual involved and not the corporation behind them as being responsible. Therefore, the leader of the corporation would not be held responsible unless he specifically caused the accident.

In Japan, the public looks to the corporate or collective entity as a whole and requires it to atone for an accident. This leads logically to the person at the head of the organisation having to publicly take responsibility, whether he caused the accident or not. For example, the head of the Japanese agency responsible for the Health Ministry's blood supply which had been contaminated by the HIV virus in the 1980s had to take a 20 percent pay cut and apologise publicly, even though he had joined the agency after the negligence occurred.

The results of this research suggest that an American head of a Japanese firm would be expected to apologise if an accident occured, regardless of his involvement. Conversely, a Japanese head of a US firm would not be expected to apologise for an accident or negligence for which he was not responsible. It would be interpreted as an admission of responsibility.

The blame game
Michael Morris
Columbia ideas @work, May 2007 
Review by Morice Mendoza

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