Monthly Archives: May 2015

Lies, damned lies and railway timetables

This is a classic example of how a company will dodge and evade responsibility for its own failings.

It is the story of the 7.29 am Brighton to London Victoria train service. There were a series of critical stories in the press when it failed to arrive on time for each of its 240 journeys last year. Southern Rail has responded to the criticism by adding three minutes to the journey time and removing one stop.

The statement issued by the company to justify its actions was a classic of its kind. A spokesman said: “These changes have been designed to improve performance across the Southern network, and particularly on the Brighton line, which is one of the busiest routes in the country.

“A small delay on this line can have serious knock-on effects leading to widespread delays, so re-timing some trains to leave earlier and altering some calling patterns will distribute trains on the line more evenly and allow more room to keep trains running on time.

“These new changes are designed to build on those we have already made which are working well, and we expect them to help to improve punctuality further.”

Look first at the way the spokesman makes a generalised comment rather than addresses the specific issue. It is typical of corporate evasion rule book – always start the answer with a broad policy statement rather than a specific answer.

Then note the claim that, even though the journey will be longer and there will be fewer stops, the changes are designed to improve performance.

So, meeting a later arrival time is defined as a greater punctuality. Look too at the evasive phrasing – they use “re-timing” when they mean extending the journey time and changing “calling patterns” instead of cancelling stops.

Do they really think that they fool anyone with this linguistic corruption.

But, as always, most significant is the use of the passive in the first sentence. “These changes have been designed…”

The changes must have been decided by a group of individuals and one person must have taken ultimate responsibility for. However by using the passive, the spokesman can evade and avoid having to say who decided on the changes.

Southern Rail’s response was pretty standard public relations – it says everything about it that it cannot be bothered to make anything more than an off-the-peg response to changes which will have a major impact on their customers.


The deceits of Thomas Cook (part two)

It goes without saying that the travel firm Thomas Cook has behaved despicably in its treatment of the parents of the two children killed on one of its holidays.

I won’t go over the full details of what happened – The Guardian provides a perfectly good summary for those not familiar.

My blog aims to identify the way in which those with corporate or organisational power use deception and evasion to avoid taking responsibility. Thomas Cook has used exactly the same strategy as other major corporations in similar circumstances – look back through my blog for other examples.

This approach is to

: Provide the minimum possible information

: Make as few admissions as possible

: Talk at length about current policy to deflect attention from past actions

: Answer different questions to those you are asked

: Issue information through statements rather than interviews

: Use ambiguous language, usually based on excessive use of the passive as this makes it easier to avoid personal responsibility

: Always blame procedures and processes to ensure that individuals can never be held responsible.

: If you are forced to apologise always apologise for the distress caused and never for anything that an individual or the company has done.

Thomas Cook has over the nine years since the tragedy followed this approach to the letter.

In my blog last week, published just after the inquest verdict that Thomas Cook had “breached its duty of care” to the family, I asked whether Thomas Cook’s response was “just slipshod language; or is this statement part of a calculated strategy designed to protect executives and shift the blame to inanimate things like processes.”

The company’s behaviour since then has made it pretty clear that they were operating a calculated strategy, which seems to have been lawyer driven.

Let me give you a couple of recent examples – you can find plenty from my earlier blog and just looking at the company’s statements in the last week.

When previously asked about the compensation it received, a Thomas Cook spokesman said: “After it was clear that the hotel was responsible for the tragedy all parties affected were compensated and Thomas Cook received a compensation that partly compensated for the costs related to the incident.”

Look at the way the passive is used and the way a subordinate clause is used at the start of the sentence; it just doesn’t sound like the phrasing of an honest person – if I heard that said in court, I would not believe the integrity of the witness.

Then look at the statement of group chief executive Peter Fankhauser after the announcement that the company would give some of the compensation it received from the hotel chain to Unicef. His firm received the £1.5m, mainly in respect of legal fees, as part of a £3m settlement with Louis Group, the South African family-owned multinational that controls the Louis Corcyra hotel. The other £1.5m went to Thomas Cook’s insurers.

“Thomas Cook has not in any way profited from our claim against the hotel owner. In late 2012 we brought a claim against the hotelier for breaching their contract to provide safe accommodation to our customers and to comply with all applicable laws, which was decided in our favour.

“Today I have made arrangements for the full amount – £1.5m – to be donated in full to Unicef, the world’s leading children’s organisation. I believe this is the right thing to do and I apologise to the family for all they have gone through.”

It is a classic case of not answering the question he is being asked. No-one suggested that Thomas Cook profited from its claim. The allegations are that it should have announced the money it received and donated it to a charity of the parents’ choice.

Moreover the thought that lawyers’ fees came before everything else is hardly likely to endear the company or its lawyers to the public.

And finally, there is the question of an apology. I have not seen the wording of the letter sent to the family but its view is that “it’s not an apology for their wrongdoing but a general offer of sympathy.”

This is only the latest in the long ignoble tradition of non-apology apologies that are used by any organisation that wants to appear sympathetic without appearing responsible for anything.

Perhaps the only consolation for us is that Thomas Cook’s performance has done immeasurable damage to its reputation and financial position.

It has in one episode highlighted the depths that companies will go to evade and avoid responsibility for their actions.

I fear its failed strategy won’t stop other companies, bureaucracies or managers from behaving in this way.

But we are all at least better informed about the way those in power seek to deceive us and avoid responsibility.

The evasions of Thomas Cook

So have Thomas Cook been indulging in corporate evasion to protect senior executives?

Many of you will have read the deeply distressing story in which two young children were killed by carbon monoxide gas which leaked into their hotel bedroom in Greece. The parents have fought to bring the travel agents Thomas Cook to account for the deaths and this week the inquest jury found that the company had breached its duty of care.

And you will have noticed the failure of their group chief executive Peter Fankhauser to apologise on behalf of the firm or answer direct questions.

As always I am interested in the wording used by the company when it issues a statement after a verdict.

A spokesperson said: “The systems which were in place in 2006, which were intended to prevent such a tragedy, have since been thoroughly revised and address the criticisms made by the jury. Thomas Cook works with dedicated specialist external health and safety experts to audit holiday properties. The health and safety of our customers is of paramount importance.”

Those of you who have followed my blog will see that this statement follows the usual corporate defensive approach.

There is the usual vacuous general statement of principle (last sentence) that focuses on current policy. There is the usual insistence that the criticisms made of the company’s approach had already been addressed (you see this sort of statement after almost every report criticising a company).

There is the focus on procedures – though Thomas Cook define them as systems – a typical corporate response usually designed to distance executives from responsibility for their actions.

And this distancing from individual executive responsibility is made so much easier by using the passive.

Thomas Cook’s statement refers to “the systems which were in place in 2006” but does not tell us which individual was responsible for these systems at the time.

So is this just slipshod language; or is this statement part of a calculated strategy designed to protect executives and shift the blame to inanimate things like processes.

I leave it to you to decide.

Measurements of deception and opinion polls

The obsession with opinion polls during the recent election campaign provides yet more evidence of the way those in power prefer to use measurement rather than judgement.

Business, financial, bureaucratic and political leaders use statistics, market analysis, isometric tests and so-called independent research by think tanks and academic institutions to justify their actions and deflect criticism.

It is the perfect way to shift the blame when things go wrong, ensuring they won’t have to take personal responsibility – and it will be all but impossible to hold them to account.

On issues like energy prices, NHS waiting lists and organisational efficiency (to name but three) it is very hard to prove the statistics wrong. There is always a tame institute, paid-for academic, or management consultancy with a commercial or interest or think tank – all ever eager to call itself independent – which is ready to for a fee or a favour to provide helpful information to back up their client’s case.

At least elections provide results which can be set alongside opinion poll findings. Last week, the pollsters clearly got the levels of Tory and Labour support wrong – we shouldn’t be too surprised as this has been the case in every election from 1992, with the exception of 2005.

My problem is not with the pollsters – they can be correct, as they were in Scotland. It is with the managerial class, who now seem to have replaced journalists at the head of so much of the broadcast media; they focused totally on the polls when there was quite a lot of evidence that other results could be possible.

What reporters saw with their own eyes and what those who had fought many elections could tell from their experience suggested a very different story.

There was also a significant view from journalists – including those at the BCC – and experienced politicians that the Tories were ahead; though in fairness very few predicted with a confidence an overall Tory majority. For example, the excellent John Pienaar kept hinting on Radio 5 about shy Tories, yet the whole thrust of that channel’s coverage was on the inevitability of a hung Parliament.

I suspect that this stance was not due to political bias but a managerial obsession for the cowardly comfort of what appeared to be hard information when their judgement should have told them also to consider other results. These people are only rare among modern managers in that they have been caught out.

As I have reported in some of my earlier blogs, the corporate managerial classs likes to evade responsibility for their actions and decisions. They use “market research” to prove customer satisfaction, isometric tests to select staff (which means managers cannot be held responsible if someone who later turns out to be a genius has not been hired), points for deciding on loans and statistics to justify every government policy or bureaucratic decision. Even the last England cricket coach David Moores fell back on statistics to explain failure.

I have highlighted the way in which the managerial class relies on the “independent” research of others in earlier blogs and

These demonstrate how little trust you can put any measurement.

When an NHS Trust announces that its waiting lists have become shorter or longer, one has to ask what their motive is delivering these stats.

When governments (of any political complexion) produce any analysis, one has to ask when the start and finish dates were.

When any energy company publishes research to justify price rises, one has to ask who commissioned the research and what that organisation’s links with the energy sector is.

At least the Office of Budget Responsibility (which produces official statistics in the UK) is politically neutral – but one has to look at the independence of those mining the data for their own interests.

No doubt the pollsters will produce a report in due course to say that there will be more accurate polls. But that is not the answer and should not lead to return to trusting polls.

We all need to be much more dismissive of statistical or other measurement. Instead we should use our eyes and ears and trust what we find in front of us. Measurements should be our servants not our masters. Sometimes they will confirm what we see.

But where assessment contradicts measurement, we should have the confidence to trust our judgement or that of others who we listen to.

New thought: I have read some criticism of the BBC, which argues that they followed the agenda set by newspapers. This confimsmy view of a managerial BBC that likes to pass the buck – they can always blame the written press if they are accused of misjedgements in their coverage.

Was Taylor told not to pick too many black players?

Graham Taylor, the England football manager in the early 1990s, has become embroiled in a row over whether some of his bosses at the Football Association told him to limit the number of black players he selected. Emy Onuora makes the allegation that Taylor admitted this was the case in a book about racism in sport, called Pitch Black.

Onuora cites an alleged conversation between Taylor and an Richie Moran, an anti-racism campaigner. The key words are part of a quote from Taylor in which he says “…I was told in no uncertain terms not to pick too many players for the national side.”

Taylor has responded angrily but rather incoherently – it is hard to say whether this was a result of his anger, his natural incoherence or he was trying to be evasive.

He remembers the event but has “no memory of a conversation about black players.” Asked if he could have had a conversation with FA members about limiting the number of black players, he says;”That is one of the things you are never going to forget. I’m so annoyed about it. They’ve gone ahead – as I understand it what I’ve said to them privately has just got out.

“Or what I’m accused of saying to the them privately, which I deny and can’t remember it, they’ve gone out publicly and said it and yet they’re saying themselves it was said to them privately.”

Using words such as having “no memory of a conversation” doesn’t help. If you cant remember the conversation, how can you remember what you said.

As to whether he was instructed not to pick too many black players, he say he would have remembered if it if he had been told that, which is just about credible.

But he then confuses the matter still further by saying that the conversation, which he says did not take place, should not have been repeated as it was private.

He is at his least convincing here – after years of managing England and league teams, he would surely have known that you speak unattributably or on the record. Any story told to an anti-racism campaigner about racism at the FA was bound to reach a public audience at some stage – it could never have remained private.

The irony of this saga is that Taylor comes out of the story in the book extremely well. His record as manager shows that his selections were made purely on ability, irrespective of creed or colour. If there was pressure, he clearly ignored it.

Nor would it be surprising if some in the FA held the view attributed to them – it was common practive at that time to count up the number of black players in the England team; and I often heard suggestions that there should not be too many black players in the team – views that rightly today we regard as totally unacceptable. It would hardly be a surprise if a couple of senior FA members took Taylor to one side and expressed that view to him.

So what should I conclude. It is relatively easy to spot when lawyers, PR people or executives with media training are trying to be evasive.They usually charge huge fees for using obvious and predictable techniques that wont fool anyone.

It is much harder assessing comments made by real people, particularly those like Taylor whose analysis, while always good, never has much clarity of expression.

With his response, Taylor has made himself appear at best incoherent in explaining himself and at worst opened himself up to accusations that he has something to hide.

I suspect that we have not heard the last on this subject.

Until we get more information, I leave you to make up your own minds

More sex abuse evasion

Today produced further evidence of the way Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire police are evading and avoiding key questions on sex abuse by their use of language.

This morning the Sheffield Star published a story which revealed that police and council officials in Rotherham were warned that gangs of men were grooming children for sex as long ago as 2003 but failed to act.

The two bodies were sent a list of suspects along with a report that linked drug-dealing and ‘significant’ child abuse. The warnings were repeated in another report three years later, but no action was taken against the gangs trafficking children.

It of course defies belief that it required a Freedom of Information request to gain access to these reports, but my interest is in the responses.

This followed traditional evade and avoid tactics, both in the use of ambiguous language and secondly in making generalised statements of current policy that don’t address the issues raised by the newly published documents.

Rotherham Council’s response to the BBC is a classic: the council said it had been “unable to find any reference to the documents being formally considered” by the authority.

“Unable to find” doesn’t mean they don’t exist and doesn’t really tell us how hard they looked. What exactly constitutes “a reference”? As for “formally considered;” this is not a denial that they were informally considered; nor does it tell us where the line between the two types of consideration is set.

As for the rest of what the two bodies said, they just state current policy and makes not attempt to answer issues raised by the Sheffield Star.

Make your own judgements:

A spokesman for the council said today: ‘Child sexual exploitation is a challenge nationally and locally as we have previously stated. It is a dreadful and sad crime. Sheffield has been publishing annual reports for a number of years detailing this and how the Sheffield Safeguarding Children’s Board were tackling the issue. We continue to use every tool at our disposal to tackle child sexual exploitation and will never be complacent.”

A South Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “There has been a significant increase in the number of police officers and staff dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation and we are absolutely committed to achieving justice, stopping the harm and preventing future offending.

“We have centralised the team of officers involved in ongoing investigations into non-recent allegations of sexual exploitation, some of these investigations are large scale and involve large numbers of potential victims and potential offenders.”

The misuse of cannot

Have you noticed the growing tendency of organisations to use the word “cannot” when they should be using the words “may not.”

This may seem a trivial whinge on my part. But organisations like to use “cannot” because it implies that they would like to help but are simply not able to do so. “May not” in contrast means they are not allowed to do something so implies a decision by an individual which of course can be challenged or reversed.

Just to be clear on definitions: “Cannot” means physically or mentally unable to do something – ie I cannot jump over that wall because it is 10 feet high. “May not” implies an element of decision making or judgement – ie I may not jump over that wall because someone has put up a sign saying “Do not jump over this wall.”

Consequently companies like to say “cannot” as they see this as a way of closing discussion on a subject,

I was reminded of this trend read last week when I read the very sad story of the dog that was put down by a vet within two hours of disappearing from garden.of its owners Phil Spencer and Kate Slater. Not surprisingly this cause a lot of anger and press headlines.

According to the Daily Mail, the vets  Blythman and Partners Vetinary Practice in Gosforth responded to inquiries by satating: “We cannot comment to a third party on this matter.”

Assuming the Mail’s reporting is correct, the phrasing is intended to carry an element of finality and close the discussion about whether the vets can say anything. But it is clearly a bogus use of the word. The vets are presumably mentally and physically capable of answering questions.

The correct usage should have been that the vets may “may not” answer questions on the subject. But that statement raises further questions. Who has taken the decision that they are not allowed to talk and why have they taken that decision? Does the law prevent a vet from talking to a third party about a case even when the owners of the animal are happy to talk? Or is it company policy made up on the hoof to justify saying nothing?

I feel sorry for picking on these vets because there are many bigger companies that are worse offenders – this misuse happens almost every time I ring customer services with a complaint.

But I think we should always challenge all those in power when they try to evade and avoid by using “cannot” instead of “may not.”

Addendum: I am grateful to Robin Bailey – @RobinMaxdew – for pointing out that that “cannot” is also used extensively when the real intention is “will not.” He is absolutely right – and we should not tolerate companies that behave in this way.