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.


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