The Worst That Could Happen

Gunman! Scandal!

A Gunman Charges Into Your Office Building

First, if you hear the sound of gunfire in another room, don't run toward it, urge Carol and Duane Frederickson, co-presidents of Frederickson Consulting Inc., a workplace-violence consulting firm in Minneapolis. It may seem harsh or cowardly to suggest fleeing, but the damage has probably been done, and now you need to think about saving your own life. If you're unlucky enough to meet up with the gunman, be agreeable. "Don't try to rationalize with him," suggests Carol. "Remember, if [he] is waving around a gun, he's probably irrational."

If you're trying to avoid being seen, "stay as low as you can, and if you can, get under your desk and pull the chair in," says Duane. "Lives have been saved that way."

Prevention is the Best Medicine:

  • Create a violence policy. If your employee manual has a policy outlining your definition of violence, long before a problem has gone out of control you can utter the words "You're fired"-without fear of a lawsuit-if an employee is committing what your manual states is a violent act, say Carol and Duane.
  • Confront the volatile employee now, not later. Would you let a stick of dynamite burn?

Your Company Is Rocked by a Salacious Scandal

Think of Gary Thompson as a lifeguard, pulling entrepreneurs from the whirlpool wave that is known as the media machine. Thompson is executive vice president of the San Francisco branch of Waltham, Massachusetts-based Schwartz Communications. Though he specializes in helping small businesses, he also assisted Jack-in-the-Box after its infamous food-poisoning problems in the mid-1990s, watched colleagues try valiantly to restore Exxon's image after its Alaskan oil spill, and was in charge of maintaining corporate composure after a high-tech client's CEO was kidnapped several years ago.

Any worst-case scenario could bring bad publicity, which is why Thompson urges you to ignore your lawyer, who will advise you to say nothing, and follow his formula:

1. Acknowledge the problem. Saying there "might" be a problem will only make you sound wishy-washy.

2. Sympathize with those who are affected. And be specific. You feel bad for your employees, your shareholders, your customers or all of the above.

3. State what the company is doing. But "until you have something solid to report, it's not necessary to disclose to the press everything that's going on," says Thompson. "Just acknowledge you're working on the problem."

4. Assure the public on an ongoing basis. But only up to a point. "Studies show that after two months, reminding people starts to overstate the issue," says Thompson. "The American public tends to be very forgiving if you acknowledge swiftly there is an issue, and most customers will sympathize with the company trying to get to the bottom [of the problem]" and do the right thing.

Prevention is the Best Medicine:
There may be little you can do to prepare yourself for scandals, but creating a company values system and instilling it in the employee mind-set will help, says Thompson, who recalls the time when an insurance company CEO who came to him after employees refused to give an elderly woman her money because of some minor glitch in her paperwork. The CEO wanted the woman to be compensated-and so did the employees. But the staff believed they had to strictly follow company policy. Says Thompson, "Your employees need to understand [your company's] values give them a certain latitude with dealing with the public."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the July 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Worst That Could Happen.

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