open communication

How to Hide Bad News

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    How openly organizations and companies deal with mistakes matters for their ability to learn lessons, improve and become safer or stronger in the future.

  • Facts


    • BASF communicated openly about an unexpected explosion at a plant in October this year.
    • Volkswagen has been criticized for a lack of openness about the Dieselgate scandal.
    • Studies show that employees are open about mistakes made in companies if they believe these will be kept confidential and their colleagues will not be punished.
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Open communication without blame about the fire at BASF reassured people despite the accident. Source: DPA [M]

A powerful explosion rocked a port terminal at a BASF facility in Ludwigshafen on October 17. Three people died and at least 30 were injured, eight seriously. The investigation is only in its initial phase, and only an interim report has been made available so far. Preliminary indications suggest the deadly explosion may have been caused by a worker cutting the wrong pipeline during routine maintenance and repairs.

Management at BASF, especially Chief Executive Kurt Bock and the human resources director, Margret Suckale, have spoken openly about the event, without assigning blame. Both have expressed a concern for the victims and their families and the desire to determine the cause of the accident.

This approach contrasts sharply with the response at Volkswagen, Europe’s largest automaker, to its global diesel emissions scandal. In its communications since the emissions fraud was uncovered by U.S. environmental regulators in September 2015, VW has only referred to its “diesel issue.” At its core, Volkswagen admitted to having manipulated diesel engines for years to artificially lower their emission levels to meet environmental laws in the United States.

Since the wrongdoing was revealed, the public has found out little about how the breach occurred. We don’t even know if the company acted negligently or deliberately. Instead, Volkswagen has focused from the outset on blaming a small group of low-level managers and engineers who are alleged to have operated without the knowledge or direction of the board.

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