The Costa Concordia and Tone from the Top

In our last blog we discussed the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey’s finding that as the economy continues to improve, organizations’ ethics cultures are beginning to erode from the top down. Now the tragic disaster of the cruise ship Costa Concordia capsizing off the coast of Italy provides a stark example of just how important tone from the top can be.

As reported by CNN, Captain Francesco Schettino potentially committed a number of errors in judgment including bringing the ship too close to shore, navigating by sight, and not quickly contacting authorities once his ship struck the rocks. Perhaps worst of all in the eyes of the public, however, is the allegation that Schettino personally abandoned the ship while 100 or more passengers and crew members were still stranded aboard. While the romantic notion of sea captains going down with their ships may have ended with the golden age of sail, even in the modern era we expect captains to be the last to leave.

Schettino’s apparent disregard for the safety and well-being of his employees and customers demonstrates tone from the top at its worst. .When a leader places his own self-interest so obviously above the interest of those who work for him and the clients he serves, disaster seems like an inevitable outcome, whether on the bridge of a ship or in the boardroom of a corporation.

And speaking of tone from the top, Costa Cruises has been quick to place all the blame on the captain while taking none as an organization. According to CNN, Costa Cruises chairman Pier Luigi Foschi stated, “We believe it has been a human error here. The captain did not follow the authorized route, which is used by Costa ships very frequently. There's probably more than 100 times in one year we have this route."

How effectively Costa can distance itself from the actions of its captain remains to be seen however. After all, the company put Schettino in charge of the ship that he steered into the rocks. It will be interesting to see what comes to light regarding Schettino’s history with the company, his training, and the training of the ship’s crew.

As unfortunate as the damage to the Costa brand may be, it’s nothing compared to the lives that were lost.

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