Monday, June 12, 2006

Truth is Cheaper in the Long Run

"Mistakes Were Made," an "Op-Quiz" and editorial, late last month in The New York Times, contends that "the public apology has established itself as a staple of our national discourse, a required ritual to be endured by anyone caught saying or doing something inappropriate."

I've said before in this blog that in a crisis situation, it's essential to tell the truth. If you're at fault, you should apologize and show remorse. Many careers of business and public officials would have been saved had they applied this strategy. But public contrition is not enough. To redeem your reputation, you have to learn from your mistake and take steps to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

Let's dip into the medical community for an interesting, but less typical example.

At the Lexington (Ky.) Veterans Affairs Medical Center, doctors and nurses who think they've made a mistake immediately call a special review committee and admit what happened. A high-level physician, representing the entire VA staff, goes to see the patient, reveals that a mistake was made and describes the steps that will be taken to ensure that no mistake like this will ever happen again. Moreover, the doctor tells the patient that if the patient thinks he was damaged by this mistake, he has a right to legal damages and should see a lawyer.

As a result of this approach, malpractice costs have gone down at the VA! Despite the fact that more people sue (because they know about the mistakes), the hospital does not fight the lawsuits when they have admitted error. On the other hand, if a review shows that no error was made, many lawyers will not even take the patient's suit. The attorneys are so impressed with the VA's self-policing of its own errors that they believe it's a no-win case.

It's a terrific model for all of us. Tell the truth, say you're sorry — and mean it! — then go and sin no more.

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