Bimbo Banter

Cultures Ripe for Crisis: Years Later, Penn State Lessons Still Worth a Look

  • Crisis
  • August 28, 2014
  • by Katie Sibley

Guy sweeping penn state

As the Penn State tragedy unfolded in 2011, Merrie wrote a commentary outlining what companies and institutions could learn from the situation. As the new school year begins, it is worthwhile to revisit the lessons and urge our clients—especially those in education—to re-examine how to prepare for the unthinkable.

A crisis of this magnitude demands a full investigation of procedure, policies, leadership and, most importantly, culture.

Culture? Yes, culture is a significant contributor to potential crises. For Penn State, it’s apparent that the university supported a culture of turning a blind eye. When complaints were reported, they were not properly investigated, if at all, and they were never examined with the urgency the alleged acts deserved.

When looking even closer, I have to wonder why one of the victim’s mothers reported her concerns and suspicions to the university but not to the police. Is it possible, even probable, that the university is such an enormous presence in the town its citizens, even this mother, feared backlash? It seems years later that was the environment.

So, what can other institutions learn? The answer is not the obvious, “Have tighter policies for child abuse or sexual harassment and reporting.” Institutions need to examine the unspoken barriers or constraints that affect the flow of information. Where are the barriers and when do individuals feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions concerning troubling behavior? Are long-standing, entrenched individuals like your CEO, chancellor or others seen as “untouchable?” If so, then you are fostering a culture ripe for crises.

The Penn State scandal resulted from a variety of conditions, including an apparent blindness and a failure of imagination. Not imagination of the creative kind; imagination as the ability to conceive what could go spectacularly wrong and threaten the institution’s reputation almost permanently. While Penn State has taken admirable steps to change its culture and environment since 2011, it will be hard—impossible?—for the university to fully recover.

As Merrie wrote in her original commentary, “This tragedy should cause companies to ask another set of new questions, are we hearing what we need to hear or are we living in a bubble? This is far harder than planning for an operational crisis. It requires holding an uncompromising mirror up to an organization, its personnel and its surroundings.”

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