Topic: Business & Commercial

More Ethics of Honest Mistakes: the Wal-Mart Affair

The problem, you see, is that when an individual’s perceptions are so biased or warped that he or she cannot accurately distinguish fact from fantasy, it is not fair to designate their actions in response to their misperceptions “unethical.” If a man is convinced that his wife is actually a demon from Hell sent to destroy him and his children, locking her in the basement isn’t unethical, because his actions are quite fair and reasonable given his belief. Thus the Scoreboard finds itself hesitating a moment before designating as unethical the vociferous attacks on Wal-Mart for supposed racism because of a programming error on the super-store chain’s website. After all, it is quite conceivable that…well, someone could really believe that…

No, never mind. It’s unethical.

In case you were lucky enough to miss what the Wall Street Journal would call a “kerfluffle,” Wal-Mart’s website, like many others, will respond to a shopper’s desire to buy a particular DVD by automatically generating suggestions of other DVDs the shopper might enjoy based on some affinity to the one just purchased. But due to an unfortunate compiling error, when on-line shoppers bought “Planet of the Apes” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” they were also told that they might enjoy several African American themed films, one of them a documentary about Martin Luther King.

As it happens, the same compiling error also directed purchasers of an Audrey Hepburn retrospective to the King DVD, but the blogger swarm didn’t care about that. Here was a juicy opportunity to show that Wal-Mart, already under fire for its employment practices and its success at under-pricing local stores out of existence, was racist to boot. Faster than a speeding rumor….more powerful than Howard Dean’s mouth…able to leap to conclusions faster than Bill O’Reilly…muckraking bloggers and some black advocacy groups condemned Wal-Mart to the skies, while the horrified company apologized instantly and explained, credibly, how the snafu probably occurred.

Here’s what didn’t occur: Wal-Mart didn’t decide to go out of its way to insult African Americans, who make up a large chunk of its market, just for the fun of it. Nor was this, as some silly columnists have actually suggested, an example of “insensitivity.” Sure: “Hey Bill! Let’s link ‘Planet of the Apes’ to ‘I Have a Dream.’ Can’t see how anyone would find that offensive, can you?” If such a thing were done intentionally, insensitivity would hardly be a plausible defense. Anyone who would do this intentionally would know exactly what they were doing.

But of course, it is obvious that this wasn’t done intentionally, and not just because other misaligned movies groupings existed on the Wal-Mart system. No successful business would do something so stupid, malicious and potentially damaging to its reputation unless it was going to make it so much money that it was worth the risk. Can anyone see any conceivable benefit accruing to Wal-Mart from making these offensive linkages? No, because there are none. The right thing to do would have been for the first person who noticed the program glitch to report it to Wal-Mart, and leave it at that. The website error isn’t news; the public doesn’t have a “right to know” about every error, systemic breakdown or problem that occurs in running a huge national business. This was a true honest mistake.

In an earlier commentary, the Scoreboard condemned the widespread use of the “honest mistake excuse” when it was used in an attempt to avoid culpability for serious misconduct or outrageous incompetence. Quoting from that piece, “The Ethics of Honest Mistakes”:

Why do so many people think making an “honest mistake” insulates its author from negative consequences? It is because “Everybody makes mistakes” is a cliché that has been elevated to the level of an ethical rationalization. Some honest mistakes are intolerable, because they are a breach of trust… Accepting trust means delivering on it, and “honest mistakes” that change minds, lives and history are no more excusable by virtue of being “honest.”

The Scoreboard emphatically reaffirms this position. But Wal-Mart’s DVD gaffe didn’t “change minds, lives and history,” nor could it. It was trivial, though embarrassing, and nobody was hurt; indeed any “Planet of the Apes” purchaser who bought the Martin Luther King DVD because of Wal-Mart’s erroneous suggestion would be much the better for it.

The critics of Wal-Mart and the blog mob have seized on this meaningless error because they want to hurt Wal-Mart, which they regard as just slightly less malevolent than that imaginary demon the husband saw when he looked at his wife, any way they can. But whether Wal-Mart is good or bad (and the ethics of Wal-Mart are far more complicated than that simple choice), it deserves to be judged on what it really does, not on phony offenses that even critics don’t believe. Companies and people have a right to make mistakes, admit them, and apologize for them, unless the “mistake” reasonably appears to be part of a pattern of negligence or malicious intent, or has serious consequences. When it is clear that neither malice, negligence nor “insensitivity” is behind an error, the ethical conduct for critics and supporters alike is to let it go. Exploiting every mishap, miscalculation or instance of bad luck to hurt an adversary is a strategy devoid of fairness and honesty, and that makes it wrong.

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