The Sinking Costa Concordia and the Parallel to Business Ethics and Compliance Programs

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Much of the world was shocked to see the pictures in the media of the Costa Concordia cruise ship sinking off the coast of Italy. I know I was in that group. I was especially shocked having personally been on a cruise and understanding the escape drills and procedures in place on today’s high-tech cruise ships. What shocked me even more was the disregard for these procedures and the seeming pattern of poor decisions made by the ship’s captain and crew. This experience is a good case study showing what can go wrong, but also what can go right, when disaster strikes. It has wonderful applicability to the business world.

Many questions are still unanswered and some may never really be answered, even after a lengthy investigation. What we do know is the ship struck rock at about 9:45pm. A few minutes after the impact, the head of the engine room warned the captain that the hull had an irreparable tear of 70 meters (230 feet). Within 15 minutes of impact, passengers on board were calling the local police on shore, who in turn contacted the Italian coast guard at 10:03pm. A passenger’s video recorded at 10:20pm showed panicked passengers in life jackets being told by a crew member that “everything is under control” and that they should return to their cabins. Port authorities were not alerted to the collision until 10:42pm, almost an hour after the impact. Some passengers jumped into the water to swim to shore,while others, ready to evacuate the ship, were delayed by crew members up to 45 minutes, as they resisted immediately lowering the lifeboats. At 10:58pm the onboard evacuation alarm sounded to abandon ship. Captain Schettino left the ship by 11:30pm. At 01:04am an Airforce officer was lowered onboard by helicopter and reported there were still 100 people onboard. The last of the passengers were evacuated at around 01:30am. This disaster caused the evacuation of more than 4,000 with at least 17 confirmed deaths, 64 others injured, and leaving 16 people still missing.

It is easy to second guess the decisions, or lack of decisions, made by Captain Schettino and the other ship’s officers and crew. Hindsight is always clearer for an outside observer removed from the chaos of the moment. Ships have computer-programmed routes and alarms, both visual and sound, if a ship deviates for any reason from the stated route as stored in the computer and as controlled by the GPS. These alarms can be “manually” overridden by the crew. In the case of the Costa Concordia, the ship veered from its charted course and the computer navigation system was turned off. What is easy to second guess is the overriding of controls put in place to protect the crew and the passengers.

What went right was the reaction of many of the passengers. I was taught a long time ago in leadership training that “When you see it, say it!” That is exactly what those passengers did who called the local authorities. They notified the police of a problem with the ship before the crew made contact with the authorities. Those passengers knew something was not right and they had the courage to say something, even as the crew was insisting there was no problem. Imagine how long it may have taken for the evacuation if those passengers didn’t say something to get the coast guard involved?

So how does this relate to the business world? Well, just like cruise ships, businesses have policies and procedures in place that act as controls to protect organizations, employees and customers. Following those policies and procedures is an important part of everyone’s job. Sometimes management chooses to override or ignore the controls and when that happens, people need to speak up. Remember: “When you see it, say it!” Use established management procedures for raising concerns or turn to available ethics & compliance hot-lines. If you find yourself on a sinking ship, say something.

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