Shame On Our Apology Economy

Last week the CEO of Wells Fargo, a bank that’s been around since 1852, testified before Congress about the egregious wrong-doings committed by employees in his company all in the name of meeting sales goals. The chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., described the criminal behavior as action that led the bank to “fraudulently open millions of accounts using their customers' funds and personal information without their permission." (This is yet another example of companies taking advantage of highly sensitive personal information.) Crime exposed, the CEO, John Stumpf, apologized…but is that enough?

There are plenty of pundits predicting Stumpf’s ouster, and that may well happen, but Wells Fargo’s behavior is not isolated. It’s a symptom and sign of the times, a systemic problem of what I believe is society’s making. Repeatedly and more often, it seems, we’re seeing corporate leaders, politicians, religious heads, and others in positions of authority, power, celebrity, and guidance apologizing for either their own personal wrong-doings or those of their organizations. Recent apologies include:

  • Ryan Lochte
  • Volkswagen
  • Toshiba
  • Valeant/Philidor pharmaceutical companies
  • Various politicians from both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government

(And this list doesn’t include those who really didn’t apologize like Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president; Martin Shkreli, former CEO, Turing Pharmaceuticals; or recently ousted Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane)

These leaders – by their very positions, role models all -- stand up, say their mea culpas, and perhaps lose their jobs or fall from grace.  Even fewer stand trial or get imprisoned for their crimes. Then we all go about our days as if nothing has really happened. There’s no real impact to our lives (unless we happen to be a direct victim), there’s no real impact to the company or organization, there’s no real impact to our personal financial well-being, and there’s little that changes in our country that inhibit similar behavior in the future. We argue we don’t need to amend rules or regulations because we expect people to rise to higher standards, to police themselves.

In other words, we now live in an apology economy, and too many people are OK with it.

Why does this happen? We could blame the “too big to fail” financial crisis of 2008, but that would be untrue. This problem started long ago. Politicians have been impeached or forced to resign; moguls have been prosecuted and put in jail. There seemed to be a time when society tolerated this behavior less and demanded more from its leaders than just “I’m sorry.” We used to ban or boycott products. Yes, many suffered as a consequence of the sordid actions of the few…but that also helped apply pressure to do the right, instead of the wrong, thing. Societal mores made a difference. I may sound like an idealist (I’m unapologetically so), but we the people wield a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for… or exercise...these days.

And yet, if we become too jaded, too blasé, too greedy, or too sullied ourselves to demand differently, can we really blame leaders for pushing the moral or legal envelope until they’re caught? Have we let the apology economy so seep into the DNA of our daily lives that it no longer matters if the most venerated leaders veer down the wrong path in pursuit of profits or power? Are we, in the dawning of the driverless vehicle, quite literally asleep at the wheel??

I would love to say that I trust and rely in our leaders to actually do the right thing, but the more I see of this apology economy we live in, the less trusting I can be. I want to see our right as consumers to post honest reviews defended. I want to see political candidates offer more transparency and make disclosures their predecessors have made. And I want to see leaders of public corporations held accountable to their misdeeds (including the forfeiture of any golden parachutes should they or their companies be found guilty of obvious criminal or fraudulent behaviors perpetrated on their consumers).

I personally do not want to see us perpetuate this apology economy. My wallet, my vote, and my voice all matter. Let me see some incorruptible leaders with courage. I’ll be much more forgiving of an “I sincerely tried but failed” apology than an apology for failing to try to do the right thing.