Deadly Crashes, “Agency Theory” & the Challenges of Management

Sometimes for a corporation to “do the right thing” requires excellent execution of millions of tasks by thousands of employees. It thus requires not just good intentions, but good management skills, too.

For an example, consider the story of the crash of a Concorde supersonic jet a decade ago. The conditions leading up to the crash were complex, but one factor (according to the court) was negligence on the part of an aircraft mechanic. Whether (or to what extent) that mechanic’s employer is responsible for that negligence, and hence at least partly responsible for the crash, is a difficult matter.

Here’s the story Saskya Vandoorne, for CNN: Continental Airlines and mechanic guilty in deadly Concorde crash

The fiery crash that brought down a Concorde supersonic jet in 2000, killing 113 people, was caused partially by the criminal negligence of Continental Airlines and a mechanic who works for the company, a French court ruled Monday.

Continental Airlines was fined 202,000 euros ($268,400) and ordered to pay 1 million euros to Air France, which operated the doomed flight.

Mechanic John Taylor received a fine of 2,000 euros ($2,656) and a 15-month suspended prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter….

I don’t know the details of this story well enough to have any sense of whether the mechanic in this case really did act negligently. But what intrigues me, here, is the issue of corporate culpability. Note the difficulty faced by airline executives who (for the sake of argument) want desperately to achieve 100% efficiency and never, ever to risk anyone’s life. In order to achieve those goals, executives have to organize and motivate hundreds or perhaps thousands of employees. They need to design and administer a chain of command and a set of working conditions (including a system of pay) that is as likely as possible to result in all those employees diligently doing their very best, all of the time. That challenge is the subject of an entire body of political & economic theory known as “agency theory.”

Agency theory and the various mechanisms available to motivate employees in the right direction are things that every well-trained business student knows about, because those are central challenges of managing any corporation, or even any small team. What is recognized too seldom, I think, is just how central a role agency problems play in assessing and responding to ethical challenges in particular.

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