When Should Apology Be Followed by a Change in Policy?

At a crucial October 4th home game, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays (my home town team) threw a can of beer that just missed hitting Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim. Outrage rightly ensued, as did a fervent and ongoing attempt to identify the perpetrator—relying solely on grainy video evidence.

The next day, the Blue Jays organization posted the following apology on its Facebook page:


Needless to say, the organization was apologizing for something that wasn’t its fault. But it was a necessary public relations move, and probably the right thing to do.

The only mis-step comes in the 4th paragraph, where the apology turns to the question of changes in policy: “We will…enact heightened security measures and alcohol policies that will ensure the fan experience and safety of everybody involved.”

What’s wrong with that? First, it’s a false promise. Not false in that they won’t enact new measures, but false in thinking that it will “ensure…safety of everybody involved.” No policy (short of shutting down the stadium) can do that.

But the main problem is that it doesn’t make sense to change policies in light of a single, relatively minor incident. Organizations generally need policies in one of two kinds of situations:

1) When a problem is common and persistent. In these cases, numerous small offences add up to a significant problem. (This is why we have anti-littering laws—no single gum-wrapper does much harm, but if everybody littered constantly, our cities would be unliveable.)

2) When even occasional (or single) instances of a particular behaviour are going to result in tragic consequences.

And oh yes, one further condition that applies in either case above: the policy needs to be likely to actually prevent the behaviour in question.

None those applies to the present situation. Beer cans being tossed onto the field is not a common or persistent problem. And while being hit in the head by a can could indeed cause substantial harm, and while the statement posted is vague about the policy changes being considered, no plausible alcohol policy is going to be 100% effective in preventing yahoos from occasionally throwing things onto the field in malicious ways. It could happen at a dry stadium (a can of something else could be tossed instead.) It could happen at stadium where beverages are sold only in plastic cups (shoes could be tossed, or umbrellas, or…). And so on.

But my point here isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the nature of policy-making in general. Lawyers are fond of saying that hard cases make bad law. It’s likewise the case the rare, idiotic behaviour makes bad policy.

And oh yeah…LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!

2 comments so far

  1. richarddocc on

    Nice blog, I like your concept of change policy. Really helpful for student in their learning in management.

  2. Paul Huh on

    I think this is an important topic that should get more attention in public and private organizations. For as long as businesses have existed, companies have found ways to manipulate numbers and people. Whether it’s lying about financial standing, deceiving employees or investors, few policies have been put in place in recent history to enforce ethical behaviors.

    Prior to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, many public company executives got away with fraud by apologizing and stepping down from their respective positions. These executives were able to get off with little to no repercussions by arguing that they did not partake in fraudulent activities and that they were not aware of fraud within their organizations. We can see this through companies like Waste Management where it misstated financial statements by over a billion dollars in 2002. Waste Management executives who benefited from the fraud merely paid fines and stepped down from their roles.

    The enactment of SOX addresses the unethical behaviors of public and private companies. It set new requirements for public company board of directors, management, public accounting firms, and private organizations. It hold CEOs and CFOs accountable for financial misstatements, and public accounting firms are given more responsibilities for auditing public companies. Also, private companies can be held accountable for intentionally destroying documents related to federal investigations.

    Often times, policy changes can be costly and it should be put in place when the benefit outweighs the costs, and if it is enforceable. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, as costly as it is, is an attempt to improve investor’s trust in company financial statements.

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