The term ‘willful blindness’ is a legal term that has existed since the 19th Century and is defined as a situation in which a person intentionally keeps themselves unaware of facts that would require them to act on that knowledge.
As such it is a behaviour of choice rather than of genuine simple ignorance.
In this context the findings of the recently published inquiry by Dame Janet Smith into sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile are instructive.
Among her conclusions were:
- that there was “no evidence that the BBC as a corporate body was aware of Savile’s conduct” which had been ongoing for more than 20 years.
- it was evident that some members of staff at a lower level knew about his behaviour but did not report it to senior managers.
Most instructive is her examination of the corporate culture at the BBC where, she found, the fear of reprisals or of career damage inhibited those at more junior level from reporting incidents, a situation that she infers still continues as a number of witnesses giving evidence to her review requested that their names would not be published in the report.
Willful blindness is a widespread problem
This is not the only example of willful blindness in corporate culture. The entrepreneur and author Margaret Hefferman has published a book on the subject and suggests that it is endemic in corporate life particularly at executive level.
It results from a combination of executive isolation, outsourcing and a corporate culture that requires deference from employees or even inspires fear of the consequences to their own professional futures if they tell unpalatable truths to their boss.
Among the examples she cites of willful blindness by executives are the banks (that resulted in the 2008 Financial crisis), the Catholic Church (in respect of sexual abuse by priests) and BP (where cost cutting contributed to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010).
She says: “Leaders of organizations inhabit a bubble of power….. They’re either isolated or surrounded by those desperate to please.”
She also cites the increasing use of outsourcing as contributing to the problem in that corporations do not always scrutinise their suppliers’ culture or behaviour closely.
While it may not always be possible to prove the existence of willful blindness at executive level such that individuals can be prosecuted in law, once a situation becomes public the effects on that organisation’s or business’ reputation can be catastrophic.
It is not only about a loss of personal or corporate reputation for integrity, it can also affect share price and profitability.
Senior executives ignore the establishment of a corporate culture of openness, integrity and the reporting of unethical practice or wrongdoing at their peril.