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Stephen White

In her most recent movie The Last Word Shirley McLaine plays a crabby old rich-woman control freak, founder of a successful advertising agency in her early years, now contemplating her demise. She commissions her own obituary needing to know what it will look like. But she has been a crabby control freak all her life; from her ex-husband to her estranged daughter and her scarred work colleagues and ‘friends’ no-one has a good word to say about her. So with the help of the obituary writer she embarks on a project to redeem her reputation with those who dislike her so much.

As a movie it is not brilliant and my advice is to save your money; the finale is typically Hollywoodesque. But the theme raises the question of redemption, or more specifically rehabilitation, and prompted my speculation about this in a business environment. It is a topical issue. Notwithstanding a hefty contribution to the BHS pension fund exceeding a third of a billion pounds Sir Philip Green is still in the sights of Jeremy Corbyn as an enemy of the people. In the same speech last week Mr Corbyn castigated Mike Ashley of Sports Direct who admitted to unacceptable working practices at his distribution centres and then changed them for the better. Both of them unrehabilitated and unforgiven, notwithstanding their redemptive actions.  

Of course it is not only individuals who suffer the problem; corporations do so too. We have long heard how major corporations avoid paying tax in the UK. Although they do so legally, some have seen the ethical dilemma in their behaviour and voluntarily paid more tax than they needed; Starbucks is a case in point but they still remain in the bad books of many. Some did nothing wrong to begin with, but are tarred with the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ brand by association. Costa Coffee was such a victim last Thursday in a car crash interview given by MP Dawn Butler, who later had to retract. Wonga, the payday lender originally vilified for its outrageous interest rates is still a toxic brand for many, even though it voluntarily wrote off £220million of customer loans is 2014. Granted that this was more an act of expediency than contrition, even so it did not create very much in the way of a warm and cuddly response from the British public.

Bad negotiating practice is also a case in point. Corporations who ignore negotiated agreements and perennially pay late, or unilaterally demand post-contractual discounts continue to be distrusted by their suppliers even if they recant their former actions and adopt better behaviour. Of course where the relationship is critical to the supplier the bad behaviour might be tolerated, but (in the terms of the movie) one cannot see any subsequent obituary being kind. Last year we were invited to compete in an electronic RFP process which was so poorly briefed and badly executed by the purchaser that the conclusion reached by our team was that it was simply a clumsy fishing expedition to get existing suppliers to drop their price. We declined to participate and the client became very irritated with us because we would not take part. More recently the purchaser has adopted a better and more transparent approach, and of course we are now participating, but the overhang of doubt still remains.

Unsavoury reputations are made very quickly. We should not underestimate the difficulty of changing these reputations, however well meaning later acts of rehabilitation might be. Obituaries are seldom rewritten for the better.

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
Break In
RFPing in the Wind
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