One of the most predictable tactics in any crisis response for organizations under fire is using employees as advocates. After all, who better to represent the company than workers who can speak with credibility about corporate culture, products and procedures? Right on cue, Toyota has featured its employees in prominent TV commercials, community meetings and even flew a group of employees and dealers as part of its delegation to Congressional hearings in Washington D.C. Typically, these employees argue (with some merit) that they are the ones most negatively impacted by any scandal – in this case several recalls and production stalls – and personalize the company’s claims of commitment to quality, regret and restitution. And of course, it never hurts to raise the specter of lost revenue or jobs, and the related impact on communities with Toyota facilities.
But there is a risk to this strategy, and it can backfire badly if the employee outreach is too aggressive or off target. Too often, the employees are clearly choreographed by company management and come across as blatantly biased, self-interested and scripted, rather than credible advocates who are just caught in the middle. In other cases, the employees are off-message and even contradict the company storyline. That seems to have occurred in the Toyota situation. For example, the strident complaints of Toyota dealers – including barely veiled criticisms that Toyota is being unfairly targeted because it’s a Japanese company – came as new information suggested Toyota tried its best to suppress and minimize potential acceleration problems, and just as Toyota’s president “profusely apologized” and took full responsibility for the fiasco – several times expressing deep remorse for the victims of accidents. Even more important, for this strategy to be effective impacted employees have to be fully engaged and supportive of management. But according to some reports there are serious cracks in the vaunted Toyota culture – particularly in Japan – and some employees are disillusioned and disappointed at the turn of events.
It’s too early to tell if Toyota employees will help or harm the resolution of this crisis, but from what I’ve seen so far the results are mixed, at best. Their effort is dissonant, too defensive and downplays the problems as a fluke, rather than a fundamental departure from their core values. Toyota employees might do well to listen more closely to the remorseful President of their company for guidance; there are important lessons to be learned here beyond protecting the paychecks of Toyota workers.