The “I’m So Stupid” Defense

Sections of this topic

    Playing dumb is really not a smart crisis management move

    After being taken to court for underpaying a cook at his Oriental Teahouse restaurant in Melbourne, Australia, to the point where she was owed $28,000 in back wages, owner David Zhou appears to have decided some crisis management was in order.

    We would assume that’s why Zhou, who runs a restaurant group which operates three other locations in Australia, agreed to an interview with Smart Company, but what exactly made him think that the “I’m so stupid” defense was a legitimate one, the world may never know.

    Here’s a selection of choice quotes, from the Smart Company article by Cara Waters:

    Zhou told SmartCompany the underpayment was not intentional and the case was an anomaly.

    “We had trouble finding out about it because she was not returning calls, if she really had issues she should have raised the question a long time ago,” he says.

    “I just ask myself why has this happened and I talked to my bookkeeper about why has this happened and I really think it is a bad mistake.”

    Zhou says Oriental Teahouse has tried hard to be a good business, with many staff working for the group for 10 and 15 years.

    “We are a happy company and a happy family and always generous but we made a mistake, as more and more people come on board things can get complicated and particularly these HR things,” he says.

    Oh well he was TRYING to be generous, see? He just made a mistake cause these HR things, like paying the correct wages, are just SO tricky that honest, happy restaurant groups which run four successful businesses get confused about it. Their professional bookkeepers too!

    Why it doesn’t work

    Claiming ignorance of the most basic facts of your own business is probably one of the most ridiculous methods of crisis management you could attempt to employ. In this case it’s even more outrageous because Zhou just faced the same type of case last year!

    Assuming that your audience is foolish enough to blindly believe lines like, “We had trouble finding out about it because she was not returning calls,” is flat out insulting. It isn’t going to earn you the sympathy of anyone, and it does have a good chance of inciting some folks who might have remained otherwise uninterested (not to mention attracting the attention of some wily crisis management bloggers).

    In fact, even if you really were ignorant of the basic daily workings within your organization, it would be extremely unwise to share that with the world at large.

    Balanced reporting?

    Our colleague Tony Jaques actually sent this story over, and he was quite astute in pointing out that not only was this an example of spectacularly poor crisis management, but also a demonstration of the fact that, if you can find a sympathetic writer, you can get away with just about anything. Well, on the page at least.

    Of the 659-word article, 45 words were dedicated to the fact that there was another recent complaint against the tea house, for the exact same reason, that had been settled out of court in favor of the complainant. The rest was filled with Zhou’s protestations of innocence, as well as a hefty segment interviewing the HR consultant who represented Zhou in the case, a far cry from balanced reporting. Shame on you Smart Company!

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]