The Surprising Link Between Company Culture and PR Crisis

This is the fourth post in my new LinkedIn Series on crisis communication. Be sure to subscribe to get notifications of future posts.

Nobody’s immune to PR crisis. But if you’re guessing that companies with strong cultures have fewer crisis events, you are probably right.

This week I received interesting news about a new research report from Utah State University’s business professor Julena M. Bonner. The report, “Why sabotage customers who mistreat you? Activated hostility and subsequent devaluation of targets as a moral disengagement mechanism,” explores why employees sometimes sabotage customers following a hostile interaction and whether companies can prevent it.

Here’s the connection between crisis communication and culture: In the modern business environment of “the customer is always right,” some customers abuse the privilege. Particularly as social behavior has become increasingly divisive and contentious, some customers act out by behaving rudely to employees. Knowing businesses are likely to yield to any situation instead of risking bad press, they may push the boundaries even further by humiliating the employee or making threats.

So what happens next? According to the research, even knowing the potential adverse outcomes such as reprimands, damage to company reputation or even termination, employees are surprisingly likely to sabotage the customer or retaliate by spitting in food, giving the customer false information, or snub the customer by leaving the person on hold for an unreasonable amount of time or “accidentally” disconnecting the phone.

Why? “It’s human nature,” Bonner says. “When a person is treated poorly, they lash out with an ‘eye for an eye’ mentality. There are negative ramifications for the employee and the organization, but people often just can’t help themselves.”

What’s happening, psychologists explain, is a phenomenon called “moral disengagement.” Even people who proclaim extremely high integrity can be guilty of this behavior. When a stressor happens, a typical first reaction is to place blame. Another common response, particularly when the interaction is hostile, is to emotionally de-value the other party—to consider the unruly customer, for example, as perhaps less than human, or not worthy of the respect and fair treatment the employee would typically provide.

Thus the knee-jerk decisions to act in a way that costs jobs, causes genuinely deserved humiliation and often lands the company and the employee in a pile of bad press.

Here’s how culture helps: when employees work for a company with a strong commitment to ethical behavior in written policies, observed behavior of other employees and managers and a track record of enforcing ethics policies well, it is a factor that is statistically shown to sometimes pause an employee’s bad behavior before they react.

Training is helpful as well—mindfulness training and role-playing the ideal ways to respond to a belligerent or hostile customer.

So now we have yet another reason to put a high priority on culture.

Two more issues are worth mentioning here: Even a company with a strong ethical foundation could fall prey to the moral disengagement issue if leaders go too far in giving second chances to employees who’ve demonstrated ethical fails. Even if the company has done this to show generosity and patience, the message employees may hear is that you’re not walking your talk.

The even bigger issue is the high premium on EQ—emotional intelligence—on all sides. I once witnessed a CEO proclaiming to her employees that when she misbehaved to customers and employees, it was rightful retaliation that “was their fault. In fact, they caused it.” This disordered thinking flavored everything that happened from her office on down.

Likewise, employees with low EQ may tend to think of any business—and every company—as an impersonal entity in “the system” that probably deserves the bad that comes from unethical employee behavior regardless of the ethics of the people inside. Or, taken to an even more dangerous extreme, employees may feel unwarranted loyalty to an organization that leads to the most horrific behavior imaginable, such as abuse of prisoners that employees have morally devalued out of blind commitment to the political entity or the organization involved.

More research is needed, the report says. But in any case, the issue of moral disengagement sheds light on the reasons people who proclaim themselves to be highly ethical can behave surprisingly badly when they’re feeling provoked. Beware when you see it. And the reasons for creating and maintaining a stellar company culture are even more important to your profit and success than before.

More about me and SnappConner

I am a frequent speaker and author on issues of thought leadership and crisis PR. If you need more help from me or from our team, feel free to reach out to us at There is also a library of more than 600 of my columns available at We have some free resources you are welcome to download, and you can sign up for our bi-weekly Snappington Post while you’re there. You can also learn more about our thought leadership and content training and program by visiting