What Not to Do When Bad Things Happen: The Franchisor's Position

Author Richard Solomon is a conflicts and crisis management lawyer with 50 years of experience in business development, antitrust and franchise law, management counseling and dispute resolution including trials and crisis management.

The best evidence that franchisors are really human beings is that they do the same things that any normal person does when confronted with a panic-inducing situation. The first response -- which hopefully, but not always, occurs in private -- is just about always to observe the eleventh guard order, 'When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.' Control during those first moments of spontaneous potentiality is a priceless attribute. 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs' (Kipling) should be on a plaque somewhere conspicuous in the executive suite of your mind.

There are several almost universally practiced actions that are always mistakes and that should never happen. They are mistakes because they tend to make the achievement of a positive result more difficult to attain. They are mistakes because they are always obvious emotional statements to which little or no competent thought has been given. They are always mistakes for the additional reason that they are either totally or in important part, quite untrue. They are untrue because of what is affirmatively stated that is false and because of what is omitted that is true but that may not make your company seem perfect. They are mistakes because the ploy is so overused by so many people who are really scoundrels, that when you use the same approach, you may seem like a scoundrel also. Do you want that? Of course not. Can you avoid that? Certainly. Here s how.

In that all companies are simply groups of quite fallible, normal, humans, mistakes happen. Some of the mistakes are of little consequence; some are rather huge; some are the product of over reaching and taking unfair advantage; some are stupid and some are intentional. The important fact is that mistakes, small and large, few and many, will occur.

Those who accuse your company, and sometimes you personally, of wrongdoing are sometimes wrong and sometimes right and sometimes somewhere in between, part right and part wrong. The accusations may be made in good faith, or in bad faith, or may be the product of misunderstanding. At the moment you first hear of an accusation of wrongdoing, you really are not certain of all the facts that may relate to it. It is simply the worst possible moment to make any response about the merit or lack of merit of the accusations. But, at this precise moment, such statements are usually made.

What should be said in response to the first information that accusations have been made against you or your company is that you are just now hearing about it and have not had an opportunity to investigate the matter fully -- and that when you have made a diligent inquiry you may have a statement to make.

That is such a responsible thing to say that one wonders why people don t say that. Instead they say stupid things like 'That is totally false and we will be shown to have been correct.' -- or some such nonsense. Sometimes -- quite often -- the statement is even worse than that, for it may include a statement that the accusations are frivolously made. Even stupider!

It is important that your company have a protocol that everyone is made very aware of requiring any contact concerning negative information be passed to a designated person without comment to the inquiring party. I ll pass this information along to the appropriate person -- that is the only response to be made. The answer to the question 'Who is the appropriate person?' is always 'No comment!' It is also important that everyone knows that public statements that are not specifically authorized are considered a firing offense. People find it hard to resist being 'interviewed'. They have to be frightened for their employment in order to shut them up. Do it.

Next, the company should call together the most involved person(s) and their legal counsel, gather all files that may relate to the dispute or complaint, promptly evaluate the information, including interviews of everyone who may have been involved, and make a decision about how to respond properly. A proper response may not be a total disclosure of the whole truth, but it will not include statements that are untrue in and of themselves. If you have to lie, you need to rethink! That is a bad mistake. No matter what your PR person or your lawyer or anyone else may say, you need to make only responsible statements that instill confidence in your obvious good faith. People expect you sometimes to be wrong. You don t have to say that you screwed up, but do not insist in this early phase upon your rectitude.

Now, if you are dealing in a forthright manner with the issues presented by the accusations, you will not go to the mat in a losing fight. You settle. You adjust. You correct the mistake as best you can. Losing a trial or arbitration does not enhance your stature. An appeal is most likely to result in affirmation of the trial result, so you would only be reinforcing a negative consequence by insisting that facts are found in your favor when the true facts are really not in your favor.

People incorrectly believe that lawyers, if they are good, can manufacture or change facts. That is practically never true. Sometimes that happens, but the odds are so heavily against it that only fools think they can pay a lawyer and get a result to which they are not entitled. Sometimes your opponent is represented by a moron and you win by default -- but usually that is also not the case. You should assume in your internal deliberations that you will be dealing with competent opposition. In fact you should hope you are dealing with competent opposition. A competent opponent will understand when a reasonable settlement is being offered. A moron may not. If you have not called your opponent a scoundrel and his lawyer a shyster who brings frivolous lawsuits, a reasonable settlement may be obtainable and serious mistakes corrected without excessive difficulty and expense. A reasonable result is the best result. Insisting upon total vindication is usually a very bad decision, as no one is perfect and in most instances your opponent may be at least partially justified in taking the position he took. Sometimes, even though you were right in what you did, some dolt in your company mishandled the people involved and a conflict resulted that should never have happened. Such ineptitude should be recognized for what it is and dealt with appropriately.

If he gets away with this everyone will do it is sometimes not a proper rationale for a decision to make a fight of it. Maybe, even if your contract says the opposite, someone could be deserving of an exemption if you screwed up. Owning up to a screw up and making amends to the injured people does not usually cause your whole system to fall apart. Enforcement of covenants not to compete is the most frequent situation in which stupid decisions are made to fight when the real problem is that your company created the problem and should be dealing with it in a more appropriate manner. Handling such instances with grace instead of bombast will do you far more good than fighting. Your long-term credibility as a fair organization that handles its affairs in an equitable manner may be worth more to you than insisting upon your rights in an unworthy situation.

This approach to what not to do and to what you should do when bad things happen will be the best approach, no matter what the right and wrong of the situation turn out to be. You lose nothing by appearing to be an organization that refrains from making irresponsible statements and taking irresponsible positions. If you really are respectable, then you might as well appear to be respectable. And if you are not, well, let's not go there.