I am fascinated by the world of risk management. There are so many challenges to the field; so many potential threats to be concerned with. And despite the best laid plans of mice and men, things can go wrong despite a multitude of efforts otherwise.

I thought of this a few months ago while visiting the offices of a good-sized workers’ compensation insurance company. This building is a veritable fortress. Visitors must be registered in order to gain access. You pull up to the parking garage, where you must call security and, once cleared, the gate opens so your vehicle may enter. From there you take the elevator to the lobby, where you are given a visitor’s badge and wait for the person you are meeting to come and retrieve you. Visitors to this facility may not traverse the grounds without being accompanied by an employee of the insurance company. 

I was on such a visit to this facility. At the conclusion of the visit I had been escorted by my contacts back to the lobby entrance, where I turned in my visitor badge. We chatted while waiting for the elevator that would return me to my vehicle. A bell rang, a door opened. I bid adieu and stepped onto the elevator.

Except it was the wrong elevator. Instead of being transported to the garage below, I was taken – unattended and unrestrained – to the 7thfloor of the building. I pondered this unexpected development for just a moment. I was tempted to break out into a dead run, racing between the cubicles, frantically waving my arms and yelling “Security breach! Security breach!” The vision in my head ended with me meeting the business end of a taser and being dragged off the premises like a bagged deer, so I demurred on that idea. I sheepishly pushed the button for the garage and headed for my car.

A glorious opportunity for disruption missed.

Another moment, demonstrating that risk management best practices simply cannot overcome the human condition, occurred just a couple weeks ago while I was shopping at our local Publix Supermarket. I was at the deli counter when the fire alarm suddenly went off. The cacophonous blaring of the system was deafening. As I turned to gaze across the vast store, flashing alarm indicators could be seen everywhere. Naturally, my fellow shoppers and I did what all responsible people do in such a situation, we paused for a microsecond and then kept shopping. The only notable change was that the man behind the deli counter and I had to shout over the racket of the alarm to get my order taken care of.  

Actually, I was close enough to the source of the alarm to be privy to what had triggered it. As smoke started wafting out of a back-kitchen area, the employees started to laugh at a person I assume was a deli manager just back from vacation. They started commenting that it was his first day back and he was burning the place down. Then one deli worker yelled, “Richard, the chickens done!” And a hearty laugh was had by all as everyone burned to death. The end.

The point, of course, is that despite years of fire alarm training in the public-school system, everybody ignored an alarm designed to save their lives. That is not an unusual occurrence.  

That is just one of the challenges faced by those in risk management. But it pales to the challenge faced by those responsible for teaching pizza chain founders how not to torch their career and reputation.

Most of you have no doubt at this point heard of this event. The founder and now former chairman of Papa John’s Pizza made headlines last week when he used what can now only be referred to as the “N” word during a conference call. The irony of the situation was that the call was intended as media training to help him prevent future public relations fiascos. The company was embroiled in one last fall after he made allegedly negative comments regarding the NFL anthem protesters.

Reports say that during this call, the soon to be former chairman made the comment that “Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s,” and then lamented that the KFC founder never faced public backlash for his remarks.

I’m not sure what his point was, except perhaps that his previous public faux paus’ were perfectly acceptable and should not have caused him or his company any concern; at least if we existed in 1963 Mississippi.

You know it is never a good thing when a training call designed to help you improve your public image turns into a public relations disaster. The company’s public relations firm, who had been hired to help them after the NFL debacle, immediately severed ties with the company. The chairman resigned, and I am willing to bet the company is frantically printing new pizza boxes that don’t prominently display his face. 

I suppose the message from these examples is that the best laid risk management plans will probably never fully protect us from ourselves and the human condition. We might be able to prepare for stupid, but we certainly will never be able to fix it.

And that is what makes risk management so darn interesting in the first place.


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