(As first published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on November 16, 2012)
The New England Compounding Center meningitis case spotlights the tragic consequences of failed organizational ethics. The news is rife with stories of natural disasters (the tsunami, Haiti, Hurricane Sandy) and human tragedy (cancer, poverty). These problems are beyond our control despite best practices and best efforts. The news is also rife with silence. Silent rapes in India, decades of hidden abuse by knighted BBC star Jimmy Savile, and the surreptitious collection of user data by the ubiquitous Angry Birds app all demonstrate this. But the 32 deaths from meningitis that were recently traced to the New England Compounding Center (NECC, a pharmacy producing contaminated vaccines) reflect neither disaster beyond human control nor silence. This tragedy reflects blatant disregard for best practices—ones well within the NECC’s control—and a shocking, on-going failure to react to clear danger. It is a tragedy of failed organizational ethics. At the early stages of investigation, and without pre-judging any relevant parties or delving into medical matters, already several organizational ethics lessons surface.
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