Johnson & Johnson’s Four-Fold Failure Of Accountability

Word broke recently of what may be one of the most shameful corporate cover-ups in the history of American business. Reuters reported that pharmaceutical and consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson had known, as early as 1971, about the presence of asbestos, a known carcinogen, in its iconic baby powder product.

This disclosure quickly prompted comparisons with similar, devastating, revelations in various consumer-products liability cases, such as those filed against the major tobacco companies. According to reports, the company not only knew about the potential dangers its baby powder presented to consumers, but also financed and coordinated deeply biased studies that were presented to the outside world as objective science … and hired a ghostwriter to revise the findings of a paper that had tried to alert the scientific community, and the larger world, to the truth.

This is the kind of story that gets juries angry. The coverage since the Reuters story broke has tended to focus on financial impacts — notably on the staggering drops in the company’s stock price and company valuation. But I’d like to suggest that Johnson & Johnson’s failure here is primarily a cultural failure, a failure of accountable leadership. The financial losses may be huge, but they are only a symptom of a toxic and ultimately unsustainable business culture.


Four of the most important commitments any leader can make to his or her employees — and, by extension, to the organization’s stakeholders and customers — are:

●     the commitment to tell the truth,

●     the commitment to defend the company’s values,

●     the commitment to make one’s word one’s bond,

●     and the commitment to act in such a way as to safeguard the company’s integrity and reputation.

It is obvious now that Johnson & Johnson’s senior leadership betrayed all four of these commitments over a period of more than four decades.

Johnson & Johnson’s vision statement is “for every person to use their unique experiences and backgrounds, together – to spark solutions that create a better, healthier world.”

Given the incontrovertible track record of deception, double-talk, and misinformation now on the public record on the critical question of the safety of Johnson & Johnson’s most visible product, it is shamefully obvious that the company’s leadership consistently failed to live up to that vision … and in so doing betrayed all four of those critical commitments.


So what can we learn from Johnson & Johnson’s decisions? What is the takeaway about accountability here? Simple: Keep your commitments … and look beyond the short-term.

Notice that the company didn’t break this story. A reporter did. That means that, starting as far back as 1971, and continuing up until last week, the company’s leadership has consistently, and foolishly, seen this problem of asbestos showing up in its baby powder as a short-term legal and/or public relations problem … not as a long-term human problem.

If they had looked at it as a long-term human problem, they would have addressed it decades ago. If they had seen this as a human problem they would have defended their stated values … and broken the story themselves.

But they didn’t. There was no leadership consensus around the table saying, “Wait a minute — concealing this information conflicts with us creating a better and healthier world. We need to rethink our approach to this question. We need to acknowledge the truth, and we need to do it openly.” Accountability to consumers, stakeholders, and employees was simply off the radar screen.

The company’s leadership thought in the short-term for nearly half a century. And now, as a result of that catastrophic short-term thinking, they have abandoned their values, left their organization, and all of its employees, in a terrible position, and threatened the very existence of the company.

Don’t let it happen to you. Be accountable!


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