Own the problem, then own the solution

Detroit Tigers' Delmon Young watches his two-run home run during the sixth inning in Game 5 of the American League championship series against the Texas Rangers Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011, in Detroit.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY If an executive at your company is ever involved in a public scandal, look to the Detroit Tigers as a perfect example of how to handle it. 

The Major League Baseball franchise was recently confronted with an ugly situation -- one of their star players, outfielder Delmon Young, was arrested last month on charges of aggravated misdemeanor harassment and accused of making anti-Semitic remarks and of getting into a physical altercation with a bystander. Young, who was allegedly drunk at the time of the incident, was hospitalized so he could sober up and then arraigned the next day.

Delmon Young suspended for seven days

What did the Tigers do right? First, they followed the rules by effectively suspending him. Under the most recent collective-bargaining agreement with the league, players who are suspected of abusing alcohol are evaluated and put on the restricted list for seven days.

Media coverage in Detroit was not uncritical. Some wondered whether Young should ever again wear a Tigers jersey. Members of the Jewish community understandably felt aggrieved, with one rabbi telling the Detroit Free Press: "When I read the news about Young, my heart sank to the floor. How am I supposed to explain to my son... that Delmon Young was drunk, got into a street fight, yelled an anti-Semitic slur and got arrested?"

Young began treatment for alcohol abuse, and when Young was cleared to play he was reinstated to the roster. This is not surprising since he is a productive player with a more than $6 million annual salary. (By contrast, he also had other troubles -- as a minor league player he once was suspended for 50 games after throwing a bat at an umpire.)

What came next is a measure of player accountability and stems from what I believe are the expectations the Tigers set for players. Young held a press conference three hours before his first game of eligibility (although he did not play that game). He expressed a measure of remorse and took full accountability for his actions. Although he chose not to comment on legal charges, he made no excuses for his behavior.

Young owned up to his problem and its consequences. "I got to go out there as an individual and show the community that what has transpired and what has been said about me is not me," he said. "So it's going to be up to me to be able to give them an opportunity to have forgiveness."

Of course, nothing the Tigers, MLB officials, or Young did following the incident is particularly exceptional. They merely acted professionals. But in an age of celebrity cop-outs and mealy-mouthed apologies, this represents a minor -- but textbook -- case of how to manage scandal. So when trouble strikes follow this blueprint:

Act promptly. Take immediate steps to investigate the nature and scale of the problem. Identify the perpetrator and isolate him.

Be up front with your communications. Do not hide from the media if the executive is a high-profile figure.

Admit wrongdoing. Own up to the situation and talk about how you will make amends.

Insist on accountability. Insist that the perpetrator face his or her accusers as soon as possible. Also allow the person to issue a public apology. (By contrast, don't use the words, "If I have offended anyone, I am sorry." Of course you offended someone -- that's why you are in trouble.)

Naturally, it's better to avoid trouble in the first place. We're are all human, though, and sometimes we make mistakes. We may say things we regret; we may even harm others by our actions. The first step in rehabilitation is to acknowledge wrongdoing, after which must come an expression of remorse. But that's only for starters. It is also important to make amends.

Failure to do any one of these things ruins the rehabilitation process. It turns an incident into a reputation-killer. That is something that no organization wants to happen. So as they say in baseball, play the game with respect -- for the club, your opponent, and your fans.