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Case 10

FORDS PINTO FIRES: THE RETROSPECTIVE VIEW OF


FORDS FIELD RECALL COORDINATOR
CASE SUMMARY
Ford Motor Company, determined to compete with fuel-efficient Volkswagen and Japanese
imports, introduced the subcompact Pinto in the 1971 model year. Although the Pinto met federal
safety standards, some people have argued that Ford engineers compromised safety because of
strict adherence to the design restrictions that the vehicle weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and
cost no more than $2,000. Some two million units were sold during the 10-year life of the Pinto.
The Pinto's major design flaw a fuel tank prone to rupturing with moderate-speed rear-end
collision surfaced not too long after the Pintos entrance to the market. In April 1974, the
Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
to recall Ford Pintos due to the fuel tank design defect. The Center for Auto Safety's petition was
based upon reports from attorneys of three deaths and four serious injuries in moderate-speed
rear-end collisions involving Pintos. As a result of tests performed for the NHTSA, as well as the
extraordinary amount of publicity generated by the problem, Ford Motor Company agreed, on
June 9, 1978, to recall 1.5 million 1971-1976 Ford Pintos and 30,000 1975-1976 Mercury Bobcat
sedan and hatchback models for modifications to the fuel tank. Recall notices were mailed to the
affected Pinto and Bobcat owners in September 1978. Repair parts were to be delivered to all
dealers by September 15, 1978. Unfortunately, the recall was initiated too late for six people.
Between June 9, 1978 and September 15, 1978, six people died in Pinto fires after a rear-end
collision. The deaths of three teenage girls from Indiana in August 1978 led to criminal
prosecution of the Ford Motor Company on charges of reckless homicide. On March 13, 1980, a
jury found Ford innocent of the charges. Production of the Pinto ceased in the fall of 1980.
Dennis A. Gioia, Fords field recall coordinator in the early 1970s when the Pinto fires began,
reflects on lessons learned from his experiences involving the Pinto case. Gioia takes the Pinto
fires case personally because he was one of those faceless bureaucrats who is often portrayed as
making decisions without accountability and then walking away from them even decisions
with life-and-death implications. Gioia disagrees with that characterization, indicating that it is
far too stark and superficial and that he has been haunted by rather than walked away from his
decisions in the case.
Gioia says its important to revisit the Pinto decisions, and he explains why he takes them so
personally. Put simply, its because he was in a position to do something about a serious problem
and didnt. That simple observation gave him pause for personal reflection and also made him
think about the many difficulties people face in trying to be ethical decision makers in
organizations. Gioia also maintains that people should keep in mind the impact of the features of
modern business and organizational life. These features may influence people who purposely set
out to be ethical decision makers to overlook basic moral issues in arriving at decisions that,
when viewed retrospectively, look absurdly easy to make. But such decisions are not easy to
make, and that is perhaps the most important lesson of all.

In emphasizing the personal dimensions involved in ethical decision making, Gioia describes his
personal background as an engineering/MBA student; an activist protesting social injustice and
the social irresponsibility of business; and the recipient, at a young age, of the job of his dreams
at Ford Motor Company. He was put on the fast track to promotion, which within two years led to
him becoming Fords field recall coordinator, with first-level responsibility for tracking field
safety problems. It was the most intense, information-overloaded job imaginable, frequently
dealing with some of the most serious problems in the company. Disasters were a phone call
away, action was the hallmark of the office where Gioia worked, and everyone took the job
seriously.
In this context, Gioia first encountered the emerging Pinto fires problem in the form of
infrequent reports of cars erupting into horrendous fireballs in very low-speed crashes and the
shuddering personal experience of inspecting a car that had burned, killing its trapped occupants.
Over the space of a year, Gioia had two distinct opportunities to initiate recall activities
concerning the fuel tank problems, but on both occasions, he voted not to recall, despite his
activist history and advocacy of business social responsibility. The key question is: How, after
two short years, could Gioia have engaged in a decision process that appeared to violate his own
strong values a decision process whose subsequent manifestations continue to be cited by
many observers as a supposedly definitive study of corporate unethical behavior? Gioia cites the
foibles of normal human information processing as a feasible explanation for his actions. The
complexity and intensity of the recall coordinators job required that Gioia develop cognitive
strategies or cognitive schemas (or more specifically, script schemas) for simplifying the
overwhelming amount of information with which he had to deal. Such script schemas enabled
Gioia to discern the characteristic hallmarks of problem cases that were likely to result in recall
and to execute a complicated series of steps required to initiate a recall. Essentially, the Pinto fires
did not fit Gioias script schema the Pinto fires did not reflect any frequently repeated patterns
or identifiable causes that would necessarily justify a recall.
Another influencing factor for Gioia, and for anyone in organizations, is that decisions are made
by individuals working within a corporate context. The socialization process and the overriding
influence of organizational culture provide a strong, if generally subtle, context for defining
appropriate ways of seeing and understanding. There are few more potent contexts than
organizational settings. Ford and the vehicle recall coordinator role provided a powerful context
for developing scripts scripts that were inevitably and undeniably oriented toward ways of
making sense that were influenced by the corporate and industry culture. Wanting to do a good
job and wanting to do what is right are not mutually exclusive desires, but the corporate context
affects their synthesis. Gioia came to accept the idea that it was not feasible to fix everything that
someone might construe as a problem. He therefore shifted to a value of wanting to do the
greatest good for the greatest number of people (an ethical value tempered by the practical
constraints of an economic enterprise). Doing the greatest good for the greatest number meant
working with intensity and responsibility on those problems that would spare the most people
from injury. It also meant developing scripts that responded to typical problems, not odd patterns
like those presented by the Pinto.
Another way of noting how the organizational context so strongly affects individuals is to
recognize that ones personal identity becomes heavily influenced by corporate identity. This is an
extraordinarily important point, especially for students who have not yet held a permanent job
role. Prior to assuming career role, ones identity derives mainly from social relationships; upon

assuming a career role, identity begins to align with that role and ones information processing
perspective follows from that identity.
Based on his experiences, Gioia recommends that neophyte organizational decision makers pay
attention to the following lessons:

Too many people do not give serious attention to assessing and articulating their own values.
People simply do not know what they stand for because they havent thought about it
seriously. People should consciously decide their values. If a person doesnt decide on his/her
values, he/she becomes easy prey for others who will gladly decide them for him/her or
influence him/her to accept theirs.

People should recognize that everyone is an unwitting victim of his or her own cognitive
structuring. We would all turn into blithering idiots if we did not structure information and
expectations, but that very structuring hides information that might be important
information that could require people to confront their values. People should be encouraged
to recognize cues that build a Now Think! step into their scripts waving red flags at
ourselves, so to speak even though we are engaged in essentially automatic cognition and
action.

Because scripts are context bound and organizations are potent contexts, people should be
aware of how strongly, yet how subtly, their job roles and the organizational culture affect the
ways they interpret and make sense of information (and thus affect the ways they develop the
scripts that will guide them in unguarded moments).

People should be prepared to face critical responsibility at a relatively young age. A person
needs to know what his/her values are and how he/she thinks so that a good decision can be
made.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION


1.

The Ford Pinto met federal safety standards yet it had a design flaw that resulted in
serious injuries and deaths. Use the stackholder analysis by applying the Utilities and
Respect for Persons principles to demonstrate that it is ultimately a loss if these injuries
and deaths are ignored, noting the reasons why Dennis Gioias could possibly had made
such a fatal error despite being an excellent engineering/MBA student and an activist
protesting social injustice and the social irresponsibility of business. Use the terms used
in the textbook by Harris such as culture, standard of care, acceptable risk etc.