What Happened at Johnson & Johnson?

Published: June 16, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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In the talks that I’ve given to corporations, associations and schools, one of the best examples of corporate responsibility I talk about comes from former Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke.

In the fall of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area had died after ingesting Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that were laced with cyanide. Burke’s decision-making process, leading to the recall of all forms of Tylenol from every store in the country, has since become a textbook case on company integrity and accountability.

In an interview for my book, What Do You Stand For?, Burke said, “As I look back on Tylenol, I think that the only way that we could have done what we did was to have all of the institutions that were affected by the Tylenol poisonings believe in us. And I want to emphasize, believe in us, the company – whether it was the head of the FBI, the FDA, or the people that we spoke to in Congress or at the White House.

“It wasn’t just what we did,” Burke said. “The country had to respond in a myriad of ways. And they responded and listened to our advice because they trusted the institution from which that advice was coming.”

What has happened to that trust today?

The New York Times reported (June 10) that “A Congressional investigation into a recent recall of children’s Tylenol and other pediatric medicines has been stymied by the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, investigators say, raising the prospect that new measures — like issuing of subpoenas to compel cooperation — could be invoked.

“The unit of Johnson & Johnson that makes the over-the-counter drugs, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, is already under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration for a pattern of violations in manufacturing and quality control practices that have led to a number of recent recalls.

“Representative Edolphus Towns …chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Johnson & Johnson had used delaying tactics in its dealings with the committee and in some instances had provided misinformation — accusations the company denies.”

Since the 1982 Tylenol incident, Burke’s ethical decision-making protocol had become a gold standard in how corporations should respond to safety issues regarding their products and services.

In conversations with Jeff Wigand, the former Brown & Williamson tobacco insider, Burke’s integrity was one example Jeff used in coming forward regarding the lies told by the tobacco industry.

“My moral compass has an intolerance for deceit,” Wigand said. “It’s a compass that makes me want to make sure that the truth is told, particularly when it affects the health and safety of millions of people.”

And now, this…

“[The committee] was particularly troubled by apparent discrepancies in Johnson & Johnson’s accounts of its activities. The company, [Representative Towns] said, told members of his staff that the recall involved six million bottles of children’s medicines even as it informed the F.D.A. that the recall involved more than 136 million bottles.”

“It means that we didn’t get a straight story from Johnson & Johnson,” Towns said. “We need to know where the spin is and where the truth begins.”

Any organization needs to understand that if these kinds of ethical “discrepancies” can happen at Johnson & Johnson, despite its previous track record, it can happen to anyone. Before the catastrophic blow-out at Deepwater Horizon, BP had just celebrated an outstanding safety record.

“We judge ourselves by our best intentions, our most noble acts, our most virtuous habits,” ethicist Michael Josephson reminds us. “But we are judged by our last worst act.”

And what would James Burke advise?

“I think the [Tylenol] experience confirmed my own deep belief that you can do well by doing good. I think that the more we do that’s right, the more successful we are as individuals and as institutions.”

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