Pernod Ricard - when a macho corporate culture gets found out

A French court has squashed an attempt by Pernod Ricard to get a forthcoming book censored. The issue - that the company required potential sales staff to show that they were made of the right stuff - by sinking large quantities of the company's most celebrated product.

Some applicants said they had to take up to 20 shots of the anise drink before they were given the job, according to the book by journalist Max Coder. Sales staff were advised to book a hotel room paid for by the company if they were too drunk to return home.

The company is said to have rebuked one drunk salesman who it said should have 'run to the surrounding woods to hide for a few hours to sober up' to avoid a police test.

The company had said the accusations were defamatory, and sought 500,000 euros in damages. It said that it had published a memo to its staff saying that "the excessive consumption of alcohol is not and should not be, here at Ricard, an attitude that leads to professional success."

That's not exactly a ringing condemnation. At least that's what the appeals court thought. It said the company had failed to provide proof that it set "precise limits that are not to be overstepped."

You and I might think most companies to be rather more robust on such matters. Many would simply outright ban their employees from drinking whilst representing the company. Or, if at an event like a drinks reception, at the very least to ensure that the employee is suitably sober to represent the company in a professional way.

The most fascinating aspect of the matter, for me, is to note that the company has a feature on its social responsibility website I haven't seen many places elsewhere. It has a section on: "Making Pernod Ricard teams more responsible."

I quote: "Pernod Ricard supports responsible and moderate consumption. While its initiatives often concern young people and women, they also target Group employees, who are true ambassadors for responsible drinking."

Motivating employees includes internal training or seminars to help inform teams about the stakes of a voluntary responsible drinking policy. It also has training sessions specifically geared towards teams that meet with consumers.

In the US, Pernod Ricard gave breathalyser tests to its 500 employees. The 'Alcohol: Staying in control to become ambassadors of responsible consumption" booklet is distributed to all employees. The company says: "The goal is to make each employee an ambassador for responsible alcohol consumption."

This doesn't sound like a narrative of a company confident it has a solid corporate culture in place that makes responsibility a key part of daily life. It sounds like corrective action, the kind you implement when you become aware there is a problem.

In that case, the company really shouldn't have tried to censor a book that told the story of what had gone wrong. It should have held its hand up, and talked about its determination to make the change.

I would say it needs to go some way further. So long as it seems to believe that sales staff drinking - albeit responsibly - is a key part of their being a brand ambassador I would say they're operating from a false premise. And if you're dealing with an inherently macho culture within the sales team, the best thing to do is draw some pretty straight, non-negotiable lines.

A complete drinking ban on duty would be an unambiguous statement.

Posted on: 25 Jul 2011

Tags: CSR responsible marketing Pernod Ricard alcohol controversial products corporate culture corporate social responsibility Mallen Baker


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