Any other business

Did they really just say that? The awful gaffes high-profile CEOs have made

4 min read

07 November 2015

Everyone puts their foot in it from time to time – some of us more than others. But for company CEOs, saying the wrong thing, even if their intentions are good, can be disastrous.

PR departments go into overdrive, journalists have a field day and, in some cases, the mouth-on-brained-disengaged boss can find themselves clearing their desk. 

For smaller companies too, one unfortunate phrase, intemperate reply to an infuriating customer or badly thought out Tweet can be a disaster for reputation, sales and the future of the business.

(1) “I just want my life back.” 

It was at the height of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as crude oil poured into the sea, local fishermen and tour company operators went out of business and seabirds died in agony on blackened beaches. 

Could it get any worse for BP, the company at the centre of this crisis? Yes, it could. As he visited the site, intending to bring some comfort and good news, Tony Hayward, the company’s CEO added this rather self-pitying comment to his corporate statement. He did get his life back – he left the company shortly afterwards.

(2) “Addressing such an august body as this reminds me much of making love to the Queen of England – you know it’s a great honour, you’re just not sure how much pleasure it’s going to be.” 

When it comes to Michael O’Leary, it’s often difficult to choose one particular gaffe in particular. 

The Ryanair chief let slip this corker while speaking to British MPs and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at a British-Irish assembly in Dublin last year. He’s also known for describing customers who forget to print their own boarding passes as “idiots”, and calling overweight passengers “fat bastards on board”.

Read more about the impact of the CEO:

(3) “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it’s total crap.” 

Gerald Ratner, boss of the eponymous jewellery chain added, for good measure, that earrings sold in his stores were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long”. With this one speech he managed to wipe £500m off the value of his company. Oops!

(4) “I do not borrow on credit cards. I have four young children. I give them advice not to pile up debts on their credit cards.” 

Fair enough, you might say. But what is surprising is that this advice about being wary of credit cards came from the boss of one of the country’s largest provider of credit cards.

Matt Barrett was chairman of Barclays when he made the comment while giving evidence to panel of MPs. One MP, John McFall, described Barrett’s admission that he would not borrow money on his bank’s credit card as “amazing”.

(5) “That…might be one of the additional superpowers, that quite frankly, women who don’t ask for raises have. Because that’s good karma. It will come back.” 

OK, got that girls? According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, if women don’t ask for more money the universe will reward them. To make matter worse, Nadella came out with the comment at a women’s tech conference last year. He later half apologised, tweeting that he had been “inarticulate” in his comments.