Paul S. Amos: This is not who we are

When a tsunami hit Japan, one of America’s best-known insurance companies found its core principles tested. Aflac’s president talks about faith and work.

Thanks to a cantankerous squawking duck, Aflac has become one of America’s best-known insurance companies. But here are two things you probably don’t know about Aflac: faith plays an important role in the company, and 75 percent of its business is in Japan.

Last spring, those two factors came head-to-head when a powerful tsunami struck Japan, says Paul S. Amos II, president and chief operating officer of Aflac. As the company rushed to respond to the tragedy, it suddenly found its core principles tested.

In what could have been a nightmare right out of a business school case study, a comedian who served as the voice of the company’s iconic duck began tweeting offensive jokes about the victims of the tsunami.

But it was an easy test for Aflac, a company that for five years in a row has been named to a list of the world’s most ethical companies. In 15 minutes, the man was fired.

“We knew immediately, ‘This is not who we are,’” Amos said.

Although Aflac is not a religious company, it was founded and built upon principles rooted in Christianity, Amos said.

“What we’re saying is, ‘I believe the teachings of Jesus absolutely create the right principles. I believe they’re the right way of treating other people. I believe they’re the right way of acting in this world.’”

Amos joined Aflac as executive vice president in 2005 and was named COO in 2006. He was promoted to president of Aflac U.S. in January 2007. Amos has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke University, an MBA from Emory University and a J.D. from Tulane University. He is a member of the Duke Divinity School Board of Visitors.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about the company’s response to the tsunami and the role of faith in work. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about Aflac and the role that faith plays in the company.

Aflac was founded in 1955 in Columbus, Ga., by three brothers from Enterprise, Ala., the children of John and Helen Amos. They were raised in the Methodist Church, and they applied the principles they learned there in starting and building their company. They knew that doing the right thing would be critically important to their success in business.

Today, that’s exemplified in the Aflac Way, a book that every employee receives covering customer service, how people are treated and our company’s basic principles. Almost all of those principles come in some way from Scripture, adapted for use in the workplace. They might be as simple as, “Everyone is important. No matter who walks through the door, whether it’s the man in overalls or a straw hat or the man in a $500 suit, everyone is treated equally.”

On a broader scale, we don’t require any employee to participate in any form of religion or religious events, but we do allow for things like our national prayer breakfast. Each year at our national convention, we have a special event with speakers who come and give their testimony. So faith is important at Aflac.

Q: What about Aflac’s presence in Japan? I don’t think most people are aware of what an extraordinary presence Aflac has there.

Although Aflac is a dominant U.S. brand, 75 percent of our business is in Japan. We insure 25 percent of the population of Japan and 95 percent of the companies on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, so we are a huge household name. Our Japanese operation continues to be the driving force behind Aflac’s earnings.

The duck is also in Japan. He has a slightly different attitude there. He’s calmer and friendlier than his counterpart in the United States.

Q: I have to ask -- does a quack sound different in Japanese?

You know, it’s interesting. A duck says “quack quack” in English, so “Aflac” rhyming with “quack” was obvious. But in Japan, a duck doesn’t say “quack.” It says “ga ga,” so there was concern about whether the duck saying “Aflac” would translate.

But it does. People love it. It’s now one of the top advertising icons in Japan. The Aflac duck has been embraced by the Japanese people.

Q: So tell us what happened earlier this year when the tsunami hit Japan.

On March 11, when the tsunami hit, many of our people and our policyholders were affected. As a company, we saw that and immediately contacted the Red Cross to give 100 million yen, or about $1.2 million. At the same time, our employees banded together to create and sell wristbands and raised another $300,000 to give to the people of Japan.

But in a crisis like that, the first thing you do is to look inwardly and focus on your people. We were very blessed. We had very few fatalities or injuries, so we began to focus on our policyholders and how we could help them and what we could do to make sure that they were paid in a timely manner, … to make sure that we were there in their time of need, because that’s ultimately what we do.

But unfortunately, the story took a difficult turn a few days later when Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of the Aflac duck in the United States, decided to tweet things about the tsunami on his personal twitter account that were inappropriate. And we, as a company, had to decide whether or not we could let the things that he said stand.

Q: He was tweeting jokes about the tsunami, right?

Yes. People call what he does “shock comedy,” and it is shocking. But we didn’t find it funny. Japan is a country of people who believe in honor, who believe in taking care of each other and making sure that they don’t dishonor anyone else. So we knew that we needed to honor the Japanese people by not allowing something like this to happen. So in 15 minutes, we got together -- the chief marketing officer, the CEO and me -- and we fired him.

We picked up the phone and said we could no longer work with him. It didn’t matter what it cost us to get out of the contract. We could not have someone who would make comments like that stand for our brand.

Q: On one hand, this was just basic business sense. With three-quarters of your business in Japan, how could you not fire him? But at the same time, you’re saying this decision flowed out of the basic ethos of the company.

Absolutely. We knew immediately, “This is not who we are.” Like I said, we were founded on Christian principles. We take care of people. Like it says in Ephesians, we don’t let things come out of our mouth that are anything other than positive. This was something that was truly negative and wrong.

I think it’s foundational. I think that if you bring people into a culture and you don’t put them in on those principles from day one and you don’t raise them up with the consistency of seeing that’s how you behave in meetings and how you behave both inwardly and outwardly -- and so we ultimately believe that we as a company can make those types of decisions without expressly saying that it’s about a biblical principle, but knowing it’s those foundations that have generated that decision.

We’re not trying to bring religion into the workplace. We’re not trying to make Aflac a religious company. What we’re saying is, “I believe the teachings of Jesus absolutely create the right principles. I believe they’re the right way of treating other people. I believe they’re the right way of acting in this world.” And when we’re doing the right things and we’re also trying to teach our people how to do the right things, it’s not expressly in your face, but it is about doing the things that we think are going to generate the best return for our shareholders, the best return for our policyholders and the best way to take care of people.

Q: Although the Gottfried episode got all the attention, there was also some press coverage after the tsunami about Aflac’s presence in Japan and the cultural sensitivity with which the company operates there. Tell us about that.

We have over 5,000 employees in Japan, and only two or three are Americans. We don’t try to run Aflac Japan as an American company. We run it as a Japanese company that we work closely with and influence.

I’ll give you a classic example regarding religion. Recently, when we opened a new building in Japan, we had a Shinto priest come and bless the site, as is tradition in Japan.

At the same time, we had a Christian pastor also come and bless the site.

We’ve been able to merge ideas and concepts. Our people understand taking care of each other. So after the tsunami, we had people stay in the office for days on end, answering calls from customers, making sure our systems stayed on, doing everything they could. In a tragedy, insurance is needed more than ever, and we know that’s the time that we have to truly step up. We have to run toward it, and we have to take care of our customers.

Q: What’s been the outcome from the tsunami for Aflac?

The first outcome is we’ve grown closer together. Everybody understands that when you go through a tragedy, you test your capabilities. We are very proud of how we responded to the disaster and how we took care of each other. We’re proud of how we did the right thing.

At the same time, our company has done extremely well. We have continued to do well in sales and with our customers, and I think we’ve grown even tighter with the Japanese people.

When you do the right thing, especially in tough times, the Japanese people respect you even more.

And as far as the firing, it yielded us an incredible windfall. We ended up with almost an “Aflac Idol,” with people wanting to be the voice of the Aflac duck.

We had over a million people check out the online posting for the job, and 13,000 people showed up and applied to try out for the voice of the duck. Ultimately, a gentleman from Minnesota was chosen -- a regular, everyday guy who does an incredible job.

We hit a home run, so maybe that’s God’s way of blessing us for doing the right thing.

Q: Finally, why is there a need for faith in the workplace, and what can church offer to those in business?

I do believe that people, in general, function better and have a greater sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing when they recognize there’s a higher power, when they recognize that that higher power has an influence over their life.

There are people who don’t believe that, and that’s OK. Everybody has their right to believe what they believe, but I don’t understand how they make it through difficult times. I don’t understand how they keep focused on what’s most important in life.

So yes, I absolutely believe there’s a need for faith in the workplace and a better partnership between what’s happening in churches and seminaries and the business world. If you look 50 years ago, maybe there was a much tighter relationship between faith and work, but the speed of the world today has pulled them further and further apart.

The reality is that biblical principles are about doing the right thing. Human beings, whether they realize it or not, when the right thing is done to them, respond positively.

I believe Aflac’s success has come from doing the right thing, from fulfilling the promises that we make. We don’t make a tangible good. We make a promise. Really, that’s all we have -- our word -- so how we fulfill that promise and how we carry out those principles of Christianity, what we do to reinforce the body of Christ, makes all the difference in the world.