In an extraordinary mea culpa yesterday, the chief executive of General Electric Co. sent an e-mail message to several hundred thousand employees condemning a secretly coded survey sent out by one of the company's units, saying it was "clearly wrong and should never be repeated."
The survey was sent last year to thousands of shareholders of mutual funds managed by GE Investments, a money-management arm of the company. It appeared to be anonymous and asked the shareholders, most of them GE employees, to convey impressions about service, the quality of products and so forth.
But it failed to note that people who responded could be easily identified by the company because officials had included a code on the return envelope that corresponded with information in the company's shareholder records.
GE chief executive John F. Welch Jr. wrote his note after reading an account about the survey in The Washington Post on Wednesday. A GE official said Welch wanted to underscore his commitment to privacy and reassure employees the survey had nothing to do with the company's routine efforts to assess their attitudes.
"I don't want to bother you every 72 hours with an e-mail, but something has come up that is just awful, and I want to share what I know about it today and how I feel about it," the message said.
". . . This well-intentioned survey was designed to help them improve customer satisfaction. However, the survey did not disclose that respondents could be identified.
"This practice is clearly wrong and should never be repeated.
"Candid employee attitude surveys are absolutely critical to us. They provide us with meaningful feedback that has helped launch many of our corporate initiatives. . . . Please be assured that every GE employee attitude survey is totally anonymous and confidential. Your privacy and trust are sacred to me."
A company spokesman declined to release Welch's note but later confirmed its contents after it was obtained through an employee. "We wanted to make it very clear to employees that this was wrong and would not be repeated," said Bruce Bunch, a GE spokesman, explaining why Welch acted so swiftly. "The message speaks for itself."