Ethical decision-making is innate to most
safety and health pros. For many, it is
one of the core reasons they entered the
Can the same be said of the leaders they work for?
The speed, magnitude, and complexity of change
in today’s global business environment create significant
pressures (meeting unrealistic goals or deadlines,
etc.) on corporate CEOs and their senior leadership.
Leaders use this “pressure” to rationalize cutting back
on safety and health. This rationalization leads to
what I call Twisted Leadership Safety Ethics
There is a difference between an unethical safety
leader and one who occasionally falls prey to twisted
leadership safety ethics. The former has no principles
or values to begin with; the latter allows his principles
to be compromised under pressure. In either instance,
both exhibit similar characteristics.
Unethical leading indicators
Dr. Daryl Green1 provides insight into identifying
unethical leaders. I have taken a bit of editorial license
to present Green’s traits from a safety perspective:
- Leads with a bad safety attitude;
- Lies to his safety professionals, followers and his
- Takes advantage of his safety professionals and
- Takes personal credit for the safety group’s
- Uses politics to gain power in an amoral manner;
- Does not focus on the common safety good of
- Does not support his safety professionals or his
- Displays a “double-tongued” safety behaviorâ€”
talks the talk;
- Sacrifices his safety professionals
and followers for personal gain;
- Fails to model the safety way
for his followers.
Have you been approached?
How do you muster the courage to follow your own ethical principles or values and defy unethical behavior of someone in authority? Kristin Ketteringham2 offers the following approach:
First and foremost, keep your mouth shut.
Assuming the unethical behavior could create unsafe conditions or injuries, document names, dates, actions and any other supporting evidence regarding the superior’s unethical behavior. If there are witnesses, try to meet with them away from work to discuss your concerns.
After gathering evidence, compose a business-like letter using neutral words and submit it with your evidence to higher-ups. If necessary, ask that your name remain confidential.
Be mindful that going down this path frequently has consequences that may include finding a new job.
Richard Nielsen3 presents 12 intervention strategies you can choose from to address unethical behavior in an organization: 1 â€”
Secretly blow the whistle within the organization; 2 â€”
Quietly blow the whistle, informing a responsible higherlevel manager; 3 â€”
Secretly threaten the offender with blowing the whistle; 4 â€”
Secretly threaten a responsible manager with blowing the whistle outside the organization; 5 â€”
Publicly threaten a responsible manager with blowing the whistle; 6 â€”
Sabotage the implementation of the unethical behavior; 7 â€”
Quietly refrain from implementing an unethical order or policy; 8 â€”
Publicly blow the whistle within the organization; 9 â€”
Conscientiously object to an unethical policy or refuse to implement the policy; 10 â€”
Indicate uncertainty about or refuse to support a cover-up in the event the individual and/or organization gets caught; 11 â€”
Secretly blow the whistle outside the organization; or 12 â€”
Publicly blow the whistle outside the organization.
Jack was a powerful business director of a highly
profitable product. Jack ran into his manufacturing
superintendent, Doug, at a local watering hole on
Friday. Jack told Doug he could double his bonus if he
would increase production by 30 percent. Doug knew
the only way to do it was to cut corners and ignore
After thinking about Jack’s proposition over the
weekend, Doug met Jack in his office on Monday
morning and told him his crew was producing as
much product as they could and he was not going
to compromise the safety of his crew to meet Jack’s
request (Strategy 9 â€” Conscientiously object to an
unethical policy or refuse to implement the policy).
Jack was furious. He told Doug he would decrease his
bonus for his insubordination at his next annual review,
several weeks away. Rather than confront Jack, Doug
called several manufacturing superintendents at other
plant sites where Jack’s product was manufactured.
Learning his colleagues had been offered the same proposition
and were as upset as him, Doug spoke to Jack’s
boss, Evelyn, about the situation (Strategy 2 â€” Quietly
blow the whistle to a responsible higher-level manager).
Doug’s superintendent colleagues called Evelyn
also to relay their experience with Jack. After catching
Jack in several lies, Evelyn recommended he enter
the company’s coaching program. Jack eventually
resigned from the company.
1 Green, D. 2010. Spotting the Unethical Leader in 2010. At
2 Ketteringham, K. 2008. How to Deal with an Unethical
Boss. At http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/911837/
3 Nielsen, R.P. 1989. Changing Unethical Organizational
Behavior. The Academy of Management EXECUTIVE. 3(2):