The corporate president/CEO/COB – all powerful Oz, memorably called me into his office for a heated one-on-one discussion. I had discovered something that would greatly alter how the corporation would eventually manage safety and health.

My job was on the line. Within minutes after the CEO chewed my ear, I arranged a confidential meeting with the operating company president. I briefed him on the situation, described changes that must occur, and I promised to protect his plant management the best I could. My loyalty to him was thus established.

The next day I was called into a meeting with the corporate VP legal counsel and VP of HR. My direct boss, a lawyer, was kept out of the loop. During the meeting, a conference call went out to the operating company president to boldly discuss my discovery. Demands for change were going to be made.

Without knowing I was on the conference call, the operating company president asked, “Have you discussed this with Markiewicz?” After the affirmative response, the president said, “We’re going to do whatever Markiewicz says, so what’s the problem?”

Working in the shadows

Slam dunk. I was golden. Sometimes you must bend procedures or whatever to protect yourself and others. The operating company president put a muzzle on the corporate dogs. Years later he helped launch my consulting career with a contract for work among his global plants.

My covert behind-the-boss action reflected a professional reality: there exists an organizational version of Brad Pitt’s “Fight Club.” By fight club, I mean things done off-the-books, off-hours, away from ear-shot or in the shadows to achieve an objective, whatever that may mean; where obeying rules, conformance to ethics or even compliance with law are set aside.

The first rule of fight club is, “We don’t talk about fight club.”

Safety pros face fight club reality many times. A boss may suggest bending numbers to make a safety report look better; union reps may ask you to overlook an employee who violated a dischargeable safety rule; HR may tell you something in confidence; and most particularly, company lawyers may engage you in privileged and confidential information, that if leaked out, could severely damage the reputation of the business. What do you do?

Bonding through stress

Fight clubs form when people bond through highly stressful, dangerous or broke-all-the-rules activity. Mutual destruction of being demoted, fired or worse plants the seeds of loyalty. It’s a loyalty where gossip, secrets, and even products or services, are shared only within the club. Talk about the club and you’ll be out, perhaps never to be allowed back in again.

Fight club members take substantial risk in a covert manner to achieve an objective. Senior managers will generally not be members of the club – but they most likely know of the club’s existence. Establishing plausible deniability allows the club leeway to get things done and to self-police.

How does a safety pro know when they’ve passed the threshold into fight club covert activity?

Turning to someone you trust for advice is problematic. It breaks the first rule of the club. Your action also places the other party in an uncomfortable fight club choice, too. Trusted friends, or even your boss, sometimes must be kept out of the loop for their own protection.

Tons of ethics training and experience lead to the conclusion that you alone must make tough choices when rules are broken and you decide to be loyal, remain silent and perhaps be complicit in wrong-doing.

Fight clubs are wrong and they shouldn’t exist. But the relentless demand to beat competition or do whatever it takes to meet objectives ensures the longevity of these clubs – throughout business disciplines.

The higher you climb

The higher you climb in management, and the longer you remain in a career, the more likely you’ll be drawn into a club were secrets are closely held. What are those secrets? 

  • “Maintain the confidentiality of information acquired through professional practice that is designated or generally recognized as non-public, confidential, or privileged.”  —  ASSE’s Code of Professional Conduct
  • “Maintain and respect the confidentiality of sensitive information obtained in the course of professional activities unless: the information is reasonably understood to pertain to unlawful activity; a court or governmental agency lawfully directs the release of the information; the client or the employer expressly authorizes the release of specific information; or, the failure to release such information would likely result in death or serious harm to employees and/or the public.”  —  American Board of Industrial Hygiene’s Code of Ethics.

Is this guidance enough for you to hold fight club “secrets”? Everyone must make their own decision. I’d rather be in the club than out for six critical reasons:

  1. They’ll always exist.
  2. Burdensome growth of rules is reality. Some rules must be set aside when there’s an urgency to protect. Urgency is common in competitive business.
  3. Fight clubs shield their actions. Things may happen right beneath your nose and you’d never know it. Within the club, more things are visible. You’re in the loop.
  4. If someone trusts you (or fears you because of mutual destruction), they will likely support your recommendations for action.
  5. Senior management expects fight clubs will self-police their actions. You must be in the club to self-police. Self-policing often includes more risk-based, as opposed to compliance-based, best practices to prevent injury or illness.
  6. Actions are decided based on who’s the best influencer for a given situation. If you’re confident you can influence —  self-police —  then join the club. Secret influence properly exerted can lead to safer workplaces.