I questioned a few of my fellow industrial hygienists and found that most say you can keep your 15 minutes of fame, thank you.
The problem is that when the spotlight hits an industrial hygienist, it usually is instigated by the discovery of bad news. The most common reason IHs want to avoid being the center of attention is that many managers today still have the 'let's shoot the messenger' attitude.
Another fear or frustration that comes with having to deal with bad news is political posturing. Various people in or outside the company will maneuver to lessen their blame or to gain some advantage from the situation.
But as we have observed during the O.J. Simpson trial, sometimes a technical person cannot avoid having their work and opinions thrust into the limelight and scrutinized by others. If you're in a situation where all eyes are upon you, and people are waiting for your comments and recommendations, how can you help ensure that your stock will rise--not fall--when the crisis is finally resolved?
Ethics firstWe've said it in this column many times before: Do not underestimate the value of a "Code of Ethics." Sure, we all feel that we are ethical- most of the time. But when you're the focal point of a significant and often urgent problem, there will be pressure for you to lean one way or the other. Which way will you go?
What if the boss of your boss wants a particular IH problem handled differently than how you feel it should be resolved? Do you cave in or stand your ground? Sometimes it's a tough call. Adhering to a good code of ethics, like the one recently revised and agreed upon by three major industrial hygiene groups can lead you down a consistent, and almost always proper, path.
Document, document, documentI was really surprised to hear the extent of actions taken by some industrial hygienists to closely document problem situations that they are involved with. Not only was this recommendation strongly endorsed, but some industrial hygienists have gone as far as making duplicate copies for a home or "Pearl Harbor" file. Why? Clearly there is concern for possible personal liability, plus the need to show and defend why a certain course of action was taken. Interestingly, some of the documentation even included quotes and commands that the IH heard or received from other people.
Know thy bossIf you're out on a limb, is your boss standing there with a saw or a net? Bosses don't come in just one flavor. Some will back and protect you all the way. Others may care less what happens to you. They may even be happy that you got shot down.
Try and visualize what your boss would do if everyone is watching and listening to everything you say or do. Is he/she supporting your recommendations and defending you against undo criticism? Beside your boss, how do you think your fellow co-workers or other people will respond?
Remember, how people will act and respond toward you during problem situations is greatly shaped by how they have perceived you all along. So if you feel that some people may not support you enough in your time of need, fix that concern now- not later. Certainly make sure that everyone knows you are very technically competent. If they don't trust your work, they probably won't fully trust your recommendations, either.
Plan and rehearseMost companies have emergency action plans, crisis management plans, disaster plans, and even plans for dealing with an unfriendly media. Take these plans one step further and establish a "personal action plan."
Consider what actions are best for you to take in problem situations. It's better to plan ahead when your thoughts are clear and time is an ally, not a foe.
Next, rehearse your plan. This isn't going too far if you want to fare well when your "prime time" moment comes. Speaking of taking center stage, you'll need a bit of the actor in you to play certain roles. Can you make your words and body language portray confidence, courage, and conviction- in pressure cooker situations? If not, rehearsal will help. Even if you think you're already good, rehearsal can make you better.
Step off stageThere are several things you can do to keep yourself out of the spotlight, at least to a degree. First, it's not unusual for a trained spokesperson to translate your findings, comments, and recommendations so they are more readily understood by various individuals or groups. For instance, a human resources professional could act as your spokesperson to employees; a lawyer could explain your point of view to regulators; an MBA type person could talk with senior executives or accountants; and a media relations professional could talk with the press.
Many times your boss will take on one or all of these roles. But you'll still need to be on top of your game, ready to respond quickly and confidently. Plus, in smaller firms you might not have access to these specialized personnel.
I believe most industrial hygienists are up to the challenge of being thrust into the limelight. When it happens- and it can happen almost every week- I think IHs can prove they are more than just highly technical professionals. Dealing with a bad experience can be your chance to show that you're deserving of more responsibility and growth within your company. Who knows what being on center stage will do for some IHs? It did wonders for Kato.