Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part article on ethics. Part two will be published in the October “Systems Thinking” column.

Well, it’s that time of the year again to take the company’s ethics course. Over the course of my career, I have sat through a number of ethics courses, some of which were excruciatingly boring, not to mention as painful as sticking a dull knife in your eye. Too often organizations establish a requirement that everyone has to go through ethics training, not unlike sexual harassment training, in order to check a box on a form to naïvely assume everyone is going to behave accordingly.

 “Ethics” is a nebulous topic; truly different in definition from one person to another.  What may be unethical to you might be completely ethical to me. Throw into the mix the social culture of an individual’s homeland, even within the United States, and things get muddled quickly.

Do you think “Ethics” can be taught? 

Personally, I do not believe it can. Simply stated, “Ethics” is all about the difference between right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, legal vs. illegal, right vs. right.1,2  The big BUT in all this is that Ethics comes out in the differing views people hold about a variety of topics. And part of these diverse views comes from how parents raised their kids.

As a safety or industrial hygiene professional, if you encounter what you believed to be an unethical situation, what are you going to do? 

The well-worn moral compass

How often do you think you make ethical decisions? Once per week, twice per month, never…? 

Surprisingly, we make ethical decisions more often than we think; we just don’t conscientiously categorize these decisions as ethical. Most of us make these decisions using our well-established moral compass.

Most of you have probably never personally encountered an unethical safety or health situation in your entire career. All of us have read or heard about so-called ethical lapses in various occupations and industries, but in most of these cases, the lapse crossed the line into criminal behavior. Once an individual or group of individuals has reached this tipping point, you have to wonder if they had any ethics in the first place.

According to research by Professor Marianne Jennings, ethically collapsed companies exhibit a consistent pattern of seven warning signs:3

1. Pressure to maintain numbers

2. Fear and silence

3. Young ’uns and a bigger-than-life CEO

4. Weak board

5. Conflicts

6. Innovation like no other

7. Goodness in some areas atoning for evil in others

In the safety and health fields, I believe Professor Jennings’ warning signs can help anticipate an incident, hopefully, before it happens. Here are some warning signs and suggested preventative measures to consider (i.e., antidotes) in a safety context.

Maintain those numbers

Gee, where have I heard this before?  Way too many corporate leaders remain fixated on their safety stats, rewarding their staffs for keeping pressure on the numbers. Couple this with intense pressure on delivering business metrics and you have a recipe for ethical safety missteps that could lead to accidents.

Antidotes to numbers pressure 4

1. Surround safety goal achievement in a square box of values. Avoid signaling the organization to achieve the numbers at any cost to include cutting safety corners. 

2. Fire those who cross the value lines established by those setting the safety expectations.

3. Watch the nonverbal and nuanced communication and signals. As a leader, define and communicate your values. Don’t leave gray areas for interpretation.

4. Encourage employees to take a time-out if they are not sure of a decision or action, even if they cannot explain why they feel unsure.

Fear and silence

Does your organization’s culture arouse a sense of fear in you? Have you or a colleague been intimidated by a supervisor for raising an issue that could potentially lead to an incident, or a commitment to spend money to prevent an incident? Did the supervisor rationalize with… “Hey, that’s no big deal!”? Have you reached the depressing point where you do not raise issues to management because you fear your job will be flatlined or, worse yet, you will be fired? Do you need to ask what kind of mood your boss is in before meeting with him or her? Answers to these questions are the warning signs to a culture of fear and silence.

Antidotes to fear and silence 5

1. Give employees the space and means to speak up, even if it is anonymously. In today’s tense financial times, employees will not naturally raise issues on any subjects unless they believe they will be heard and something will be done about their concerns without retaliation.

2. Don’t fire, flatline, transfer, reassign, trample, muck up or malign employees for speaking up. Clearly state what should be reported and how to go about it. Ensure employees will be protected for speaking up. Watch for signs of silence. How open are people when you conduct an incident investigation? Vague answers could signal a deeper underlying problem.

3. Recognize and reward employees for speaking up. Include an ethics component in annual performance reviews with meaningful monetary recognition (10%). Require employees to give at least one example during the past year when they were forthright with a customer, supplier or fellow employee.

4. Tell employees bad news happens and to not withhold information. Bad news gets worse with time. Think Penn State football.

5. Communicate and demonstrate to employees that you trust their insight and wisdom and that you count on them. In these tense times, employees will not intentionally fall on their own bayonet.

Young ‘uns and a bigger-than-life CEO

Professor Jennings’ take on “young ’uns” has to do with young high-flyers or family members with whom iconic CEOs tend to surround themselves on sycophantic management teams. Most safety and health professionals don’t become members of a CEO’s sycophantic management team, but they certainly have the insight to recognize such members. I agree with Professor Jennings’ “young ’uns” label, but would add these iconic CEOs are not age discriminators. Being a sycophantic (i.e., suck up) is not limited to youth and inexperience.

Antidotes to young ‘uns and a bigger-than-life CEO6

1. If an iconic CEO is hired, research his/her background. Connect with safety and health professionals in his/her previous company and ask questions regarding attitude toward safety and health.

2. Monitor whom the new iconic CEO hires, fires, and who replaces them. Again, research the replacement’s previous employer and their perspectives on safety and health.

3. Mold and shape young ’uns and old ’uns. Learn who is being groomed to move up in the organization. If opportunity knocks, you can present safety and health as making good business sense versus using a compliance mindset.


Note: Next month’s column covers the ethical issues of weak boards, conflicts, innovation like no other, and goodness in some areas atoning for evil in others.



1  Leemann, J.E. Twisted leadership ethics. In ISHN. June 2010.

2  Leemann, J.E. “Right vs. wrong” or is it “Right vs. right?” In ISHN. July 2010.

3  Jennings, M.M. The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse – How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies…Before It’s Too Late. St. Martin Press. New York, NY.

4  Ibid. pp. 58.

5  Ibid. pp. 97.

6  Ibid. pp. 136.