Acme's all wrong about company whistle-blowing

March 19, 2004
There's a fine line between whistle-blowing and just plain blowing it
Despite data from Washington, D.C., indicating the macroeconomy is improving, financial performance at the local Acme plant remains anemic at best. Typical of so many like-minded management teams, the only tool the keepers of the once-bright Acme flame elect to use for improving profitability is the simple expedient of massive layoffs, of which there have been four in as many years.

Workers still lucky enough to be included on Acme's ever-shrinking payroll have responded to the situation in their own ways. Some have chronic cases of survivor's guilt. Others have found religion and now toil diligently, noses closer to the grindstone, heads lower in the foxhole, cranking out work at a pace that for many of them is relatively feverish. Others have responded with a finely tuned sense of Acme fatalism, knowing that regardless of how well anyone performs, it's only a matter of time before they, too, will be marched to the chopping block, a process now most efficient owing, of course, to the skills HR has honed to a keen edge. A select few respond in other interesting ways.

Sitting at his desk, Lew Skannen, Acme's maintenance department foreman, just survived his fourth panic attack this week. He is appalled when he realizes it took five minutes of slow, deep breathing to hold it at bay this time. "I've got to do something, say something," he thinks, "or I'm going to lose it completely."

After taking another five minutes to get his thoughts together, Lew finally feels calm enough to walk down the hall to talk to his boss, Tom Ichbaum, plant engineer, about the problem that has been eating away at him for the past few days.

"Yes, Lew. What can I do for you?" Tom asks when Lew knocks on the frame of the open door.

"Something's been bothering me for a while," Lew replies, "and we really must do something about it before somebody gets hurt."

"What's that?" Tom asks, somewhat hesitantly.

"The new procedure production is using for entering confined spaces doesn't make sense," Lew states with certainty. "According to what I've found on the Internet, they're doing it wrong. Somebody is going to get hurt. Worker safety is the issue here. If someone gets hurt - or worse - we're going to be in big trouble. Acme will go bankrupt if we get sued," Lew pants as he starts hyperventilating again. "Then, everyone working here will go on public assistance. Some will lose their homes and ... "

Tom rolls his eyeballs back into his head as he sighs. "Lew, calm down," he says, somewhat patronizingly, "I think everything's going to be OK."

"No, it's not," Lew replies. "When I told the production manager to check the safety requirements, he just brushed me off. Something bad is going to happen. I just know it."

"Lew, the people who developed the procedure are pros," Tom says. "Nothing bad will happen."

"Yes, it will," Lew replies. "It doesn't matter if we get sued. There's no job security here. People get canned willy-nilly and nothing makes sense anymore. There are no other jobs in the area. I heard another round of layoffs will happen in early April, just before tax time."

"That's really a non-issue," Tom says. "Don't worry about things you can't change."

But Lew persists. "I want to believe in this company and its future," he says. "I'm a single parent and this job is the only thing keeping my life and my family together. I've got two teenagers, both pretty wild, and it has cost me a small fortune to get them out of that last scrape, a fortune I mostly had to gather by maxing out my credit cards. I've put everything I had in the Acme stock plan for the last 15 years, and it's all at risk if Acme goes south. I've got a vested interest in seeing that nothing bad happens to the company."

Tom thinks Lew has a rather undiversified portfolio. "Lew, nobody is going to get hurt. If you have money problems, talk to a financial planner. HR can connect you with someone who can help. Now, please, I've got work to do. Why don't you just go back to work, too."

As he is being hustled out of the office, Lew knows Tom isn't taking safety seriously enough. "Surely," he thinks, "Clay Figgereen, the plant manager, will share my concerns." As that exact moment, Lew knows just what he has to do.

Two days later, just before the weekly staff meeting is called to order, Clay, carrying a piece of paper, corners Tom and asks, "What do you make of this?"

Tom reads the memo, focusing on the part that accuses both Tom and the production manager of ignoring valid safety issues. "I can't believe Lew sent this to you," he replies. "Lew can find a disaster in an everyday event. Just as some people are really into science fiction, Lew is into his own personal brand of fiction. Not only do natural events spook him, he thinks the sky is falling in on the business world. The guy is a flake, a pessimistic flake."

"A flake or not, the charges he leveled, in writing, are pretty serious," snaps Clay in a most irritated manner. "I don't have to tell you that. But, I will say that you better get your department in shape damned soon, Tom, or I'm going to do it for you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand," Tom mumbles to the receding back of Clay's shirt.

By the time he returns to his office after the interminable and boring weekly meeting, Tom is exploding with nuclear rage. He grabs his phone and calls Lew in for a little conversation. Then he checks his voice mail and hears a message from someone at the OSHA office in the state capital who is inquiring about safety procedures at the Acme plant.

Could this situation have been avoided? Does Lew have a shot at any good outcome? How should he handle himself? How should Tom handle himself?

A corporate consultant says:

Let's begin by being clear that, at the moment, there is no "situation." At the moment, Acme is still in the prodromal state - still able to avoid a situation. However, if they fail to respond responsibly, and Lew is proved correct about the safety issues, Acme's employees will most certainly find themselves in a damage-control mode.

Tom's mistake was in failing to differentiate between Lew's two concerns: safety and finances. Tom diminished the possible veracity of Lew's safety concerns by imputing to them the same pessimism with which Lew viewed Acme's stability. Any safety concern expressed by anyone in any organization must be investigated - if for no other reason than to document due diligence.

Lew's mistake was in discussing his personal financial situation with his boss. Acme is not responsible for how Lew chooses to invest. Acme is not responsible for Lew's family issues; Acme is not a charity and, as such, cannot subordinate ROI to worker retention. Expressing to his boss his fears relevant to his personal situation was inappropriate and unwise. It diminished perceptions regarding his professionalism.

Based on Tom's reaction to Lew's safety concerns, it wasn't at all out of line for Lew to have sent a memo to Clay. How OSHA was alerted isn't clearly established in the case description, but even if Lew notified them, that step isn't out of line either.

Tom may be absolutely right in his assessment of Lew's pessimistic attitude; but he's absolutely wrong in his response to Lew's safety concerns. In becoming angry with and blaming Lew for Clay's indictment of him, Tom also reveals both a distressing degree of immaturity and seriously misplaced priorities. Clay's comments should have been a wake-up call for Tom. Of course Tom is embarrassed; but he, not Lew, is the causal factor for the embarrassment. Rather than managing based on his emotions, Tom needs to manage based on what's best for Acme.

Tom simply has no option but to suck it up and act aggressively to diagnose and, if necessary, remediate any unsafe conditions. Then, he needs to decide whether he's willing to commit to managing with self-discipline and maturity, or whether he'd be better off on a grade-school playground.

Francie Dalton

Dalton Alliances Inc.

(410) 715-0484

[email protected]

An academician says:

If Lew had some issues with safety he should have detailed where he thought the plant was not in compliance. One can't respond to vague accusations.

Tom should have taken the charges seriously. Instead of blowing off Lew, he should have pressed him to be more specific as to what the problems were. Given that information, Tom (or the plant safety officer) should have checked the validity of the complaints. If the complaints are justified, then corrections are in order. If they are not justified, then management should explain to Lew how the plant is in compliance.

This would have avoided a lot of subsequent problems and bad feelings; it would have ensured that safety measures were being observed; and it would have made an OSHA investigation unnecessary.

Prof. Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.

Loyola University Chicago

(312) 915-6682

[email protected]

An attorney says:

Employee safety is an issue that should never be compromised, minimized or, as appears to have happened at Acme, downsized. Acme's cost, should workers be injured or killed by the new procedure for entering confined spaces, will far outweigh the cost of revising the procedure to protect workers, to say nothing of the loss of human lives and livelihoods.

Lew Skannen did precisely what he should have done. He saw a problem and brought it to the attention of his boss. When Tom brushed him off, he acted like a good corporate soldier, climbed one rung higher on the corporate hierarchy and took the problem to Clay. The problem is that Clay dropped the ball. In all likelihood, Lew would not have found it necessary to contact OSHA if Clay had informed him that Tom had his marching orders to solve the problem. Clay's lack of communication caused Tom to believe that Acme would take no action to improve the confined space procedure.

While Tom's anger may be natural, he brought the problem on himself. As a member of management, he should have at least taken Lew's report seriously. He should have taken the responsibility to look into Lew's concerns. As it now stands, both Tom and Clay look as though they could not handle a problem that properly should fall into their laps. OSHA will not take the complaint lightly, and Acme will be forced to correct the problem in accordance with OSHA's timetable, a far less luxurious one than Acme might have adopted if left to its own devices.

Although Lew's conduct won't endear him to his boss, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) protects employees from retaliation by their employers for making a complaint to OSHA.

This entire scenario might have been avoided had Acme taken some proactive steps to improve plant safety. Plant safety committees, suggestion boxes, even contests and awards for safety suggestions are some procedures employers have in place to encourage employees to become actively involved in improving safety. Acme might want to turn over a new leaf and take steps to encourage employees to report safety issues or ways to improve employee safety rather than turning a deaf ear on the brave employee who comes forward with a safety issue.

Julie Badel, Partner

Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.

(312) 499-1418

[email protected]

Editor's Note: This "In the Trenches" story is created as a learning tool; the names of the companies and the people described here are fictional.

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