Empowering Employees to Prevent Disaster

Could BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill been prevented if workers on the oil rig had felt more empowered to report problems? That's a question raised by Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, in an interesting column recently published by Bloomberg Businessweek.

In his Bloomberg Businessweek column, Wartzman quotes an MIT Sloan Management Review article by John Shook, "How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI," on the topic of allowing workers to stop production when they see problems. Wartzman then goes on to conclude:

"Why didn't anyone on the Deepwater Horizon rig intervene before it was too late? Based on the evidence that has emerged so far, it appears that some may have tried to sound the alarm, but higher-ups disregarded them. In other cases, it seems that BP and Transocean workers felt themselves under tremendous pressure to save time and money, despite claims by the companies that safety always comes first. Some have even suggested they were afraid they could lose their jobs for making a stink..."

If Wartzman is right that there's a connection between job insecurity, pressure to cut costs, and employee unwillingness to speak up about risks and problems in the workplace, that doesn't bode well for reducing risky workplace conditions  -- in all kinds of organizations -- during a period of high unemployment and corporate cost-cutting.

3 Comments On: Empowering Employees to Prevent Disaster

  • Milan Moravec | August 17, 2010

    The tyranny of employee loyalty to management.Business organizations are into a phase of creative disassembly where constant reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by BP, Chevron, Sam’s Club, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks etc. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley under the leadership of Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers. Estimates are that the State of .
    Yet many employees cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.
    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised job security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employeer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and careers, even if they want to.
    Organizations that paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ are now forced to break the implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.
    Jettisoned employees are finding that the hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.
    What kind of a contract can BP and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job is a shared situation. BP and employees face financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well BP continues to meet the needs of constituencies. Neither BP nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.
    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor. Employee loyalty to management needs to die at BP. BP neesa a Rx for employee loyalty reform.

  • Anne O’Connor | September 21, 2011

    @Milan, I’d say that here in the UK the employer/ employee loyalty phenomenon has all but died out over the last 20 years or so. I think that the ferocious ambition of the UK to be a big player on the political and economic scene (can’t separate the two) was the main reason for this. Government abandoned the unions and workers rights and courted the banking sector and arms manufacture as the future of the UK. Once GB had a steel and coal industry, we were manufacturers. All that went, almost overnight.

    Just as the US has a myth called “The American Dream” we had a myth called “A Job for Life”. By the way I’m not defending the unions, here, they acted really badly in the 70s and 80s.

    What’s developed out of that sense of betrayal and disappointment is the cynical culture of, get a job, get as much training as possible and then get out and go somewhere that pays more/ has better benefits etc.

    So, I guess I’m saying that the loyalty issue cuts both ways. It’s sad and helps no-one

    Anne O’Connor
    UK

  • info | April 1, 2012

    I Think the old adage “human nature” is appropriate, clearly the studies showing staff habits when the manager or director is present as opposed when not present changes significantly, as with this Rena container ship disaster in NZ, the captain allowed the crew to play whilst they should have been working (calling strippers/escorts on their iPhone’s) showed his desire to take advantage of the fact that they had just dropped a senior technical advisor off at the previous port (clearly the man who was responsible), hence while the cats away the mice will play, now our beach is polluted by the oil spill!

    Dion Mohi
    NZ

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