Shredding Unsafe Acts

If I say Tyco, WorldCom, Enron and Author Anderson, what do you think? Fraud? Stealing? Deceit? Valueless? Scandal? Bankruptcy?

By Matt Forck

If I say Tyco, WorldCom, Enron and Author Anderson, what do you think? Fraud? Stealing? Deceit? Valueless? Scandal? Bankruptcy? All of the above are correct. In real dollars, it is conservatively estimated that the acts of these four companies, primarily their CEOs and senior leadership, cost the U.S. economy more than $300 billion. While employees of these companies lost most if not all of their retirement savings, anyone who had holdings in the New York Stock Exchange felt the impact.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic—the world-wide leader in medical products such as pacemakers and deliberators—has tried to set the record straight in his recent book, entitled Authentic Leadership. He contends that it is values—or lack thereof—over time that will make or break a company.

Speaking of declining values, for 50 years Author Anderson was a values based company. It did not suddenly go from being values based to shredding documents in a dark basement conference room. Instead, it one day compromised its values just a little—and "with good reason" to get something done. A few months later, it again bent its values to meet job pressures. Shortly thereafter, it invented creative accounting to meet an earnings per share estimate. It all seemed okay at the time, but the company gradually weakened its values and made repeating these decisions and making worse decisions easier. And one day, shredding documents seemed like the next okay thing to do.

In safety, it's no different. We seldom go bankrupt—get hurt—with one at-risk act. Instead, we slowly melt our values away, first with one act justified by stating: "Let's get something done."' We later bend a safety rule for a "good reason"—probably to get something done. What started as cutting one small corner leads to the bending of another rule, then another. In time, our safety values change and one day we are doing the safety equivalent of shredding documents, and, like Author Anderson, it seems okay.

With few exceptions, CEOs are good people—just as the document shredders at Author Anderson were good people. When we compromise values, however, over time shortcuts seem okay.

A long-standing utility industry safety leader has four guiding principles. They are four simple lines to live by: Lead by example—know your safety rules; never compromise safety; demand help if you are unsure; and you are accountable for your safety—and that of your brother or sister. I guarantee, and former Medtronic CEO Bill George would concur, that if you take these to the bank you will always meet your earnings per share quota—and be safe to enjoy the better things in life.

About the author: Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, leads safety conferences, seminars and keynote presentations on safety's most urgent topics including leadership, accountability and cultural change. A noted speaker, Matt is a former journey line worker and member of a utility safety staff. Matt also has published six books and dozens of articles. Contact Matt and learn about free resources, or inquire about having Matt speak at your next event at

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