Covering up mistakes sends the wrong signal

Dear Joan:
I have an ethical dilemma. I am the head of Quality Assurance for a small manufacturer. I've made it my business to develop good relations with most of the floor workers since I need their vigilance to do my job. Yesterday, one worker approached me.

Recently, in the early morning hours there was a fire caused by flammable solvent rags in one of the departments. The fire was put out. The department head swore his workers to secrecy. He did not tell his manager, who is our boss.

It is my belief that if the fire had been promptly reported and corrective actions taken perhaps a reprimand would have been given. Now I believe that the department head will probably be fired if the knowledge comes out. There are no visible traces of the fire.

Because I now know, I am involved in the cover up. I feel this is now a "What did you know and when did you know it?" How do you think this should be resolved? I have encouraged the individual who talked to me to come forward. If he doesn't, should I?

Until organizations drive out fear, we will continue to see situations like the one you describe. There is a lot of fear in most organizations and it usually shows up in the form of BLAME. Any time something goes wrong, top management wants to know who's at fault and managers look for a person to blame. The net result? Everyone learns to CYA. Problems are hidden, people lie and fingers point. And top management wonders why they hear less and less information the higher they climb.

Many organizations I work with to implement quality processes have discovered that their culture needs to change in order for continuous improvement to take place. For example, if managers preach problem solving, but then blame anyone who makes a mistake or identifies a problem, the quality process will stall. Management can spend millions of dollars on fancy training and flowery speakers but the words will fall on skeptical employees who know what really happens.

Organizations who "GET IT" are becoming "Learning Organizations." One of the things a Learning Organization does is to make it safe for people to bring their problems and mistakes out of the closet so they can be solved and prevented in the future. No more worried whispers in the hall. No more sarcastic jokes about all the corporate skeletons.

A Learning Organization assumes employees are adults who don't go around doing stupid things on purpose. (After all, if you blame someone aren't you implying they did it on purpose?) The organization treats its employees like intelligent people who thought they were doing the right thing with the information they had. If a mistake is made, the Learning Organization wants to learn from that mistake so it can prevent it from happening again. Employees learn + management learns = customers get a better product. The knowledge snowballs. That's continuous improvement.

In your case, the department head was afraid of his boss's reaction to the fire. Forcing his employees to an oath of silence has sent a chilling signal to everyone that problems must be hidden. If you or the employee "tell on" this manager, it could make the problem worse.

Consider approaching the department head yourself. Use a calm, straightforward style with no blame or accusations. Tell him your purpose in coming to him is to help create an environment in which quality can thrive. Your concern is that covering up mistakes sends the wrong signal. Ask him why he's so worried about your boss finding out about the fire.

Help him think the through the pros and cons of what to do. Suggest that if the boss finds out about the forced cover it up, he would look very bad. Even if the boss never finds out, ask him to consider the message it sends to the employees. On the other hand, if he simply tells his boss there was a fire and shows him an action plan that is being implemented to prevent future fires, the situation may be resolved. Help him see the powerful message he could send if he tells his employees that the cover-up was a mistake and he told his boss about the fire himself. He has an opportunity to begin shaping a new culture. Think of what will be learned.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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