Some lessons are easier to figure out than others. The obvious lesson of the recent scandal that earned the owner of the L.A. Clippers a lifetime ban from the NBA is don’t be a racist.
But there are other lessons that are a little harder to draw from the incident and have a lot more to do with safety. There was a good article posted on Entrepreneur Magazine’s website called What Donald Sterling’s NBA Blowup Teaches Entrepreneurs that has a couple of valuable messages for safety professionals.
1. You are what your track record says you are – Generally when a situation blows up, there is some willingness to wait and see what the facts are before jumping to conclusions, but it took no time at all for the people who know Donald Sterling to make up their mind about his comments and what they said about him. That is because they judged him on his track record, which from the sounds of it was pretty awful.
Now let’s look at a safety accident within a company. If the track record says that the company cares about the safety of its workers, there is a willingness by workers, regulators or the public to look at the incident as an isolated incident. Does it represent a systemic problem or was it an unfortunate, but uncharacteristic accident? Do employees work cooperatively with management to prevent the accident from happening again or does it do lasting harm to the company’s image?
In the world of safety, just as in the world of PR, you have a very short window to affect the way your “story gets told.” Building up good will is your best protection.
2. Your mic is always on – The Clippers’ owner found that out quite literally. While very few safety professionals will find themselves having their private comments recorded, the message here is that they need to live as if they might be. A better way to say it is, safety managers live in a fishbowl. In fact, what you say is even less important than what you do. You may run the best safety meetings in the world and your written policies may be perfect, but if you ever walk through the worksite and ignore the PPE rules, you just undid all of your work.
We don’t have the luxury of getting to decide when people are watching us or when we are being judged. We are always on stage. Politicians know it. Managers know it. Safety professionals need to know it. You have to assume Donald Sterling knows it now.