Sanctimony Doesn’t Suit You: The High Moral Ground and Safety
“maybe if we stopped distancing ourselves from Operations we can actually get things done, and contribute something of substance”
Last week I wrapped up my 2012 speaking engagements with a guest lecture at Tulane University, in New Orleans, LA. The participants were soon to graduate Master’s degree candidates and my message: Going Out of Business: Why Organizations Should Dismantle the Safety Function. I admit, my topic was not what anyone would describe as comforting, especially to those just entering the safety profession. I chose the topic after being asked to be “even for you, over-the-top controversial”. I guess that is the niche I have carved out for myself, so I won’t whine about it, or even pretend that I don’t deliberately provoke people; if people aren’t having something of a visceral response to my message then what I am saying is probably not worth the effort it takes to listen. I am not in the business of telling people what they want to hear.
The audience reacted about like you would expect. Some agreed that there were problems in the safety function, and if they safety professionals can’t find a way to stop bickering and wasting resources and support the goals of Operations instead, there is little hope for the future of the Safety Function. Others, clucked tongues chuffed at the discomfort they felt at being called out. But one or two, reacted in outrage. How dare I suggest that the primary value to safety is not in saving lives, but in saving money. The mood got ugly, and no matter how adamantly I argued that companies are not in the business of saving lives, the louder the argument that safety professionals save lives and my ethics and morality were openly questioned.
Here is the problem with “safety is the right thing to do” rhetoric. When a self-righteous safety professional rides into the C-suite on his high-white horse and tells the executives that supporting safety is a moral imperative, they are actually announcing their own moral superiority. “I am good and you are evil”. You don’t get very far telling people in power that they are stupid, evil, amoral turd. When we tell others that safety is the right thing to do, we imply that a) they don’t know right from wrong unless we tell them, b) they are naturally inclined to do the wrong thing and c) we stand before them as judge and moral superior.
These kinds of tactics don’t work. And when I explained to the student that while executives are generally open to ways to make their organizations more effective, raise profits, and better corporate citizens, no one likes a lecture from a barking rat. Unswayed, the student countered that safety isn’t about money, it’s about saving lives. I told him that if he wanted to save lives he should have been an emergency room doctor. I explained that while safety professionals save countless lives, that’s not what companies pay us for. And if he wanted to give sermons he should have been a minister. It wasn’t the kindest advice, but maybe if we stopped distancing ourselves from Operations we can actually get things done, and contribute something of substance.
The sanctimonious safety professionals are dangerous to our beleaguered livelihood. They make us all look like ridiculous whining fools and fanatics; worrisome old women that aren’t to be taken serious. All it takes is a few fanatics and we will all be tarred with the same brush. The world needn’t take us serious, because there is no arguing with a psychotic fanatic. Fanatics don’t look for solutions, they have right and goodness on their sides so compromise is more than just impossible it’s blasphemous. To disagree with them is to disagree with God, and while they may agree to disagree with us, our seeming disagreement with the divine cannot be tolerated or forgiven. You won’t find middle ground with the fanatic, only reaction.
I don’t think I changed any minds in my speech, but that wasn’t really my intent. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I do hope that I reach one or two open minds who will at least think about what I have to say.