In 2008, a hazardous waste situation occurred at a high school on Long Island, New York. According to one journalist’s sources, potentially harmful substances had been oozing and bubbling up through science classroom drains for up to two years. A teacher inquired about the safety of the situation, but the inquiry was reportedly ignored until a brave whistleblower reported it outside the school.
At the time of this writing, school administrators are still addressing the harm that might have occurred during the inaction. There is expected to be an expensive clean-up that requires significant time, money, and effort.
What Happened to Safety First?
Organizational leaders frequently operate in fear and later cause themselves greater harm than if they had confronted the situation immediately. I am probably as surprised as you are by the failure to act. It seems rather obvious that failure to respond to a potential toxic waste leak could create a more hazardous situation for the people and property around the substances. Yet I recognize I don’t know the full story. I will reserve judgment to those better qualified.
Regardless, we can all learn from the mistakes of the school’s administrators.
- Take your employee concerns seriously—all of them. I am not suggesting that you accommodate every request, but be able to explain your reasons (even as the boss) for taking actions or having the policies that you do.
- Be proactive. Many decisions are made as a reaction to damage that has already occurred. It’s almost always more effective and less expensive to look regularly for harmful conditions.
- Review complaints de novo, or as if you’ve never heard anything like it before. Every situation is unique and must be addressed as if it has never happened before. It hasn’t. The situation might look just like what happened to an elementary school in Niagara Falls or to someone your employee told you about. But it’s absolutely impossible that the exact same event occurred at a different time, in a different place, with different people, and different circumstances.
Keep your mind open. Do not make assumptions. Listen and investigate fully. Communicate your action with specificity, not only to assure your employees their concerns are being addressed, but also so you have greater clarity and confidence. Clear and confident leaders are readily followed.