What To Do When a Colleague Cuts a Corner

He’s a personal friend. She’s a longtime co-worker. You’ve seen them playing fast and loose with work rules or government regulations. What do you do now?

While on orientation for a job with an electric utility, I spent time in the field watching crews do various work. Once, my escort (a supervisor) and I encountered two laborers in a trench about 8 feet deep; along one side of it on the surface the sod was cracking.

The supervisor clearly should have written the men up for working in such a trench without shoring, a violation of company (and OSHA) rules. At the bare minimum, he should have ordered them out of the trench — after all, a cave-in could have killed them. Instead, he basically shook his head in disgust and we moved on.

My point here isn’t about safety, although in this instance that was an essential concern. Instead, my point is to raise a question: What responsibility does a supervisor or any team member have upon seeing a colleague violate a work rule, break a law or cut a corner in some way? I raise this because from time to time we unfortunately read news of a water or wastewater operator being prosecuted for violations.

Clearly a minority

As in any profession you care to name, the vast majority of operators in the water sector are competent, conscientious and honest. Of course, a scant few are not. But then misconduct on the job generally stops well short of criminality. What sorts of misbehavior call for confronting a person directly? Or reporting him or her to a superior?

To illustrate, there’s the hypothetical question: If your best friend robbed a bank, would you turn him in? Most of us likely would — who needs such a “friend” anyway? But have you ever looked the other way when a good friend got in a car to drive home drunk? Not that you should have called the police, but you could have offered a ride or to call a cab.

Now let’s look at the work world. Assume that you are a rank-and-file operator, not a supervisor or manager. Where would you draw the line on making some kind of statement or taking action when you observe someone doing something that is clearly outside the rules?

Suppose a colleague is working bare-headed in a hard hat area or without eye protection on a task that clearly warrants it? Do you let it slide? Or do you say something? And if you say something, what if the person shrugs it off and keeps working? Do you tell a supervisor? On one hand, she’s putting herself at risk and you don’t want to see her injured. On the other, it’s a small job, she’ll be done in a few minutes and you don’t want to be a snitch.

Now suppose you see a colleague in the lab entering results from some tests he didn’t perform. The plant has been running perfectly for days. It’s Friday afternoon and you know he wants to leave on time to start a vacation. On one hand, what’s the difference? Most likely the real results would be just like yesterday’s. What’s the harm, just this once? On the other, he’s breaking the law and risking his livelihood if discovered. Do you confront him? Report him?

What are your thoughts?

Have you ever encountered situations at all similar to these? Maybe not, but in the event you did someday, how would you respond? You’re invited to share your perspectives. Send me a note to editor@tpomag.com. I promise to respond, and we’ll publish selected comments in a future issue of TPO.

Now let’s turn the hypotheticals back onto me. I’m on an  orientation tour with a supervisor who ignores the fact two guys are violating OSHA rules. On one hand, I’m brand-new and don’t need to earn an instant reputation as a troublemaker. And surely those two guys, veteran laborers, know their jobs better than I do. On the other hand, the guys were putting their lives at risk.

What should I have done? Report the laborers? Report the supervisor to his superior? Report them all using the anonymous company hotline? Say nothing and forget it? What do you think I did?


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