Accountability vs. Guilt

While discussing oil rig disaster in the Golf Of Mexico the other day a friend exclaimed “Someone needs to go to jail for this!”

While I understand his anger about the massive economic and environmental damage involved, his comment illustrates the assumption we so often make about any problem. If it is big enough, then someone needs to be punished proportionately. That isn’t always the case.

Of course, we will have the “perp walk” in congress. I’m sure the executives of British Petroleum will be called to grovel in front of a Congressional subcommittee. Like the CEOs of Toyota, GM and Goldman Sachs, they will be chastised for allowing something so terrible to happen. But that doesn’t mean it’s any one’s fault.

Drilling is a dangerous activity. The gas pressure bubble that blew through the rig is a normal occurrence in that business. Blowout preventers are installed for just such events. They may have been defective, or installed incorrectly, but there are also a bunch of reasons why they could have failed even if everything was done right.

There are a lot of business owners who suffer from the same misconception- that because someone is accountable for a problem, that means they are guilty. An employee makes a poor decision that costs you a lot of money. You are understandably angry, and your first instinct is to punish him for being so stupid.

There are many reasons for making the wrong decision. If it is due to lack of training, lack of information, lack of checks, or lack of systems the employee could be accountable without being guilty. If it is due to lack of attention, or lack of care, then perhaps there should be penalties involved. Your anger shouldn’t result in punishment merely because you are in a position of power.

I know two business owners who have a lot of trouble with small tools. They are expensive, and disappear regularly. One punishes employees by having them sign a statement of responsibility, and docking their paycheck for every tool that has to be replaced. He accepts no excuses. The employees bring back broken tools for examination, and to get a sign-off exempting them from financial responsibility. They point fingers (” I lent it to Bob.”) They work without the necessary tools, hiding the fact that they are under-equipped to do the job right.

The other employer has a monthly amount set aside for each employee’s typical tool replacement. If at the end of the month the employee needs less than the budgeted allocation for missing or broken tools, the balance of the replacement budget is his to keep.

Which employer do you think has a lower tool replacement cost? One is teaching accountability, the other is punishing behavior. One has a crew that is always fully equipped. The other has employees spending time and energy hiding the problem.

The next time an employee causes you a problem, look forward, not backwards. The better solution is to determine how the problem can be avoided in the future. There is little point, and no profit, in punishing the past.

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