An Ethic for Dobbing In Safety
We saw this week an ex-Prime Minister of Australia (Tony Abbott) caught on camera at a public beach without a mask . He was fined $500 for breaking the law. Abbott then came out in the media and stated that:
- The law is interpreted and was wrong and
- That he didn’t think ‘dobbing’ was part of the Australian Psyche.
He then went on to argue that he lived in a ‘Health police state’.
Of course, Abbott is right but also wrong. However, this doesn’t really help explain why this infringement received media attention and others who infringe the same law do not. The critical element missing in this discourse is an ethic of power, the politics of power, symbolism of power and the perception of power. Power amplifies context and in this case, Abbott serves as an exemplar/symbol of conduct whether he is right or not.
The perception of an abuse of power is destructive to any culture.
When we ‘see’ double standards, favours and ‘turning a ‘blind eye’ for people with power, authority and governance, people lose interest in any propaganda about governance and followers drop off like flies.
Every time I conduct the MiProfile Survey (https://www.humandymensions.com/services-and-programs/miprofile/ ) incongruence in conduct, conditions and double standards in management always trigger skepticism in attending to issues related to safety. When people see ‘do as I say and not as I do’ then cynicism sets in and this usually erodes trust, community and mutuality in any community.
I remember doing a MiProfile Survey for a large construction company where the issue of alcohol eroded trust/mutuality and fermented political division across the company. If you want to destroy an ethic of risk quickly, just ferment an ‘us and them’ culture.
It was Christmas time and the rule was no alcohol on site yet the CEO of the company has a fridge stocked with the stuff. The workforce knew and had heard all the excuses about entertaining officials and clients etc. But whenever there is a rule exception with those in power, their example takes on symbolic value well beyond the power of their office. Safety devalues the importance of semiotics to its own peril (https://safetyrisk.net/semiotics-and-unconscious-communication-in-safety/ ).
This simple inconsistency eroded any message of care and concern the CEO spruiked about safety. There was also a case of unethical conduct with an Executive Assistant that was hushed up with a payout. Any lack of transparency also erodes trust. When anyone in management with power blows ethical credibility, people don’t follow. Without following there is no leadership (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/following-leading-risk/ ).
Nothing erodes safety better than a culture of cynicism, scepticism and ‘double speak’. I don’t care what paper systems you have in place, they are all for nothing when cynicism, distrust and skepticism rule the air waves. So, I wonder what happened on site with the alcohol issue? You bet, clandestine beers, alcohol in coffee containers, ‘breaky bongs’ outside the fence and a host of mechanisms of protest NOT against the issue but rather the BS of the CEO. When culture matters leaders know that 95% of leadership is managing perception. Managers just play with rules.
The way power is symbolized in any organization is critical for an ethic of risk. However, if you are looking for any discussion of this in the AIHS BoK on Ethics you won’t find it. Indeed, the short section on whistleblowing in the chapter is simplistic bordering on pathetic. There is no discussion on the nature of power, symbolism, perception, politics or ‘dobbing’ in the document. ‘Dobbing’ is a powerful word in Australian culture and conjures a negative symbol of the ‘wowser’- stooge (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-down-safety-wowserism-in-the-21st-century/ ) who doesn’t fit in. Abbott used the emotive language of ‘the snitch’ in his attack on being ‘dobbed’ in. He didn’t contest the fine.
We learn in Australia from an early age, the symbolism and distain for the ‘dobber’. Yet in safety the message of ‘speak up’ is framed against this cultural backdrop. ‘Dobbing’ is not as easy as ‘check your gut’! No one is going to ‘dob’ in his mate when he knows the company revels in double standards and double speak. Oh yes, ‘safety comes first’ unless the concrete is on the way and the site is 6 weeks behind program. Everyone know safety doesn’t come first and the use of such language most often erodes trust. Nothing erodes safety as successfully as selective safety. We believe in zero, except for when we ‘play’ with statistics.
The beginning in seeking to understand ethics is by clarifying the nature of power, politics and personhood. The AIHS BoK on Ethics discusses neither of these three vital issues. Indeed, the BoK chapter on ethics projects this simplistic idea that the safety advisor is objective, ‘check your gut’ and that the law by nature is ethical. What a dangerous discourse it throws at this industry that seeks to ‘speak up’ about risk (https://safetyrisk.net/speak-up-reporting-and-trust-in-safety/ ). Similar cultural pressures ensure that people don’t speak up about suicide, mental health of sexual abuse (https://safetyrisk.net/why-people-dont-speak-up-and-suicide/ ). When you speak nonsense to people (https://safetyrisk.net/believe-the-impossible-and-speak-nonsense-to-people/ ), it doesn’t matter what mental health or sex discrimination policies you have in place. Policy rarely if ever reflects ‘social contract’.
And if your definition of culture is ‘what we do around here’, systems or behaviorism, you are doomed to amplify the problem. These definitions of culture ensure the failure of initiatives, policy and the amplification/hiding of problems. Safety will never tackle the wicked problem of an ethic of risk with simplistic definitions of culture and ethics. Indeed, the simplistic discourse of ‘check your gut’ is dangerous and devalues the importance in defining power, politics and personhood in risk.
So, was it ‘right’ to ‘dob’ in Tony Abbott for not wearing a mask? Yes, because Abbott embodies a symbol of power. His political status as a symbol of authority serves as an exemplar to ensuring a civil society and, the message of exceptionalism destroys trust in public ‘community’ health. This event is not about the wearing of a mask but rather the perception and symbolism of power, politics and personhood. This is where the safety industry needs to begin its journey in ethics outside of the deontological ethic of the AIHS BoK.