Category Archives: crisis management

Thoughts on PSU as Paterno is Laid to Rest

There are so many thoughts and feelings swirling in me as mourners gather for Joe Paterno’s funeral in State College, Pa., today. One is my wish that I could be there with my son, a recent main campus mechanical engineering graduate. It just wasn’t realistic, considering both our jobs. (He’s now an engineer for a Philadelphia firm — a job I am enormously proud of, for him; a job I am — and I’m sure he is — eternally grateful to Penn State University for.)

I’m also thinking of the culture I knew as a visiting parent, the tugs at my heart looking at a picture like this one, of the Old Main building, thinking of the many trips my son must have taken up and down those steps. No doubt the trips Joe Pa must have taken, too, in his 62 years there.

I’m thinking of the family weekends we attended at my son’s fraternity, the spirit and enthusiasm in the air about promising futures and convictions and pride, the life-size cutout of Joe Pa I remember standing alongside us on at least one of those occasions.

My heart aches for every one of those graduates, every one of their parents, every one of those victims at the heart of the scandal now hanging over the campus, every member of the Paterno family and even every trustee who had to wrestle with whether he or she would or should attend today’s ceremony.

Did Paterno’s firing hasten his death? Probably. Was his termination handled the way it should have been? I don’t believe it was. Was Paterno blameless in all this? Of course not. Erring through omission, not commission, is erring nonetheless.

But I hope, for Penn State’s sake, that the already-controversial investigation now under way into how the crisis was handled takes a long, hard look at the culture Paterno was part of and the system he said he was trying to protect by handing the information over to his next-in-charge. Merrie Spaeth, head of Spaeth Communications Inc., recently addressed the importance of PSU’s culture in this piece written after the scandal erupted. In it, she offers some lessons learned that every organization should take to heart from this tragedy — not the simple ones, like having tighter policies for child-abuse or sexual-harassment reporting in place, but the much deeper ones, like, “What are the unspoken barriers or constraints that affect how we process information and how we act?”

I hope investigators will consider the thinking of someone like behavioral-science expert Darnell Lattal, who talks in this piece about the much-bigger factors than one man’s omission or commission when an organization goes through an ethical breakdown the size and scope of Penn State’s. “Decisions are [often] determined by a phenomenon that Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer call the ‘sunk cost effect,’ ” Darnell writes, “meaning that people are often more influenced by what they have already invested than by factors that should determine the appropriate action.” I think we can all agree there was an element of that going on when certain people chose to go only so far, or to not go at all.

Clearly, Penn State will never be the same. Songwriter Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” keeps playing in my head. I just hope, and pray, that the entire world that is Penn State — investigators, new leaders and all — can tread carefully and objectively into this next chapter with a vision for a Happier Valley that doesn’t kill the spirit and the legend and the pride any more than those three entities have already been killed.

The Workplace Subject That Dare Not Speak Its Name

With thousands of business books published annually, it would seem that just about every workplace-related topic has been thoroughly exhausted–many times over–by the armies of experts who churn out these things. Not so. For there’s a workplace activity that few dare to speak about but millions engage in every day: Going to the bathroom at work.

Now, thank goodness, two Brits (but of course) have ridden to the rescue: How to Poo at Work is a soon-to-be-published guide on how to avoid flushing one’s career away through inadvertant breaches of bathroom etiquette. Seriously, this is an actual book, to be published this December by the Penguin Group, complete with charts, diagrams and bullet points. Topics covered include what to do if you’re on your way (urgently) to the restroom and your boss stops you in the hallway to engage in a long-winded discussion about his dog or family, the importance of avoiding eye contact in the restroom, how to deal with the fact that the bathroom is immediately adjacent to the office gossip’s desk, etc.

The book (whose authors are “Mats” and “Enzo” and who, according to the press release, “live and poop in France”) is clearly humorous, but there’s practical career advice lurking within as well. After all, who hasn’t had to excuse themselves in the midst of an important presentation to attend to some necessary bodily function? Does your company’s intranet have an advice section on topics such as this? I’m guessing not! Think of all the talent in your organization desparately straining to find advice on, say, what to do when they discover their stall is out of toilet paper … looking them in the eye, handing them a copy of How to Poo at Work and muttering “You’ll thank me later” just may land HR in that coveted seat at the table … or not.


No Way to Spot Killers in the Workplace

[UPDATE: Since Kris Frasch posted this item below, HREOnline (TM) did decide to write about the beer-distributor-shooting incident — focusing on the importance of compassion in termination/layoff discussions and the need for zero-tolerance policies for discrimination. To see that piece, click on the link above.] 


We purposely did not follow last week’s beer-distributor-shooting tragedy near Hartford, Conn., that left nine dead, including the disgruntled gunman.  We talked about it the next day, and at our more recent news meeting, but determined — rightly, I think — that there was nothing much we could add to all the workplace-violence stories we’d followed in the past. It would be the same list of precautionary steps HR should take when laying off or terminating (or in this latest case, even reprimanding) employees. It’d be the same list of states where guns are prohibted on worksites, and where they’re not. It’d be the same list of behaviors and character changes that should set off red flags for HR and managers that someone’s about to blow. In the end, it’d be a classic case of SOS — same old story.

But this blog posting on Workplace Violence News of an article by Philadelphia Inquirer legal columnist Chris Mondics really caught my eye this morning. I’m not sure I’ve read anything — at least not lately — that spells out this clearly the futility of thinking you can really spot these workplace powderkegs before they explode. As Mondics puts it, “Identifying the one-in-a-million person on the verge of committing mass murder is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.”

Indeed, the Connecticut killer, it turns out, had been viewed by some of his acquaintances and co-workers as a “terrific guy,” he writes. Hardly the silent, brooding recluse most of the precautionary literature warns against.

This has to be so incredibly difficult for employers — especially HR professionals, trained and encouraged to remain calm, compassionate and professional when delivering bad news, yet accutely aware that what they’re delivering could set off a killer. How do you straddle professionalism and possible paranoia at the same time?

Especially, as Mondics indicates, when protective measures don’t really protect much at all?

The Human Side of BP and Other Disasters

With the latest news from the Gulf of Mexico suggesting an end to BP’s horrific leak may be in sight, and with the follow-up stories on the recent Duck Boat disaster in Philadelphia fading from view, I propose we take a little time to reflect on the human factors behind the crises and even, perhaps, some take-aways for HR.

Consider this recent write-up from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Actually, it’s a joint write-up by Cliff Boutelle, SIOP’s head of information, and Rhona Flin, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Aberdeen’s Industrial Psychology Research Center.

Call Flin the guru of decision-makers’ competence and abilities during catastrophes, if you will. She’s been researching North Sea offshore oil safety since 1987, a year before the Piper Alpha oil platform fire and explosion in Great Britain left 167 people dead. In her studies, including of Piper Alpha, she finds common threads that led to problems because of incident commanders’ inabilities to immediately assess and be aware of developing situations.

Mind you, this write-up casts no aspersions about what went wrong or who did what on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig or the Duck Boat, or the barge that hit it. But who hasn’t wondered, knowing something had to be tied to someone, somewhere? Read what Flin says about how faulty the assessment and training is, in these industries and many others, of installation and production managers who may have to become crisis managers with only a split second to make a decision that could save or lose lives.

Read what she says about what went right when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River in 2009. It all came down to training —  something called crew resource management teamwork — and it can be translated to a myriad and variety of team contexts in many different industries where danger may lurk.

Even for the seemingly safest of organizations, her views on crisis leadership might shed some light on the importance of having the right person, with the right training, at the helm when the ship starts going down.