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I’m not sure where this expression came from, perhaps from when stoning was a societal punishment, but I think I know what it means in these times. It’s basically the same as several other expressions, such as ‘no win situation’, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, and ‘damned if you and damned if you don’t’. I’ve felt I’ve been there a few times, between a crushing rock and an immovable hard place, with limited options, and none of the available choices good ones. I even dreamed about it recently, and in my nightmare I was foolish enough to accept a job offer replacing one of my mentors in a global, multi-billion € (£, ¥, $) corporation. Unfortunately, my dream/nightmare was all too much like reality, and I awoke in a cold sweat, swearing at myself for what I had dreamt I’d done.
What could be so bad about accepting a high-paying (well, in my dream it was high-paying) job with a nice title, decent office, and global travel? Well, first of all it was in dangerous goods compliance, which isn’t bad in and of itself, and in fact DG compliance can be fascinating, challenging, and rewarding. Heck, working and training in DG makes me feel that I’m contributing to the betterment of the world, through increased safety and avoidance of disasters, even if only in a small way. No, it was the coupling with the second factor, a weak and possibly still weakening, global economy that can make it a bad choice. For when a corporation tries to save its way back to prosperity, the savings are often in “non-essential” job reductions. It may not often work, but the company has to try something, and when they do try it, regulatory compliance always takes its turn under the microscope to determine whether it is essential or to be axed.
If you are reading this, you are probably a safety professional in one way or another, and you probably would make such a decision while considering concepts as safety, the value of human life, environmental protection, prevention of health problems, and so forth. But that’s not, in my experience, what a corporation with cash flow problems uses as criteria. They use money, income versus expense, and ‘what have you done for me lately’. Okay, a corporation is supposed to make money, and I’m not opposed to money, and even like to get paid. But, if I’m employed by such a company, how will my performance be judged on the short-term profit and loss ruler that will be applied to it?
If I’ve been magnificent, and written corporate policies that make sense, and if my training programs have been splendid, easily understandable and effective, and globally my employer has not had any significant leaks, spills, releases, exposures, fines, penalties, nor brought on excessive regulatory scrutiny, then it looks like I’m not needed. If there aren’t any problems to be fixed, what am I doing? If fines aren’t being paid, then how can I help the corporation by reducing those fines? That’s right, the need for regulatory compliance is often judged by how much has been paid out in fines, and if nothing’s being paid out, the bean-counters often think no compliance person is needed in that area. In other words, do too well, and you’re expendable.
So, what if I’ve been less than magnificent and my training programs less than splendid? What if my employer and I have exposures, accidents, non-compliance, and unwanted attention from regulators? Well, then obviously I’ve been costing the company money. My less than stellar performance has resulting in fines paid out, which never makes anyone in the company happy. And, according to some viewpoints, whatever salary I’ve collected has not been earned, another way I would’ve cost the company money. What’s a bean-counter to do, but to cut me loose, and if necessary, ‘out-source’ my role? Do poorly, and you’re expendable.
So, damned if you do, and damned if you don’t? Do a great job and get laid off, but don’t do a great job and still get laid off? In a word, yes. It’s a scenario that’s played out more than once.
Arrggh, what’s a compliance professional to do? Professional pride and personal ethics dictate that we always aim for excellence, even if that won’t ensure job security. Isn’t there some safe area, close to perfection, but with just enough non-compliance to justify continued employment? Do we hope for some minor regulatory findings, even if it’s our job to prevent them? Is there a place where bean-counters can be satisfied, and a regulatory specialist can continue to promote safety and prevent injuries to people, property, and the environment? I’m not sure, but I hope so. Maybe it is possible.
Maybe there’s a corporate tightrope that can be walked between that rock and that hard place.
Written 5/2/2013 for HCB Magazine