Jimmy Savile, Personal Accountability and the BBC

29 February 2016

What has this got to do with safety?

Jimmy Savile is back on the front page. Dame Janet Smith’s report into the despicable criminal behaviour of Savile and Stuart Hall highlights the massive failures of the BBC to respond responsibly to a wealth of evidence of repulsive abuse, demonstrated over decades. It appears that the BBC put the reputation of the organisation before the safety and vulnerability of young girls.

The responses to the report have also made interesting reading. Many of them are critical that the report falls short of naming those responsible for the failures in the BBC; many ask ‘who is going to be held to account?’ The report refers to the ‘monstrous behaviour’ of the two predators, but it does not identify those who would be personally accountable for the organisational failings of the corporation.

That is enough about Savile, Hall and the BBC: let’s take a look at personal accountability for safety in the industries we work in. Do you think that it is reasonable to hold employees (at all levels and locations) accountable for their acts, omissions, decisions, behaviours, and communications at work?

Think about it. Hardly a day goes by without hearing someone on the news, or in the office, or even in general conversation wanting to know ‘who is accountable for this?’ More than likely it is because something has gone wrong, a scapegoat is seemingly needed, and somebody has to take the blame. How does it work in your company? Does the contractor who screwed the job up because he or she lacked the necessary skills get fired? Or is the manager who insisted that the lowest bidder won the contract held to account? Where does your organisation stand on accountability for safe operations? Plus …. don’t you think that it is strange that we don’t often hear the ‘who’s accountable for this’ question when things go well and we succeed? In today’s workplace don’t we need to know who actually is accountable for ensuring that we succeed, and fundamentally ensure that we all understand what it means to be personally accountable?

A definition of personal accountability in the workplace may look something like: ‘taking responsibility, and answering for your behaviours, actions, and decisions at work’ ….. I can hear your question…. “What actually does that mean?” This is how I see it:

  • Being personally accountable is all about taking responsibility for your behaviours, the professional way you do your job, the decisions you make, what you sign up to, what and how you communicate, and the way you engage with your fellow workers.
  • Accountability is NOT about creating a ‘blame culture’ or a ‘no blame culture.’ It IS about establishing a culture that is fair and equitable for all.
  • Holding people to account is NOT about punishing mistakes and errors. We all do this and will continue to do so; we need help to learn from them and reduce the error frequency and consequence.
  • However, if people knowingly choose to violate the accepted procedures, safe working practices, and safe working rules, there must be repercussions and consequences.
  • Accountability is about taking ownership and responsibility, about adopting the right attitude, choosing to do the right things, the right way, at the right time.
  • Importantly, it is the individual’s responsibility to make sure they know what they are personally taking accountability for. For example, if you are the supervisor for a specific task, and the job requires certain skills, then it is your responsibility to make sure that the people doing the job have the required skills, tools and time before the job commences. If you are in charge of the task, then you are accountable for its safe and efficient implementation.
  • And finally, when we see people demonstrating accountability and operational excellence, then we have to recognise and reward them for that.

Responsible workers don’t want to see their workmates continually ‘get away with it.’ Responsible workers understand that there are lines that can’t be crossed. The lines includes: deliberate violations, short-cuts, improvisations, and carelessness. Workers don’t respect leaders and cultures where it is seen as ‘the norm’ to look the other way.

Organisations, like the BBC, get nervous when the ‘human factor’ is at the root of major problems (or incidents). It is far easier to fire the worker with the screwdriver than it is to discipline the senior manager who set up the worker to fail. So when the perpetrator is a huge and powerful celebrity, more than one blind eye gets turned. Sometimes, in industry, when the buck should stop at the respected senior manager’s desk, it is easier to find another cause.

People at all levels of an organisation contribute to accident causation and quality issues, although usually not intentionally. Does this mean they are not accountable, and should not be held to account? How often do they lapse, repeat the substandard action, or omit a key step in a task? If we are caught breaking the law we are held to account ……. why is the workplace different? Like the legal systems it is difficult, and this makes it critically important to ensure that if we are holding individuals to account, we hold the right people, and not the scapegoat or the easy option.

The BBC will learn many lessons from the Savile/Hall experience. Many lives were ruined, many hearts broken. Stuart Hall is in prison, and you can make your own mind up as to where Jimmy Savile is. The BBC will continue to receive criticism as to ‘who was accountable’ and maybe one day we will find out. This story involved a major world leading broadcasting company, could a major incident involving personal accountability happen in your company?

The process of applying personal accountability can be complex. The concept behind it is simple and straightforward. It has to apply equally to everyone, at all levels and locations in an organisation. It has to be fair and equitable, communicated to, and understood by all. The process has to be transparent, while the application has to be confidential and sensitive, after all it is all about people, our failings, inconsistencies and personalities.

What do you think?

Is it reasonable to hold people personally accountable for safety?

Comments welcomed.

Also see more postings in the Risk Dimensions Blog.