Organizational accountability: A shared responsibility

Harassment is an ongoing pattern and can only happen when others stand by silently and let it

While testifying before Congress recently, the former president of Equifax blamed a critical security breach, affecting 146 million Americans, on the actions of a single employee.


The former company president, Richard Smith, repeatedly told members of Congress that one individual in Equifax’s technology department had failed to heed security warnings and did not ensure the implementation of software fixes that would have prevented the breach.

Diverting responsibility for bad actions and outcomes from an organization to an individual is not unique to the corporate world.
Diverting responsibility for bad actions and outcomes from an organization to an individual is not unique to the corporate world. (Photo/Pixabay)

In other words, not my fault. It was all because of some nameless person down in the tech department. As an organization, we’re just fine.

This exchange reminded me of similar hearings with high ranking officials from Wells Fargo, who blamed unethical and illegal account management on over zealous hourly employees who were pushing to open new accounts. They got fired, and many lost their ability to ever work in the banking industry again. Those at the top stayed, or got golden parachutes when leaving – dysfunctional organizational responsibility.


Diverting responsibility for bad actions and outcomes from an organization to an individual is not unique to the corporate world. The fire service has historically engaged in the practice as well. In the fire service, the practice often leads to management by rules and regulations that result in reaction to one particular incident – policies with people’s names on them. Instead of looking at the big picture (organizational responsibility) when something goes wrong, departments react to the specific event and individual involved.

This reactive management can happen on a small scale, or it can have far-reaching consequences. One way I see organizations avoiding organizational responsibility through such focus on individuals is with incidents of harassment in the workplace.

There’s a company officer on the job who is a jerk. Everyone knows it. He makes racist comments and jokes. He harasses women he works with, touching them inappropriately and making rude comments. He posts inflammatory statements on social media.

A few people think he is funny. Most try to ignore him. In the past, he’s gotten into a couple of altercations with individuals based on his actions. He’s never been formally disciplined – a breach in organizational responsibility.

Then one day, one of the women he’s been targeting over the years has had enough. Instead of shrugging off his rude comments, she confronts him. He comes right back at her. The rest of the people in the station try to scatter and avoid. She ends up filing a formal complaint. Other women come forward with similar stories.

The case is investigated and results in a recommendation of termination. The officer appeals, saying that he is just a “dinosaur” and did not really mean any harm. The department goes forward with the termination, which also results in the officer losing his pension benefits. The department congratulates itself on solving the problem, and schedules some sexual harassment classes for the next year.

People are responsible for their own actions. There is no excuse for anyone in an organization, much less a person in a position of leadership, to engage in behavior that is blatantly unprofessional and even illegal. If people violate the professional standards in their workplace, they must be held accountable for their actions and accept the consequences.  

But such behavior does not occur in a vacuum. People come into a fire department as rookies and they want to succeed. They have little power and look to others to learn what is acceptable and what is not. New firefighters know they are vulnerable to discipline and dismissal for transgressions on any level.

So how does someone go from being a nervous and cautious rookie to being a harassing bully over the years? What role do other firefighters and the organization itself play in this process? Where is the organizational accountability?

When it comes to workplace harassment, there are basically three levels. A few people are active, deliberate harassers. They do it openly and for a variety of reasons, of which the abuse of power is usually central.

There can be cases of unintentional harassment. This was particularly true decades ago, when harassment law was just being defined. Some people would engage in inappropriate behavior, such as telling racist jokes, with no openly bad intention, but with bad effect.

You’d think today that no one would be unaware that such unprofessional behavior in the workplace is wrong. However, the constant stream of incidents related to social media tells a different story.


Finally, harassment is an ongoing pattern and can only happen when others stand by silently and let it. Most often, the behavior is well-known among many in the organization. What is their responsibility in stopping that behavior?

This is the flaw in most harassment training. Much of this type of training focuses on the first category of harassment, those who are deliberate and malicious. Since the vast majority of people do not fall into this category, they tune out or feel defensive in these training sessions.

I feel it is more important to teach people how to confront bad actors, how to be an ally, how to listen effectively, and how critical it is to be constantly vigilant that the workplace is fair and inclusive to everyone.

And most importantly, everyone in the organization needs to recognize their personal responsibility for maintaining the relationship of trust – among co-workers and with the community – that must exist for firefighters to be able to fulfill their essential mission.

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