Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Communication Perspective

Last month a record civil penalty was passed down in the West Virginia mining case where 29 miners were killed last year. The federal regulators investigating determined that the disaster “was the result of a workplace culture that valued production over safety .” In other words, the highest value or context for Massey Energy Co. was profit. While there may have been other priorities and perspectives within the organization’s management, it was the elevated context of production…over…safety that ultimately influenced the numerous critical decisions (in this case safety shortcuts) that were made in the course of doing business in a competitive industry.

Taking a communication perspective leads to some important and profound questions, namely: Could this disaster have been avoided if the company’s hierarchy of value had been challenged and ultimately shifted in some way toward the increased importance of safety? What if there was greater institutional support for whistle blowers who, in this case, experienced retaliation and disciplinary actions to their efforts to resolve safety-related issues effectively?

As the individuals and communities most affected by this tragic episode continue to search for a path forward, the next turn could understandably hold revenge and anger above all other priorities. What would happen, however, if the highest context for the surviving family members and their communities was to shift the conversation from one of retribution to one of changing values in corporate America? What would happen if those powerful voices united in advocacy for priorities such as improving the quality of conditions and ensuring safety measures for employees remain above the profit line?

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