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See something, say something

November 13, 2011

This whole issue at Penn State has made me think about one’s own ability to become a whistleblower. Historiann and Tenured Radical both discussed the issue itself much better than I could have so I’m not going to get into that.

But the whole thing sort of reminded me a previous post I wrote on engineering ethics being taught in university. The comments thread on Historiann shows talks about how little one person can really do and the issue of harassment in the workplace comes up. Even people who witness harassment are often not considered credible witnesses to the event. And so why do we expect actual crimes to be treated any more seriously. And on that note, how can we really hope engineers can take seriously concerns within their own organizations.

There’s so much discussed in university education about the people who came forward after the Challenger disaster, those who tried to express their doubts beforehand, and those who were afraid to do so. Those who broke rank and spoke up and were honest tended to not have fantastic careers afterwards. It’s hard to see anyone believing a lowly engineer. And who would that engineer report the problem to? I know if a female colleague came to me and told me that someone had sexually harassed her I’d probably advise her to consider leaving the company. I’d probably suggest against going to HR and reporting it, or going to her supervisor and reporting it, as not having a happy ending for her. So why would the systemic causes that prevent people from speaking up about harassment be any different for those speaking up about possible safety violations? I’d like to think it would be better. Or that in a perfect world an organization’s approach to both kinds of complaints is getting better. But I just don’t know. (Fish photo via Creative Commons)

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