BP’s Catastrophic Corruption

According to a detailed account by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ, May 27, 2010, “There Was Nobody “In Charge’”), when things started going wrong on the Deepwater Horizon there was confusion by workers and management over what should be done in an emergency situation. This confusion and apparent absence of clearly understood and/or effective policies may have cost lives and time in preventing this disaster.

The WSJ’s account of the minutes leading up to and after the explosion on the doomed drilling rig shows just how the failure to train people to do their jobs is the first level of corruption in any organization.

According to WSJ interviews, workers were not empowered to take immediate action in an emergency situation. Instead, they were forced by policy to contact upper management in a split-chain of command. As mud was spewing up through the drilling derrick “like a volcano”, the men on the floor who could have taken immediate action were hamstrung by the fact that they were required by BP’s written procedures to contact two top managers for a decision on what to do.

Adding to this catastrophic waste of time were written procedures further requiring that the two top managers go to the drilling floor together to “evaluate” the situation. But once the gas hit neither could get to the area.

And then there was the failure to send a distress signal – an oversight noticed only by 23-year-old Andrea Fleytas who, despite the top brass on the bridge with her, was the only one to think to make the call. Her exercise of independent and rational thought was met by an immediate reprimand by the captain.

Corruption is usually thought of as bribes or special favors. Does this failure to train and allow workers to do their jobs actually constitute “corruption”?

The answer, unequivocally, is “Yes”. Corruption is more than bribery and abuse of power. The word “corruption” comes from Latin: cor “altogether” + rumpere “to break”. Or to “altogether break”, which is the basis of its historical reference to the process of decay.

Think of a computer disc. If the disc becomes “corrupted” then it has become something less than its original form. It’s not useable, or at least not as useable as it should be. Corruption of an organization would be anything that causes that organization not to function in an optimal way.

Corruption must be fought using a spectrum of tools that start with Awareness and Education. Managing the threat of methane in drilling is standard fare. BP clearly should have been aware of “worst case” scenarios. Awareness would then lead to education – i.e. training employees to quickly respond to the threat.

If employees know and practice exactly what to do in an emergency situation, a company’s response to that emergency will be fast and effective. There is no need to get permission from management to act if the company trains its workers so that it can trust that they will do the right thing when the need arises. Policies should help workers do their jobs, not stand in the way of effective action.

Corruption from a failing of Awareness and Education is no less damaging than corruption from criminal activity. In either event, 11 men are dead, the Deepwater Horizon is at the bottom of the ocean and the environmental disaster continues.

Next: Tools to Fight Corruption in Any Organization

Brian Pinkowski is an anti-corruption expert with Global Transitions & Development, LLC providing consulting and training for government institutions around the world.

Global Transitions & Development, LLC is currently conducting a Global Corruption Survey that can be viewed by clicking on the link below.



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