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Moral courage is an indispensable virtue to avoid ethical lapses

Many moons ago, I was a Rochester Institute of Technology undergraduate engineering student proud to have landed my first co-op job at a Mobil oil refinery in Buffalo. I’ll never forget my first day on the job. A batch of us co-op students were gathered together in a conference room for a four-hour orientation. During this session, we learned about the company, the fundamental chemistry of the oil refining business and the physical hazards to avoid while working in the refinery.

Following the briefing, we were introduced to our respective bosses. I was assigned, along with two other engineers, to the refinery’s chief inspection officer (CIO). His job was to monitor the status of critical refinery infrastructure such as pipelines, reactors, heat exchangers and storage tanks. After welcoming us to the company, the CIO handed us all coveralls to put over our business suits and took us out into the refinery to introduce us to the plant layout and show us some of the things we would be doing that summer.

As anyone who has ever toured an operating oil refinery knows, it can be a very intimidating place for first-time visitors. We walked past heating units that roared like jet engines as rows of burners inside shot out 15-foot flames to heat crude oil in preparation for the distillation process. There were hydrogen sulfide warning signs everywhere, signifying the possible presence of deadly levels of a gas that we were told during our safety briefing was responsible for the deaths of many refinery personnel over the years.

Most impressive of all, though, was the “crude unit” – our primary destination that day. The crude unit is a 70-foot-high structure comprising multiple floors and featuring the atmospheric and vacuum towers used in the primary distillation process. As we ascended stairwells that shook under foot in response to the unit’s operation, the CIO had to shout over the din to be heard.

When we reached the fourth level, our jaws dropped as the CIO unexpectedly leapt on top of a railing, cradling an I-beam with his left arm to prevent a 40-foot fall that would have meant certain death. He then explained that he was showing us one of the many tasks we would be doing on a routine basis as he stretched to pull on the end of a rod with his right hand to retrieve a device that monitors pipeline health. The thought of pulling off this maneuver myself terrified me. But, as it turned out, it proved to be one of the safer jobs we were asked to perform because at least you had something to hold onto to prevent a fall.

Within the first month of my employment, I learned to become a high-wire artist, tightrope walking insulated pipelines and I-beams high above the ground with oily work boots and equipment strapped across my shoulders. Although I did not like this work, I became accustomed to it, although there was one time when I nearly froze with fear.

A colleague and I were tasked with taking thickness measurements of a pipeline on a pipe rack 35 feet above the ground. Walking on the pipe rack was not particularly dangerous, but getting to it was. We were not provided a man-lift or any other equipment essential to performing this work properly. Instead, we were left to figure out for ourselves how to get to the target pipeline. After doing a bit of poking around the area, we found a scaffolding erected around a nearby nitrogen tank that was only about 4 feet away from the pipe rack we desired to mount. So, reluctantly, we monkeyed up the scaffolding and, one at a time, leapt across 4 feet of open air to land on the pipe rack. After taking the desired measurements on our target pipeline, it was time to go back.

It’s one thing to jump from a scaffolding to an elevated sidewalk of pipes, but it’s another thing altogether to reverse the process. The rungs on the scaffolding looked very small to me as I contemplated this maneuver and, for the first time in my life, I literally froze with fear. For several minutes, I simply could not make myself do it. But, after taking a “courage pill” and swallowing hard, I made the jump and returned safely to the ground.

As I reflect on this experience now, I can’t believe a large, multinational corporation routinely asked us 20-year-old co-op students to take such outrageous risks of serious injury or death to inspect refinery equipment. But, the experience also gives me a full appreciation of the extraordinary power social pressure at work can have on our behavior. I did not want to do this kind of work and literally thought that I might die doing it. I could have and should have objected and demanded that we be provided the proper equipment to get our jobs done safely. But, this would have taken an enormous amount of moral courage, and I lacked a sufficient measure of this virtue to stand up for myself and my colleagues. The pressure to go along and get the work done was so powerful, I never questioned what I was asked to do and did the job without complaint. I think the same is true for a significant fraction of business professionals we read about whose promising careers have ended abruptly in scandal.

Consider, for example, the 5,000 plus Wells Fargo employees who were fired for creating phony customer bank accounts. I think that it is likely that these were decent, honest individuals who were pressured to “jump” to places they never wanted to go. And they are just the latest in a very long list of other good people who have suffered the same fate. The lesson for all of us is to be aware of the pressure we may feel to compromise our ethical standards and to have the moral courage to resist it when such circumstances arise.

Jim Nortz is chief compliance officer for Carestream Health. He also is a former board member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and may not reflect those of the RABEF, the ECOA or Carestream Health. Nortz can be reached at jimnortz@gmail.com.

2/3/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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