Lynne Curry: As BP, peanut butter plant prove, profit isn't everything

Lynne Curry

What do three BP officials and peanuts have to do with you? Everything.

In November, the Justice Department announced manslaughter charges against two BP officials involved in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The charges allege BP's well site leaders, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, on board Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig, were aware of continued, abnormal, high pressure readings showing the well was not secure, failed to phone engineers on shore to alert them, failed to investigate and instead made final preparations for extracting oil and gas.

The Justice Department charged a third BP official with trying to make the spill appear less catastrophic by allegedly making false statements to Congress and providing inaccurate information to investigators about the rate at which oil flowed from the well.

Meanwhile, BP pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges and admitted responsibility for the deaths of 11 workers aboard Deepwater Horizon. According to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer. "The explosion of the rig was a disaster that resulted from BP's culture of privileging profit over prudence; and we allege that BP's most senior decision makers onboard the Deepwater Horizon negligently caused the explosion."

Kaluza's attorney calls him a scapegoat, saying, "Bob was not an executive or high-level BP official. He was a dedicated rig worker. ... "

Also in November, the Food and Drug Administration cited the New Mexico peanut company, Sunland, for shipping peanut and almond butters even after the company's internal testing showed salmonella contamination that later created serious illness for 41 individuals in 19 states, many of them children under 10.

What leads individuals who know better to push forward and do the wrong thing -- when you'd think they would know better? And what does it mean to you?

They forget the worst can happen.

In a "production is king" environment, workers can rationalize away danger, forgetting that natural laws and safety risks outgun their bosses and profits. Don't be like the teenager afraid to get out of the car when your drunken buddy takes the wheel.

They think if it happens, the company will be punished -- not them.

Wrong. As the three BP managers found out, company attorneys protect the company, even when it means throwing those who thought they acted in the company's best interests to the wolves. And why not? Those individuals' choices directly harmed those who died or suffered irrevocable losses. When your actions kill, the company doesn't go to prison, you do.

It was only a small transgression.

If we don't act right in small decisions, what happens when we face a harder test or have to give up a lot to go against a company culture? Each ethical battle strengthens our muscles. Even when the wrong thing seems like no big deal, it is. Small decisions added in with large ones equal integrity.

Individual honesty matters, and there's no honest half-truth.

Each of us needs to act with integrity. Do you want to live in a twilight ethical world in which things are "only a little wrong?" Avoid ethical debt by doing the right thing every day. After all, if you tell half truths long enough, you con your own conscience.

What should we ask ourselves?

In any situation, we need to ask, "What is it right and good?" "Would I be OK with someone else doing this?" "If I do this, what will happen to my respect for myself?" "How does this decision align with the values I say I uphold, values such as honor, safety, respect and integrity?"

Somehow individual employees and managers at BP and a New Mexico peanut butter factory forgot that we may be called to account for our own individual decisions and actions. Each of us makes the world.


Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at Follow Lynne on Twitter: @lynnecurry10.



Lynne Curry