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When the judge spells your name

Reputational damage, widespread media criticism, mutilation of a customer’s limb (leading to long-term financial, career and lifestyle impacts), emotional trauma to an employee (heightened by prosecution for careless driving causing injury, when he was, arguably, just doing his job)….the list goes on.

The list need not have started.

No-one spoke up.

“A real injustice” is how New Zealand Judge John Bergseng described the case of a critically injured truck driver, injured at an Air New Zealand container site by an Air New Zealand employee using Air New Zealand equipment – later found to require safety upgrades.

But the salient message is that companies such as Air New Zealand – who publicly demand and expect employees to speak up – must learn to develop a speak up culture instead of just brandishing their codes as investor or regulatory feel-good.

No one can be compelled to speak up. They don’t have to, and if the culture isn’t demonstrably supportive, they won’t.

And right now, it’s not a good look for airlines. At Boeing, the whistleblower who exposed gross negligence caused by cutting corners on the production line and a lax safety culture was found dead. His death will undoubtedly impact the trial and lawsuit against Boeing that was in motion.

It probably won’t taxi down any judicial runway.

For Air New Zealand however, there were no whistleblowers, no charges from Worksafe New Zealand and only Judge John Bergseng has had the ability to call their name and plaster it with concern.

Thirteen new safety measures were introduced after the accident. Included were a reversing alarm and automatic shutdown for the forklift, new barriers and gates, a reduction in the speed limit from 15km to 5km, adding pedestrian awareness cameras and one directional traffic. In the words of Judge Bergseng, “had the corrective action that is now taking place been in place at the time, it seems very unlikely that the truck driver would even have been able to be in that location to be injured.”

A wealth of safety features were overlooked, despite the company being used as an exemplar for WorkSafe when they instituted a high-performance engagement approach to lift the role of health and safety representatives.

They went unnoticed despite a commendable Code of Conduct and Ethics that reinforced the importance of speaking up. But no one understood that importance to the extent they were prepared to stand by it and ensure that preventable accidents didn’t happen.

As we know, however, a code alone is not sufficient. And any new approach, such as high-performance engagement, needs constant attention, at times renewal and most of all – embedding.

Further, it is often the case that the very people who occupy the role of someone to report concerns or bad experiences to, are the very people who lack effective listening skills.

Their demeanour, for example, may be formidable, their authority intimidating and their staunch defensiveness of ‘their’ company or work area, too robust.

This is exactly where external service providers bring major benefits to companies who are sincere in building and maintaining a speak up culture.

From branding that reinforces the ethical nature of raising concerns, to dealing with people trained to listen, have no company-specific status or power to wield, and have an absolute intention to support and get to the bottom of the concern, the arm’s-length nature of the relationship is speak up gold.

Report It Now® brands its speak up case management software EthicsPro® immediately reinforcing the ethical core of the reporter, all communication using the EthicsPro platform is secure – it can’t be illegitimately accessed nor hacked – and Report it Now also promotes the need for an ethics committee. No single individual has control over the process. The more diverse the ethics committee, the more likely that effective weighing up of different perspectives is enabled.

External reporting services such as Report it Now generally receive considerably more submissions/reports than an internal service, simply because of the “independent trust factor”.

All these considerations are important in the context of someone wanting to inform or build awareness.

Report it Now also attaches significance to the role of a company code in motivating speak up behaviours and setting the tone from the top.

In Air New Zealand’s case, the Code of Ethics and Conduct asks employees to: ‘Hold your colleagues accountable for behaving ethically and for following this Code. If you see behaviour at work that you feel may breach this Code…bullying or harassment, potential conflicts of interest, danger to the health and safety of employees or customers….report it to your Manager…report it to Your Human Resources Team…report it confidentially using the Speak Up line.”

Also stated: “For safety-related incidents or issues, continue to use our safety reporting process as a first priority.”

Despite this, silence remained in force.

When employees refuse to speak up and the channels provided are not being used – for anything – it’s time to ask why.

Here, the 2023 NZX Corporate Governance Code provides some reason:

“An issuer may wish to consider whether it is appropriate to adopt formal whistleblowing procedures in light of the nature of the size and composition of its business and if so whether it would be appropriate to provide access to employees to confidential third party agencies for whistle-blowing/speak up purposes”.

Air New Zealand could well take heed.

In the final scenes of this sorry saga, the forklift driver was charged with careless driving causing injury, fined NZ$5,000 and Air New Zealand (the company that was not charged) stumped up.

But, in the jagged edge of public humiliation, let’s turn again to the words of Judge John Bergseng.

“I have made clear my views on what I think of the level of that offer, but again, that is something that I simply do not have any ability to influence: the moral decisions made by corporations such as Air New Zealand,”.

Air New Zealand faces many moral dilemmas as it continues to fly as our national carrier, an NZX50 company and oversees high-profile operations across New Zealand and the globe. But when the morality of its decisions is called out – and it’s clear that health and safety has floundered – it must refocus. Fastening their ethics to a speak up programme, as well as their investment credentials, would be a good place to start.

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