If the Shoe Fits, Wear It - Which Cronies Do You See?
This is a delicate topic, yet must be approached. After reading this article, if you have any solutions or even part solutions that I'm unable to address, please make a comment. Your help will be appreciated. I know of at least five safety managers who need some advice on this topic.
In most countries, aviation safety officers don't have a sense of entitlement.
They applied for their safety manager job. Perhaps they applied for more than one position at multiple companies.
Regardless, safety managers received their job based either on:
- their qualifications or
- the perception that they can be trained to perform an aviation safety manager's job duties.
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When most safety managers get their job, they know that they can be replaced by another.
However, there are some cultures where getting such a job depends not on qualifications, but on a person's social position or ethnicity. A safety manager may have been appointed by a family member, or someone in the same political party.
If you are in the United States, Canada or Europe, you may think: this doesn't happen in our culture. Our aviation safety culture is not affected by these types of psychological elements. But does it? Don't fool yourself. I was slapped in the face with this "distasteful" topic recently.
- It happened in the United States.
- It happened in a major city.
- It happened in a government run-entity.
In this article, we discuss nepotism, cronyism and another topic that I don't have a single-word label for, but can be even more serious when one considers the adverse effects on aviation safety at airlines and major airports.
Nepotism and Cronyism Affects Aviation Safety Cultures
Nepotism and cronyism harm our transportation industry every day. Before we begin, we must define terms because about half of you use English as your second or third language.
What Are Nepotism and Cronyism?
Nepotism is an ancient practice of putting your relatives into a position without regard for the person's qualifications in relation to other applicants. Nepotism is common in politics and the workplace. Typically, in the United States, the person must be moderately qualified because the person is expected to do "some" work to be effective.
In other parts of the world, and some of you may also include the United States, the only qualification required is that they are breathing and can sometimes show up for work.
Nepotism is not always detrimental to an organization because managers know that appointed person will have the family's interest at heart. Nepotism is most common in collectivist societies where:
- The population tends to remain stable in a particular region; and
- Frequent political changes occur and jobs are doled out as rewards.
Cronyism is similar to nepotism, but instead of appointing family members to favored positions, one appoints friends or others that share the same ideological beliefs, such as political parties, religion or "secret" societies.
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Affirmative Action Programs
Favoritism in the workforce goes further than simply belonging to a clan or sharing the same religious or ideological beliefs. A form of preferential treatment related to cronyism also comes with "affirmative action" programs that were practiced in the United States.
Affirmative action programs allowed racial minorities certain privileges when applying for government jobs. Jobs that were part of a government contract performed by a private company were often subjected to affirmative action programs. While affirmative action programs breed resentment and frustration among the majority, their main objective is to incorporate disenfranchised groups into the workforce.
For the sake of discussion, we will lump affirmative action programs with cronyism.
Nepotism and Cronyism Has Advantages
It is impossible to say that both nepotism and cronyism are always bad. There are instances where these practices afford stability and decrease political bickering that adversely affects the mission.
When an upper manager knows that employees from his "friends and family" group are not trying to undermine the corporate mission and both parties benefit, this allows everyone to direct more of his or her energies to task accomplishment.
The Downside of Nepotism and Cronyism
Problems often arise with these two practices in these general areas:
- Most qualified employees are not filling the positions;
- Organizations are not efficiently run due to additional resource requirements;
- Employees develop a sense of entitlement; and
- Employees are more difficult to separate from the organization.
How Does Nepotism and Cronyism Affect Aviation Safety?
Simply because the company practices nepotism or cronyism, one should not instantly assume the safety team is incompetent. There are always exceptions. Most safety managers have integrity and want to do a good job.
Problems arise when employees become apathetic to their duties and there is no indication of continuous improvement. This can happen regardless of how the employee entered the organization.
Managing an aviation SMS is like steering a ship. Changes don't appear overnight. There is so very much work to do as a safety manager. Other managers may not notice or be aware of how much work is required from a well-functioning safety department. This is because they don't understand the SMS documentation requirements behind all the elements of the four pillars of aviation safety management systems.
Many months may pass before upper management realizes there is a problem with the safety department. If you were the accountable executive, would you want to wait until your next accident or audit to discover the safety team has not been doing their job?
Aviation SMS requires constant diligence to details. It is very easy to let schedules slip and not follow up on time. If the safety manager spends most of his time fishing, many safety management tasks will suffer, such as SMS documentation and safety promotion activities.
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How to Detect Problems with the Aviation Safety Department
At most operations, a representative from the safety department attends management meetings. This is commonly the director of safety but can be a senior safety manager.
During these management meetings, the safety team will have a few minutes to discuss:
- SMS implementation progress;
- Pressing safety concerns;
- Safety training updates;
- Safety-related statistical comparisons; and
- Upcoming activities (safety audits or safety promotion programs).
Warning signals should be going off when the safety team provides little input to managerial meetings. How should upper management fix this?
First, identify the problem. One should not be concerned with "one-off" problems. However, when the safety team repeatedly has little to offer to managerial meetings, it's time to dig deeper.
What is the root cause of the problem?
- Lack of training? (this can be fixed easily with budget)
- Family problems at home? (tougher, but usually not a long-term problem)
- Disillusionment with the job? (replace safety manager immediately)
- Overworked? (a common problem that requires additional safety resources or better tools)
- The sense of entitlement (lazy with no risk of being replaced).
This last root cause is difficult to provide a fix for. There are commonly political issues at work here. If you scream too loudly and approach this employee inappropriately, it may be you who will be replaced.
We know this is a problem. The safety system is compromised whenever these "entitled" workers are not performing to even the lowest standards.
But how can we address this?
One bad apple can spoil the lot, and in this case, a bad apple really affects a positively maturing safety culture. And having the bad apple in the safety department is a doubly hard blow to safety cultures.
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Help Me with This One Please
A quick example without names. A safety manager is not performing up to a director of safety's standards. The director of safety "counsels" the lazy, entitled individual and demands job performance improvement.
The entitled safety manager complains about the director of safety's treatment of his brother, cousin or uncle who works directly with the mayor of a large city. The entitled employee's relative calls the director of safety and tells him to lay off. And here lies the problem.
How should this director of safety manage this safety issue? Somebody is going to lose. Will it be:
- The public using the airport?
- The director of safety?
- Or the entitled employee?
How should this situation be handled?
Some companies have policies revolving around hiring procedures. Others may require managers to perform a list of duties for a certain time period. These checklists may help.
Need an easy tool to track employee safety performance?
Published November 2015. Last updated February 2019.