nazi.jpg“When somebody higher up [is] telling you to do something, you’re going to do what they say.”

This statement was made by Ricky Lee Campbell, a 24-year-old coal shuttle driver and roof bolter who worked at the Massey Mine in West Virginia before a blast took the lives of nearly 30 workers there.

He’s referring to another worker who was asked by a manager to disable a methane gas monitor that measured dangerous toxins. The move appears to be a major violation in safety protocol, but Campbell is making excuses for the guy who followed the dumb orders that were driven by business sense, not common sense.

Campbell witnessed the incident. He talked about it in a radio broadcast this morning of an NPR investigation of the Massey tragedy that uncovered the incident:

“He knew it was dangerous. He knew he shouldn’t have been doing it. But when somebody higher up [is] telling you to do something, you’re going to do what they say. And he just [did] his job and [did] what they said to do.”

This mentality is not unusual.

Maybe you’re scratching your head wondering how workers could stand by and allow something to take place that could actually compromise their safety, but often it’s just accepted.

Typically, in a large organization, when serious wrongdoing occurs, at least ten to 15 people are probably involved or know what’s going on, says Richard Cellini of Integrity Interactive, a company that provides businesses with ethics policy tools.

“Someone sets it in motion, usually someone with authority, but they don’t do the work themselves. They pass it on. The people who do it are usually the staff. They do what they’re told,” he explains.

In most cases, he adds, workers are doing bad things for what they deem are good reasons – to help the company, help the team, etc. “And in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are either responding directly to a request from a boss, or what they think their boss wants them to do,” he says.

But “the-boss-made-me-do-it” excuse is pretty lame and it won’t hold up on court. It didn’t work for the Nazis.

“It’s like the Nuremberg defense,” says Nancy Cornish, an employment lawyer with Denver-based Kissinger & Fellman, referring to the “only following orders” legal defense used by some of the Nazi officers who were tried by the Allies in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II.

Now you’re thinking, “give me a break Eve. If I don’t do what the boss says I’ll lose my job; and maybe you haven’t noticed but the economy stinks so good luck finding a new gig.”

I get all that, but there are protections for workers.

If you refuse to do something illegal, and you’re fired or demoted because you report it to HR or law enforcement, you’ll likely be protected under whistle blower laws. But claiming after the fact, when the authorities start rounding up the parties involved, that you were told to do it but didn’t want to probably won’t hold up in court.

And how will you hold up? If taking stupid orders from a manager doesn’t get you killed, or hauled into court, how will you look at yourself in the mirror, especially if what you do, or what you didn’t try to stop, causes harm to someone else?

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