The Flint Water Crisis: an HR Disaster

The Flint Water Crisis: an HR Disaster



In the wake of the Flint Michigan disaster regarding their public water I started thinking about my family and friends.  Are we safe?  Do I trust the government and public officials to take care of me and my loved ones too much?  I read with great intent several articles regarding the water crisis in Flint Michigan and was horrified with what happened.  Somewhere in the mix in order to save money the elected authorities sacrificed the safety of all of their residents.  I then started to think about my own family, my little 3 and 1 year old grandchildren, my nephews and nieces, my sisters, my 100 first cousins, my beloved and valued staff and their families.  What about them, are they safe?  Should we all be concerned?  How could we stop this?  And then I started wondering if there was a common denominator – or worse – a missing common denominator?  And then the light went off.

In our experience, and we are blessed to have served hundreds of clients in private, public, for profit and non-profit companies each of them had one primary focal point.  They were concerned about their employees and most – they were concerned about their employees’ actions on the greater community that they served.  To a person these organizations called us to assist them in developing programs, policies, procedures and organizational structures to address key employee issues but always with the greater good of their customers and employees and communities at heart.  They know that what they do is going to impact others and they want to have people practices in place to ensure that those take into consideration the big picture.

Then I started to think about communities like my own, and the school districts that we are in and surround us and quickly came to realize that these public servants generally have one key common denominator missing.  Professional people leadership and the governance of the people who serve all of us. Doing a little research on the Human Resources in Flint you are quickly directed to the team that deals with the labor relations – the interface with the unions – that provide the exceptional services to their city – and I have no doubt that they do.  What is missing is the HR officer who is responsible for leadership, accountability, ethics, performance, organizational development, etc. etc.  In most public companies, those governed by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) they are required by SOX and their Insurers and investors to have in place a system to address risk and liabilities.  A place where anyone that is involved with the company – from employees to investors, can privately express their concerns over actions being taken by anyone in the company that would put their business, and thus the livelihoods and employment of their employees at risk.  In these public companies whistleblowers are protected – and systems have been created so that another Enron or WorldCom shouldn’t happen again.  I say shouldn’t because somewhere right now amidst the thousands of public companies under the governance of such laws there are individuals working deceptively to steal and cheat for themselves at the risk of the rest of the employees who are doing the right thing.

The same thing is happening in our school districts.  In our region alone more than 13 school districts have had teachers and coaches and administrators arrested and charged with sexual harassment of the very children they’ve been hired to teach – and protect.  We all sent our kids to these schools – trusting that they would be safe and that the teachers had our kids’ safety as their top priority.  And you know what’s really frightening – these are the 13 school districts where the teachers or people in positions of authority have been caught.  Research shows that only 30% of sexual harassment is ever reported  (   There are 501 school districts in our state – at that rate at least 150 of them have reported incidents.  150 DISTRICTS!!!  Why aren’t the other 70% reported – lack of people who can be trusted – lack of human resource leadership who has been trained and who can take immediate action to investigate and report and protect our students, our children, from individuals in leadership roles who somehow don’t understand their responsibility – what we’ve entrusted them with – the lives of the people we love the most.

What can be done?  The implementation of people practices and processes that can address any of these people management challenges.  They shouldn’t only be in public companies.  Local governments, school districts, and private companies should all have a system of highly qualified and trained human capital leaders or a responsible ethics/risk team for each and any of these issues.  Why and ethics/risk team? Because such a forum shouldn’t be able to be manhandled by an elected mayor, governor, politician or school principal or superintendent.  Imagine a leadership office in Flint who could listen to and immediately address the concerns.  It is now obvious that the employees knew the water was contaminated but were shut up by leaders above them.  More will be discovered as the investigations continue.  An exceptional HR practice responsible for ethics and protecting the employees and the community that these public positions serve would have eliminated all of this from the start.  Just ask Penn State.  It’s only cost them $260 million dollars to ignore the Jerry Sandusky behavior and has wrecked dozens of lives that will never recover.  Are you one off from being responsible yourself?  What do you know?  And better yet – who can/would you turn to?


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