What about idiots?

file0001612800212[1]In early 2013 a group of Australian miners choreographed and performed their rendition of the ‘Harlem Shake’, a music video that has stimulated 100s of similar dances to be uploaded to YouTube. Deep underground, the miners dressed down some of their PPE and free styled in front of the camera.

When Barminco, the operator of the mine, learned about the dance venture, they sent a dismissal letter to 15 workers involved in the making of the video. Barminco explained that the performance was in violation of the company’s “core values of safety, integrity and excellence.”

The employer’s disappointment and frustration from having well-payed workers acting out this way, is quite understandable. I assume Barminco had done everything they could, everything the law required and more, and then this happens!

From within a conformity and control approach to safety, it makes perfect sense to sack these guys. They had been given PPE, been trained in policies and procedures, inducted in corporate values, etc. When the many controls in place are not enough, what else can be done but exerting even harsher controls?

When it comes to organising people at work it would be nice if people behaved like machines. It would be sweet if they performed with uniformity, efficiency, or just simply as expected.

However, people are not machines. They are not passive recipients of instructions. In fact, attempts to control people often backfire: We consistently demand to create our own take on things. When given orders, we become defiant. And when handed down a predefined way of doing things, we reject or are sceptical about its applied usefulness. People’s free will and creativity are hugely problematic to fit into a machine like version of organising work.

When faced with this problem, when having a difference between how we want people to behave, and how they actually perform, we have a choice.

We can look for the answer with the people who deviated. We can look for their lack of commitment, motivation or their lack of sense of responsibility. We can call them idiots, or we may bridge the gap with other judgmental labels that call for further constraints. Put differently, we can engage in single loop learning: information about a system’s performance deviations is used to guide corrective actions – we can strive to ensure the desired ideal.

The other route is to ask whether it is reasonable to demand of people not to be people – whether obedience and uniformity are meaningful routes to enable safety. This requires a step away from previously held ideas, toward questioning whether the assumptions we hold about people and organising work really do the trick for us. This is double loop learning – using performance deviations to examine the ideas, values and assumptions that guide how an organisation understands itself. This is the route to adaptation, to evolving, to constantly learning more, and to become more successful in embracing the complexities encountered.

From this perspective, deviations are not the end point of investigations – they are signs that the current way of organising does not work.

  • Assuming that the Mine Shakers were not suicidal, they must have thought that what they did did not expose them to undue risks. Why was that?
  • And if “safety, integrity and excellence” truly were organisational values, how come this happened? How did the organisation engage with its employees to create a sense of shared purpose? To what extent were the workers invited to contribute with their understanding and knowledge to the organisational wisdom, and to what extent were they merely expected to perform a role?
  • How did the organisational setup contribute to the development of this ‘artistic’ expression? What if the ‘dance’ is a manifestation of the things that their work denied them?

These questions are not intended to locate the cause of the event at the management level. The intention is to point out that deviations are not explanations in themselves, but an opportunity for an organisation to learn more about itself. I have no information to what extent Barminco has asked such reflexive questions. But given the disciplinary actions and the justification for tougher controls, chances are that they will not learn anything new from this episode.

Look at the guys again: the diversity, the initiative, the participation, the group spirit, the engagement, the creativity, the desire to contribute. What if all that could be invoked to enable and improve safety, to make better workplaces? What if we could work with, instead of against, such ‘forces’?

Do you think it is possible to turn people’s inherent uniqueness, diversity and creativity to a contribution to organisational life, instead of something that needs to be controlled? Or rather, what can organisations do to make it possible?



  1. Andrew Townsend Reply

    Daniel – I am a poor sketch writer but your post triggered thoughts of two crusty old gentlemen sitting in an exclusive yacht/golf club somewhere in the world and muttering into their pink gins…
    “By Jove Carruthers. Did you see those Ozzie fellows dancing?”
    “Enjoying themselves eh what”
    “Can’t have that. They will be thinking for themselves next”
    “The lower classes thinking?”
    “Must maintain standards old boy”

    It is nice to know that snobbery is still alive and well in the world


  2. Les Henley Reply

    A few questions, if I may, that should be taken into consideration before castigating those responsible for acting to ensure the safety of these miners and their workmates:
    1: If they’re prepared to ‘flout the standards’ in this instance what other times and places will they also flout the standards?
    2: Who paid for the time when these workers were ‘skylarking’?
    3: If certain safety standards are established for all underground operations, then relaxing those standards for this activity means there may be a push to relax them for other activities – who is responisble when someone gets hurt, albeit unintentionally – if the relaxed standards are not challenged?
    4: The laws make the employer ultimatley responsible for injuries to their workers. The laws also require employees to comply with established safety standards, not to place themselves or their workmates at risk. In this instance it seems nothing went wrong but what if, during the next activity of this nature, something goes radically wrong? Who carries the burden of being accountable at law then?
    4: If one or more of these ‘skylarkers’ had been hurt, would they forgo a workers comensation claim because they contributed to their own injury? (Contributory negligence). Unfortunately the laws in some states still allow ‘no-fault’ claims.
    4: If workers want to ‘skylark’, why can’t they do it on their own time in their own place rather than on the employers time and property?
    It’s all very well for a ‘new age’ of WHS philosophy to push for a ‘let’s not push compliance’ approach but laws are still in place that will cost an employer, or senior officer significantly in the event something goes wrong.

  3. Les Henley Reply

    Another thought regarding the point “Assuming that the Mine Shakers were not suicidal, they must have thought that what they did did not expose them to undue risks. Why was that?”
    There was recently a spate of ‘planking’ where people, following the new trend, found places and ways to lay flat in diverse locations and got themselves videoed for upload to youtube. Many of them probably did a risk assessment but some did not, thought they were not exposing themselves to undue risk and died for their efforts.
    I’m sure this is not the second and won’t be the last ‘trend’ in human activity that involves some degree of risk. Some of those who participate may be capable of accuratley assessing and managing or coping despite the risks.
    But there are far more followers than leaders in the world and followers often don’t understand the implications in the same way that leaders might.

  4. Kim Flanagan Reply

    I think some people may have missed the point here, did the punishment fit the crime. Years of training and experience down the drain, punish not only the employees but the families of the employees, that’s harsh. As pointed out by Daniel we are without the results of the investigation but would have suspension been a more apt punishment if they had simply stuffed up. Well written Daniel, it is what the site is all about challenging our current thinking in safety. And he who is without sin let them cast the first stone…..

    1. Les Henley Reply

      Hi Kim,
      Australian Mine Safety legislation and regualtions are even more stringent than the general WHS legislation and regulations. There are even more controls required by the laws due to the associated high potential risk.
      Also, there are no grounds for suspension without pay in most Australian IR instruments. Suspension (with pay) is usually used during times of investigation, and may have been applied already pending the investigation and decision to terminate.
      But why should their employer reward them further for poor (unsafe) behaviours by suspending them with pay????
      At the end of the day those workers made a choice to flout the established safety standards in order to ‘have some fun’ and by doing so exposed their employer to significant risk of prosecution. By their actions they bring about their own (and their families’) punishment.
      That’s no different to a family being affected by the acts of dad or mum breaking the road rules (or any other law) and receiving a penalty for their (unsafe) behaviour.

      1. Kim Flanagan Reply

        Les I can draw no comparison with a Mum or Dad breaking a road rule, being fined, losing points or losing ones licence. Hardly compares with the effect on the family of losing ones job and i know you will say “well they should have thought about that at the time” But obviously they did not, it was compulsive. I am sure these guys are contrite and in hindsight they regret their actions. Isn’t everyone worth a second chance. Do you think they would ever repeat their actions, they may be far better employees from their learnings. What has been achieved by the dismissal? I am sure everyone has stuffed up at one time in their working life, I know I have and I really don’t think it warrants dismissal, it requires people to learn. If this was a wilful act or flagrant breach of law that caused injury to anyone then if may warrant dismissal after a thorough investigation process.

        1. Les Henley Reply

          Kim, what about when mum or dad breaks the road rules and someone is killed or seriously maimed and the penalties involve jail time?
          As indicated in the original article by Daniel, we don’t know the ins and outs of what transpired in the investigation. It may be that this was a culmination of a progression of breaches of safety standards within this specific team. And if they were compulsive in breaching the standards in this instance whats to stop them being compulsive again – when they don’t think about the implications of their actions?
          The very issue of safety in workplaces is that we NEED peple to be thinking through their actions BEFORE they act.

  5. Hans Houtman Reply

    I saw some more “Harlem Shakes” in the past few weeks. It was fun to see them. This specific one is about people having fun together, a break during work. I can hardly imagine these miners to do the Shake when they had to do safety work that was important to get the work done.
    Dismissing them all 15 of work sends out a signal to the rest of the workforce and in my opinion this signal is more seen as “we cannot have fun while doing our work” than “stick to the procedures”. It will be contraproductive for the organisation.
    If the signal would have been that this is seen as a one-off and not accepted any more, the signal would have been just as clear: think about safety during work.

  6. Andrew Townsend Reply

    May we open out the debate from the hypothetical to one of evidence or personal experience. My personal experience is that a rigid authoritarian workplace produces internal pressures in the workplace that counter productive to both getting work done and safety. Pressure builds up to a point where something breaks and that ‘something’ is cooperation. From experience there is a fundamental difference between spontaneous letting off steam and malicious horse play. From experience allowing even encouraging men to enjoy themselves at work is invaluable – if you haven’t sung a five part unaccompanied harmony with your fitters inside a process vessel you haven’t lived! It involved no reduction of standards to take advantage of the superb acoustics that the inside of a 100ft distillation column offered while we were rebuilding the inside of it.

    I am alarmed at Les’s non sequitors and use of nuance that imply a breakdown of society.

    How it is possible to draw parallels with occupational safety and parental driving is beyond me. If however parallels are drawn, at least do it properly and start considering the sociological evidence. Rules based societies have higher occupational fatality and road fatality rates than those with more egalitarian socially minded societies. It may be that compliance has gone as far as it can go

    The phrase ‘new age’ is a slur implying that we may be of the pot smoking hippy types. It is tempting to start quoting George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Goebbels in return.

  7. Anna Reply


    It is always good to see someone put in writing what you yourself has tried to formulate. I have spent a long career in aviation and my brother in the petroleum business. We often compare how we experience just culture and safety culture in different organisations where we are working. It seems to be quite clear that a more modern look (Les, new age is coming, like it or not!) on humans and their behavior in systems is also leading to a more successful provision of safety. But people need time to go from “Obey the rules” to “Do it safe” regimes.
    In this case I would not be surprised if it was the potential PR damage that drove this company to react so strongly rather than a genuine safety concern or safety breach issue. And they might even have gotten that wrong! Maybe the damage to the reputation of Barminco now when the penalties are published is larger than if they had dealt with this incident differently?

  8. Jim Winter Reply

    Great discussion guys! I was quite concerned when SPE used Competency and Compliance as their theme for their international safety conference a few years ago. Sure we need competence and we need people to do the right thing (often enshrined in rules) but they seemed to believe skills, rules and compliance were all that was needed – i.e. the elusive silver bullet of safety. My mind drifted to road safety where all drivers are competent (holding a licence after training and passing tests), there are rules for everything, and compliance to road rules is seemingly the police’s number one job. We certainly don’t approach no incidents in that environment. It always has and always will come down to values and some agreed standards along with some just and balanced system of reinforcement.

  9. Alistair Camm Reply

    It will be interesting to see how this one pans out – especially the unfair dismissal case.
    In an article published back in 2003 “25 keys to safety success” noted risk communication expert Peter Sandman suggested that we “promote horseplay”. In context it was about making safety a group responsibilityrather than solely an individual responsibility. In that way, with a group that work well together you can harness the esprit de corp and morale to accumulate a group safety record. Sandman goes on to say inter alia “…You’re harnessing even horseplay and teasing and peer pressure to be on your side.”
    Its a pity Barminco are not so enlightened when it comes to recognising a positive aspect of their safety culture rather than dennouncing it as blatantly flouting safety rules.

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