The “Whys” Behind Rules: The Photo-Op Tragedies in Yosemite and Guatemalan Zoo

In the news this past week were two events that could be used to drive home to employees those seemingly bureaucratic and overly cautious rules do have important purposes. The first was the tragic loss of three lives in Yosemite National Park. Three young men climbed to the top of the 317-foot Vernal Fall and, upon reaching the top, climbed over the guard rail to trod the slick rocks over to the middle of the Merced River for a better photo op. In doing so, they disregarded the barricades, the warning signs, and the pleas from fellow hikers to stop. Just 25 feet from the precipice the three young people were swept away by the swift-moving waters that were in extra heavy flow mode because of high snowfall this past winter. All three were killed. The second event involved a young missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints serving a mission in Guatemala. On a day trip to the Guatemala City zoo, the young man climbed a concrete wall for a better photo op in front of the lion cage. The concrete wall that separated man and beast was not as tall as it seemed. Never climb atop a wall that separates you from the lions. The wall may look high on your side, but may be within paws’ reach from the lions’ perspective. The wall is there for protection, not to be climbed. One lion was able to reach up and grab the young missionary atop the wall by his right leg. Once he was pinned, a second lion grabbed his left upper arm. The young man lost five pints of blood as his companions worked for two minutes to free him from the mauling beasts.

We demand compliance with the classic parental justification, “Because I said so,” when helping employees to understand the really good reasons, research, and thought process behind the rules might edge them along into attitudinal shifts that require less supervision. When employees round corners, change processes, bend rules, and interpret terms in order to get what they want more quickly or achieve a desired result, they probably believe they are experienced and know better than whatever regulator, supervisor, or internal person established them. Helping employees to understand their reasoning for bending and breaking rules is flawed goes a long way in the compliance battle.

Here are the critical issue in rules appreciation, evidenced by these tragic incidents:
1. Folks with experience and knowledge put up the signs and erected the barricades. They have experience with rushing water and lions and made the rules based on their data set. Those who encounter the rule for the first time lack experience and data. When they substitute their judgment for that of those who established the rules, there is risk that they are unable to measure precisely because they are inexperienced. One of the hikers offered this observation about the fatal incident, “I can understand they wanted to get close to it because it’s a beautiful site. But you have to be respectful toward nature.” You need to understand nature’s power. Whether raging waters or mauling lions, nature does its thing and her power is why we have walls, guardrails, and warnings. National Park rangers, zookeepers, and administrators do, and the rules are their best advice for ensuring safety.
2. The drive for results causes disregard for the rules. In both cases, those who were harmed wanted something better than the dullards who operate by the rules. They wanted a terrific and different photo. Unable to settle for achievement within the rules, they placed themselves above the rules.
3. The consequences for the individuals who broke the rule were fatal or life-changing. So it is with broken rules within companies – the company is never the same, the financial setbacks are great, and individual careers end.
4. Even as they set out to break the rules, they ignored warnings because others had not been harmed when they broke the rule. Others at Vernal Fall had apparently made the slick trek to the river’s middle without incident, so as the three young people witnessed their success, they assumed that, despite the rules, crossing the barricade was what “everyone was doing,” “no one is really harmed by this,” and “things had been fine in the past.” These classic rationalizations offer comfort to rule-breakers. Still another witness to the ill-fated disregard of a simple rule said people tried to warn them, “They said, ‘You know what man, get your ass back over here.'” All in all, not a bad summary for compliance officers everywhere as they rein in employees who bend, break, and round the corners on important rules.

The Yosemite staff is now handing out newsletter advice to visitors as they enter the park, “Never swim or wade upstream from a waterfall, even if the water appears shallow and calm.” Sometimes we have deliberate defiance of rules by employees. More often than not, we have folks who fail to understand why the rules, barricades, and prohibitions are important. They are there for protection even when we don’t see the potential risk or harm. Help them with understanding the harm and the compliance part becomes much easier.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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