Whistleblowers, Responsibility And My Life Before Advertising

Hard to believe it, but I actually had a job or two before advertising. (By the way, this story relates to any workplace).  I worked in the Auto Industry – for a division of Ford Motor Company, and later, for a division of Toyota of America.

I have seen a lot of shoddy work roll off the line that really doesn’t have to be. It’s frustrating, and bottom line, it’s all about responsibility, caring and culture.

Last week I wrote about management putting process (or tools, or just have a real culture, for crying out loud) in place so they know what’s going on – and can act on issues that affect anything from their bottom line to their customers.

I noted a few instances of where leaders [claimed they] “didn’t know” and I called B.S. on that.

One of those instances was faulty ignition switches – which is the latest big issue that GM is addressing.

An article on Bloomberg Businessweek about whistleblower Courtland Kelley talks about his efforts to alert GM management of issues which were met with, well, they didn’t want to hear about it. Mr. Kelley’s predecessor was demoted for making an issue of defects and was removed from his position; and Kelley who continued to make management aware of problems (more than the ignition switch), finally sued GM. GM denied there were problems, the judge sided with GM (that judge should be removed), and Kelley was demoted. He was a lifetime GM employee reduced to doing stuff that doesn’t upset anyone.

It is a really lonely place to be when you decide to take serious issues to management. In Kelley’s case, these were life-and-death issues. And the really heinous part was (and still is) an issue of cost – it was “too expensive” for GM to recall and repair the vehicles.

I can’t even imagine what Mr. Kelley felt when he read about the fatalities that he knew were a result of GM’s inaction – issues he warned them about. In writing. Multiple times.

Is it really cheaper to pay restitution to the victims’ families than to recall and fix those defects out on the road?


So, way back when, I worked at Ford. Actually, it was a Predelivery Service plant where we did a few tweaks, like alignments; installed a few accessories; fixed any minor damage done during transit (via rail car); and basically made the car clean and pretty for the dealer. The shop had everything from mechanics, to body and paint, to detailers.

It was the early- mid-seventies and the gas crisis hit. I was laid off three times during those glorious times, but while I was working, I first did claims – both damage claims during transit that the rail carrier paid, and warranty claims that were paid by Ford; then I became an inspector. As an inspector, there were things I could see – the hold-down broke during transit (from the Midwest to Oregon), and along the way the car bounced around and got pretty beat up; and things I couldn’t see – usually the warranty stuff . . . like missing piston rings or brake pads.

We documented everything we found to be a problem and fixed every car. Those warranty claims always went to Ford corporate. I have to wonder if they ever tracked trends.

We jokingly called ourselves Final Assembly.

I worked there when the Pinto was rolling off the line like mad because it was Ford’s only fuel-efficient car. We had no idea it was so faulty that it would eventually be pulled from production due to dangerous design.

Segue to keeping management informed  . . .

The point is, telling the truth is really important. That’s where culture comes in. There have to be channels for employees to advance issues to management. Employees have to not only feel safe raising the red flag, but able to do so without fear of retaliation.

At least at Ford, I had the warranty claims process to inform management. What they did with that data is a mystery.

But as for Mr. Kelley, he told the truth – and then, due to stonewalling by his bosses, even sued the company for not taking action. They rewarded him with demotion, humiliation and an end to his career that was far from what he ever planned.

But we all have to go with our conscience. GM’s management went with their pocketbook.

I have raised issues many times and have been shot down more often than been a witness to change. If they don’t know about it, they can’t fix it – right? I can never shake the feeling that if it seems wrong, it is usually wrong. I have to speak up.

As much as we hate to bring something that went horribly wrong to our boss, it really is much cheaper to fix it now than later. Damage control is hard, expensive and hangs on forever.

Do what’s right. Use all your channels, and as I said before, do it diplomatically.

Management, at any level, can be a bunch of jerks. Be prepared for whatever happens. Save your email – send them to yourself. You just never know when your hard drive at work will crash, or IT won’t be able to recover your saved emails.

Oh, and my stint at Toyota? In thousands of cars that were processed while I was there (they came by ship from Japan back then), I only saw one – really one – with a defect: a broken tie-rod. Of course that was a long time ago, before they too became greedy and started ignoring issues.

We’re learning a lot about culture here, so pay attention.

How does your agency or company work with employees who ask questions or enlighten management about issues with regard to product, workplace or improvements?

You can develop great ideas, turn out great work, enjoy your job – and management is there to support and promote you all along the way.

That’s why we do what we do. That’s when we have jobs we love. That is great culture.