To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I had occasion today to remember one of the owners of a company I used to work for. It was a chemical company and the lab/engineering group owned by it did environmental work - hazardous waste site remediations, effluent monitoring and so forth.

When a sample is taken for environmental sampling, the clock starts ticking on the holding time. This is the amount of time you have to get the analysis done, and it varies by matrix (soil or water) and by analyte. If you miss the holding time, and the sample exceeds the cleanup criteria, that's not usually a big deal. But if the sample is clean, you can't use the results because it has expired, so to speak, and you can't say the concentration of your analytes didn't decrease over time. Typically, if holding times are missed because of negligence in the lab, the lab has to pay for resampling. If bulldozers and things have to be mobilized, this can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Shortly after I went to work for this company, one of the owners had a meeting with all of us. He passed out copies of an article for us to read, that described how upper-level people with an environmental lab somewhere faced criminal charges and jail time because they'd missed holding times on samples from a Superfund site and falsified dates to cover that up. Some people had left that lab and gone to work elsewhere, but the feds went after them. He passed that article out to tell us this:

"DON'T HELP ME. If you miss holding times and we have to pay for resampling, that's bad. But if you miss holding times and lie about it, and I go to jail, that's real bad. Don't miss holding times! But if you do, don't lie about it!"

He went on to tell us that no one in that company would ever ask us to lie about anything, and if we thought they had, we were mistaken.

Some time after this I happened to be at work on the weekend, and he was too. He saw that I was there and asked me to come to his office. It seemed that the city had asked us to start checking the effluent of the plant there in town for carbon tetrachloride, and there was a surprising amount; the company was having to pay fines. The chemist who did volatiles had just turned in some results, and there would be more fines. The owner asked me to check the data and I said I would. But as I put my hand on the door handle, he stopped me and said, "I have to say something."

"No, you don't," I thought, but I stopped and let him say it.

"I'm not asking you to help me here. I don't want you to 'fix' anything. If the number is in error I don't want to pay a fine. But if it's right, it's right."

"I understand," I said, and I went to the volatile lab.

I found the chromatogram and the calibration data, checked the peak integration and the spectrum, went all the way back to the preparation of the calibration standards, recalculated the curve, recalculated the data against a single point, even found the sample and reran it on the chance that the chemist had run the wrong sample. Finally I went back to the owner's office.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I can't find an error."

"Okay, thanks!" he said brightly.

Subsequently they found out where the carbon tet was coming from and fixed the problem.

And subsequent to all of that, this same owner promoted me, twice. He put me forward to be in the pilot group for the in-house management training program we had, and to be in some process development teams at the plant, which was extremely cool. If the chemical industry had not had a downturn in the '90's, and at the same time we had not finished the remediation of those hazardous waste sites, so that they had to cut the lab loose, I would happily have worked there forever.

The point is that this man set a standard for integrity that none of his employees had any excuse for not understanding. When people try to duck responsibility for what their underlings do I think about him, and about the fact that anybody who falsified anything at that workplace did it in direct, explicit violation of the standard he set. I've also thought about the importance of telling the truth, being aboveboard and transparent and all those inconvenient things. There is no job, and certainly there is no audit, accreditation, or anything else, that is worth more to me than my integrity. Jobs come and go but I'll always have myself. You have to watch that slippery slope because every boss is not as principled as this one. If your boss sees you let this little thing and that little thing slide, you have only yourself to blame if he puts you on the spot by asking you to do something you really don't think is right. If your boss sees you being compulsive about doing everything exactly right and by the book, redoing work if necessary, painstakingly investigating when things don't go right, telling the salesman the material just can't go out because the specifications aren't met, he knows better than to ask. So setting high standards for yourself and sticking to them makes everything easier in the long run. (I will say that I can't see my current boss asking me or anyone to do anything that's not right.)

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