Bill Sims Company

Bill Sims Company

Achieve lasting behavior change in the work place

Download the E-book

Join us on our travels around the world as we discuss effective techniques to increase employee engagement.

Learn more »


Big Bears and Scapegoats

It was right under your nose the whole time guys…

The smell of jet fuel was thick in the air as Delta hurtled me into the night sky. The last embers of the evening sunset graced the Georgia pine trees with a warm orange glow sparkling on their green needles… reminded me of a flickering campfire.

For this trip, I was sitting near the massive Rolls Royce engines, fascinated by how the exhaust distorted the pine trees and the ground slightly. If you looked thru it, things were soft and fuzzy, much like a Monet painting, and yet just outside the jet blast all was normal, sharp, and clear.

This flight wasn’t in business class…and there were no secret dudes going to the middle east here…this one was hard core…. I was slammed in the middle aisle seat of economy class between two guys who by their massive size had both missed a great career in the NFL…

Send oxygen please….

It would be a 12-hour flight.

I had never been to Alaska, but one of my father’s dearest friends had entertained me with his stories of the Great Wilderness as a boy…Marvin’s eyes would light up when he spoke of his time in Ketchikan, Alaska back in the 50’s. I had always dreamed of going there…

So when I got a call from Ann (one of the board members of the Alaska ASSE chapter) inviting me to speak at their conference, I wondered, “Is it my turn to have an adventure like Marvin’s?”

“Guys who come up here never want to leave…” Ann said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, it’s about a third of the size of the continental USA with only about 600,000 people, and it’s basically wild; hunting, fishing, you name it…”

Ann’s pitch was magic. Of course, it was a Monday morning when we talked…that didn’t hurt her case at all….

Hook, line, sinker. I was sold. I scrubbed my other appointments, and my wife Margie and I were on the next plane westward-bound.

Fast forward.

Long, boring, endless flight in the big silver tube in the sky.

Thanks, Steve Jobs for my iPod…battery died…great.

Are we there yet?

We finally land at the Ted Stevens Airport and there it is.

A really big,

really scary,

12-foot polar bear. Legend has it that it ate a few folks and then faced the double barrel of Alaskan Justice.

Looking at the creature on its hind legs, even in its taxidermic state, is amazing. I figure a picture is in order and hand my phone to Margie so she can “shoot” me by the bear. (She’s always wanted to do that. 😉 )

I was awed to be in the presence of such raw power and felt that perhaps I was making a mistake to act as if I had the skill to defeat such an awesome foe.

But then, hey, it was only a picture, right? Shake it off bill. You’re just tired and a little paranoid.

There wasn’t really any danger…yet.

We drive about an hour to our hotel, far enough away from the airport to make us city slickers feel like the adventure has begun.

Early the next morning, we head for a fishing trip with our new friends Pat, Lynn, Patty, a dog named Duke, and a boat named Sea-Duction.

As we drive up the narrow two-lane road to Seward, Alaska, I can see why people love this place.

Mountains like the Rockies–snow capped, jagged, but touching the ocean. Wrapping around those mountains are iridescent blue glacial rivers, carrying their centuries-old ice and rock.

This, of course, I planned for. But the big surprise was that the whole Kenai Peninsula is an Arctic Rain Forest.

So, guess what!

Below the snow caps you get lush, verdant greenery. Bears like that stuff. Big old bears. Bigger than the guys I rode up with on the plane.

Margie and I are doing fine following Pat & Lynn in their GM Tahoe. We pass a sign telling us that we are about to reach “Turnagain Pass.”

We’re in our rented Suburban with a full tank of gas, and I’m feeling fine until all of a sudden, we go IFR.

For those of you who aren’t into pilot jargon, in a short stretch of about 20 seconds we ascended into the mountains, and the temperature dropped about 30 degrees.


I couldn’t see a thing.

I rolled down the window and stuck my head out to see what was ahead of me while Margie found the right buttons to press to defog us inside.

For a split second, I was 15 and back in my Jeep driving thru the North Carolina Smoky mountains with all the windows zipped down.

As the windshield slowly began to clear, it reminded me how swiftly things go from being “safe” to being “unsafe.”

As we leave the dock at Seward, we gaze at the gorgeous mountains, ocean, glaciers, and even some mountain goats.

Our charter boat captain tells me that the ocean water is about 34 degrees, “so if you go over, we have less than three minutes to get you out, Bill.”

Got it boss.

No sweat. I’m hanging tight on the Sea-Duction Boat.

The day is golden. Only problem is Margie catches 5 fish to my 1.

Oh well…

As I cast my bait in the water hoping for a big King Salmon, I gaze up at the mountain goats standing on the rocky crags above me.


I’m trying to remember what a scapegoat really is. Bottom line, it’s something that is innocent but gets blamed for something it didn’t do.

It was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After 25 years of studying, I’m convinced that incentive systems have become the proverbial “scapegoat.”

Whenever there is a report of injury hiding or under-reporting, consultants have rushed in with a battle cry of “kill the incentives” and, whether right or wrong, they have eviscerated the use thereof.

As I bob my hook up and down in the frigid Alaskan waters, I receive a phone call that further convinces me…

A safety manager calls me and says “Bill we are one of ten plants in our division. We are the worst of the ten….with worst being relative. We’ve been five years with no lost time injuries and only five recordable injuries this year. But we are always ‘low man on the totem pole’ in our monthly conference calls with corporate. My plant manager and I are feeling the heat…..”

So their CEO shows up and gets everyone together for an in-plant “all hands” meeting.

His speech?

Less than 60 seconds…and here are the salient points…

-“The economy is bad and we may have to close plants and layoff people” (that’s Negative, Future, Uncertain).*
-“Your plant is the worst and most unsafe of our ten plants” (Negative, Immediate, Certain).*
-“I’m worried about this plant” (Negative, Immediate, Certain).*

And then, the CEO gets back on his corporate jet.

“How’s that working for you?” I ask the safety guy.

He tells me they haven’t had a recordable since the CEO got back on his jet to go home.

Nor have they had a Near Miss Report. Or a safety suggestion.

Maybe I should have named this blog “Hunker Down”.

Do you think the 60 second CEO pep talk changed the behaviors of the 500 plus workers?

Nope. Nada.

He simply introduced a new consequence into the game.


And while this site has absolutely ZERO in the way of incentive systems there are all kinds of injury hiding going on.

Because the CEO created one big fat NIC to stop injury reporting*.

Now, if OSHA comes to investigate this plant, will they find an incentive system causing the injury hiding?  No, there is not one, however many consultants will rally around the flag of “injury hiding” and condemn incentives as the easy target, the scapegoat.

Where is the smoking gun?

The CEO and his NICS….Negative Immediate Certain consequences (to use Aubrey Daniel’s term)

Do punishing consequences like these go beyond the company mentioned above?

Oh yeah….

Sub-contractors work for major companies and they teach supervisors to stitch up workers in the field so it won’t be a recordable and thus won’t taint their record, and thus won’t stop them from getting a new contract.

“Take one for the team…”

So, can downward pressure for results from senior leadership create injury hiding? Yes.

Can downward pressure from OSHA cause the same. Yes. Osha, without knowing it, can create a system that causes injury hiding.

Another safety director told me that his new plant manager had a different approach to safety…..punishment and mandatory termination for any safety violations.

This of course, led to an immediate drop in all injury reports, along with the “early warning” indicators of near miss/near hit reports.

Of course, this Plant Manager will probably retire in the next three years and he won’t be there when the next fatality comes knocking. It will be off “his watch” and then he will be convinced that the new plant manager wasn’t “tough enough” to keep people safe.

Sorry to break it to you guys, but you can’t punish a team into winning the Superbowl…

Tune in soon for the continuation of my Alaskan adventure!

 *Thanks to Aubrey Daniels for these terms!

6 Responses to “Big Bears and Scapegoats”

  1. January 31st, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Vic Anapolle says:

    You can “beat” the employees and they will respond fearful that they lose their job! And, at the next bright spot they will leave your employ. Or, you can be firm but fair; earning their trust and building confidence. In this scenario employees generally give 110% willingly. I think the latter is the preferable route.

  2. January 31st, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    James Bolinger says:

    I could not agree more so far and am looking forward to the rest. I contacted our BWC rep and was told that OSHA takes a stand against incentive programs and BWC does the same. They want everythng to be perfrormance-driven. My take is that it can make a difference if set up and right tracked correctly. As my saying has always been “inspect what you expect”. Just my two cents.

  3. January 31st, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Georgia Shackelford says:

    Great analogy! I have run into this same situation at my company, more so with supervisors than upper managment. I have worked really hard to avoid under reporting and have found that incentives that encourage behaviour change (“Loved the Green Beans and Ice Cream” workshop) and active participation in the safety program to work much better.

  4. February 1st, 2011 at 4:29 am

    Hiram Pabon says:

    Thanks Bill. Can’t wait for the ending. Loved the terms too.

  5. February 1st, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Doug Wakefield says:

    Well written and said, Bill.

    Aussie systems can create similar probs in non-reporting. Won’t get too wordy, but behaviour – at all levels – must change, and probs arise when ‘behaviour’ is considered as being a ‘rank and file’ only affair. ALL levels have to change, including ALL stakeholders – legislators, voters, shareholders, customers, etc. – for decent SSHE systems to exist.

    Keep it up!


  6. February 2nd, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Phil Chase says:


    Great story, good analysis, and an excellent message. Badly designed incentive systems do a lot of damage, though, so we have to be ever vigilant to make sure they target the right behaviors and incorporate our best current knowledge of how consequences work. My only quibble about this article is that I wouldn’t call fear a consequence, I’d call it an antecedent, probably an establishing or motivating operation. But there is enough controversy among scholars on these terms and it doesn’t change your message:don’t blame the incentive system! So thanks.

Leave a Reply

Let’s Talk More.
Get in Touch Directly

We’d love to hear from you.

(800) 756-8732

Contact Us

Get a Free Assessment

Let’s talk about what’s working for you and what’s not. No strings attached.

All fields required.

Make corrections below.

Thank You! We’ll see to your request shortly.
We need your first name.
Must be a valid email address.
We need the name of your company.
Tell us your biggest challenge.

You must read and agree to the terms.
Agree to Terms & Conditions
We need your last name.
We need your phone number.
Must be a number.
Tell us what budget you have in mind.


What’s Your Challenge

What We Offer

We offer Employee Engagement & Safety Incentive Programs that create lasting behavior change and long-term performance improvement.

Our patented process will accelerate the results of any behavior change initiative and integrate seamlessly with any safety incentive program.

Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions
© 2010 Bill Sims Company. All Rights Reserved.
site by truematter
Follow Us Twitter Facebook