Things that can get you fired an environmental career has some unique challenges


With the economy what it is, job security is a topic on most people’s minds. In a recent article distributed by FINS and The Wall Street Journal, Kelly Eggers  examined the top 10 things that one can do to get oneself fired.1 Indeed, a quick internet search can find dozens of similar “top reasons” for terminations. There is a common thread among all of these articles, such as getting conveniently sick (adjacent to holidays and weekends is popular), lying, having disgusting hygiene, taking credit for others’ work, spending too much time with the complainers or nonperformers, and being ungrateful.

There were other dimensions that Eggers covered that can be particularly problematic for environ- mental professionals, but not for the usual reasons. On the surface, these traits to avoid appear straight- forward, such as never compromising, never taking responsibility when things go wrong, staying anonymous, and not respecting the chain of com- mand. However, environmental professionals can find themselves in situations where they are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

For example, environmental professionals have a legal obligation to follow the law and a moral obli- gation to protect the environment. They can also be keenly aware of emerging issues that techni- cally may be perfectly legal under current statutes but may soon be regulated or may even cause  material damage to the company in the future. Think PCBs and asbestos. They can receive mixed messages from above as to how to exercise these obligations or literally be told not to expend  resources on necessary activities.

One could argue that every profession has an array of regulatory requirements that must be met, be they child labor laws, taxation, accounting, anti- bribery and corruption, and purchasing restrictions (e.g., conflict minerals). There are, however, four factors that, when taken in total, make dealing with environmental issues particularly difficult.

The Challenges
The first challenge deals with the complexity of the requirements. Besides accounting and tax regulations, no other area can compete with environmental regulations, at least in the United States. At the start of my career, I understood all federal, state (Cali- fornia), and local environmental regulations. Today, there are attorneys that specialize in just single,  narrow dimensions of the regulations.

The second challenge is span of control. All too often, all matters even remotely related to the environment are viewed as the responsibility of the “environ- mental person.” In a recent unpublished survey, managers in other functional areas acknowledged that they had some responsibility for sustainability, but it was the environmental person who typically did the heavy lifting. In effect, an environmental manager has a very broad span of responsibility but relatively little control and authority.

The near universal improvement in safety per- formance within industry over the past 50 years has been, in large part, due to the emphasis on personal responsibility for not only one’s own safety but for the safety of those around us. Environ- mental concerns are slowly moving in that  direction, but are not yet there by any means. If there is a problem, the assigned environmental person can bear the brunt of the criticism.

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