Lessons from the GM Debacle: Keep a journal of events at work

I’ve been reading news reports about the head of GM standing up in front of a group of her employees to discuss the results of the investigation she commissioned to look into allegations that GM personnel knew some of their ignition switches were defective. The defect was serious because vehicles would “switch off”, resulting in loss of power steering and power braking, which, sometimes led to accidents. Moreover, since the air bags were wired through the ignition switches, power to the air bags shut off as well. Then, when the crashes occurred – no air bags.  So GM now has to recall a lot of cars.  And, GM is setting up a fund to pay money to victims, even though their legal liability to do so was supposedly discharged in their bankruptcy.

So, as I understand the news coverage, the GM head stood in front of these employees and said, “we commissioned a former US Attorney to look into this.  His investigation was thorough and fair. He concluded that various engineers and lower level management failed to report these problems up the chain of command when they became aware of it, then those lower-level engineers were incompetent in deciding not to do anything to fix the problem. But, his report completely exonerates upper level GM management – they were completely ignorant of these problems because of the incompetence of the lower engineers and managers. So, we have fired 15 of those people.”  She did not go on to announce that higher-level management would receive bonuses (that will take place, I suppose, at another conference in the future).

Now, maybe that’s exactly the way it went down: engineers knew about the problems, and some lower-level managers; but, those people kept silent and did not pass the information up the chain of command.  I have read some interesting comments, though, posted by engineers “under” the story.  A frequent observation is, “typical management cover-up.  Engineers are told never to put these things in writing, but, instead, to report these problems to the next layer of management verbally. That way, we are told, proper steps can be taken by those in authority to determine whether this is a “real problem”, and, while we are looking into it, word won’t “leak out” and be “misused to make unfair criticisms”.  Then, if management decides they want to act, they paper the situation to death, and take all the credit. If they decide not to act, and that turns out to be a mistake, they deny they knew anything about the situation. And the engineer is left holding the bag.”  I have to say, that has the ring of truth, although I’ve seen nothing about any GM engineer claiming that is what happened in this case.

All this leads me to remind workers of my advice that they keep a journal of work events. I’ve written a legal guide about that.  Just because your employer instructs you not to “paper” a problem in the employer’s files doesn’t mean you can’t memorialize the problem, as well as the instruction not to put anything in writing, in your personal journal. In fact, an instruction not to write something down at work strikes me as a sure sign you should document that in your j0urnal, and start a journal if you haven’t already done so. Later, if you are the subject of allegations that you “sat on” something important, you can produce a document, which you made at the time the events occurred, reflecting the instructions you received. True, the employer may contend you made the entry up after the fact; but, if you regularly keep a journal with periodic entries, that is a very convincing document to corroborate your version of the events. A document “made up” after the fact to appear to be “contemporaneous” is very difficult to create. For example, a forensic examiner of questioned documents can tell, looking at the various entries, if they were made at around the same (recent) time. Similarly, a forensic computer expert can check whether entries in a “living document” were made all at once, or over a period of time. Conversely, real contemporaneous journals are just as hard to dismiss as “fakes”.

I have also mentioned the importance of workers keeping track of time worked. Employees punch time cards (or their electronic equivalents), and that data is then in the possession of the employer. If a question arises about the accuracy of the employer’s statement of your hours on a pay card (for example, if you claim you’ve been shorted time, or denied overtime payments), you will want to consult the actual time records. Good luck with that! California law gives employees the right to look at their personnel file, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to obtain copies of your employer’s time records.  So, get in the habit of tracking your own hours. If you have a smart phone, there are inexpensive “apps” for that. If you do it, be consistent about it. Make your personal time entries just before your time on the clock starts, and just after you punch out (in other words, make the entries on your own time). Otherwise, your employer could reasonably complain that they aren’t paying you to maintain redundant, personal, time records, and that they “own” your data.  Finally, do this on your own device – not one that your employer has provided to you.

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