Personal Integrity or Corporate Culture?


Robert Bienkowski, PhD, CIP, CHRC
Director, Office of Research Compliance, Central Michigan University

I was booked on a nonstop flight from Detroit to Seattle to attend a biosafety compliance conference. Everyone had boarded, and we were waiting for the crew to close the cabin doors and push back from the gate for an on-time departure. I was enjoying that rarest of economy class luxuries, an exit row all to myself.

Then the captain came on the intercom and said there’d be a short delay in leaving: a technician was just finishing a repair to something on the first officer’s side of the cockpit. A few minutes later the captain was back on the intercom and said that the repair was completed but the technician, who by this time had already left, wrote on the worksheet that the repair was done on the captain’s side of the cockpit. The captain said he could understand how the mistake happened, but the notation had to be corrected before we could leave the gate.

It took another 20 minutes for the technician to return and fix the paperwork error. (The airline doesn’t have a large presence at DTW, so it apparently outsources its maintenance.) The captain could probably have overlooked the incorrect notation, taken off on schedule, and corrected the error after landing in Seattle. What would have been the harm of that? But he chose to it remediate the problem immediately.

I wrote a note on the back of my business card and asked a flight attendant to pass it up front: ”Captain, I appreciate your commitment to maintaining accurate records.”

I’ve been wondering what drove this insistence on doing the right thing, no matter the inconvenience. Was it the pilot’s personal integrity or corporate culture?

I checked the airline’s Code of Conduct and Ethics. It says all the right things starting with a personal statement from the Chairman of the Board and going through Speak Up!, Prohibition against Retaliation, and Non-Punitive Reporting. So there is a source document that defines the corporate culture; this pilot embodies it.

Postscript: We arrived in Seattle early.


  1. Well done Robert Bienkowski! Compliance needs fans, and I´m sure your gesture will have increased, even more, the compliance pilot mentality and his satisfaction for doing the right thing. I bet most people on the plane criticized…

  2. Perhaps adherence to safety regulations was forefront in the pilot’s mind. The airline industry has a zero tolerance for any chance of human error and holds all of the crew, from the pilot to the service technician, accountable for missteps. This incident could have resulted in a terrible tragedy. If the mechanics notations were correct, he or she repaired the wrong side of the plane. The pilot was doing his or her job by confirming that the repair was done correctly (not just “correcting paperwork”). The health care industry has taken note (read the book “To Err is Human”) and it has implemented similar measures to prevent medical errors (i.e.: the wrong parts of the body being “repaired”). Doing the “right thing” involves compliance to regulations as well as personal integrity and corporate culture.

  3. I’d say both (personal integrity and corporate culture). Additionally, as a passenger, it is actions such as these that would make me feel as though I were in good hands and would likely lead to me preferring this airline over others.

  4. Astute observation and good culture. Whenever I speak on the subject of ethics and compliance, I always point out that most (but not all) bad actors don’t wake up one day and decide to break the rules. The serious violations that cost organizations money, their reputations, and put lives in greater peril usually occur at the end of a pattern of behavior that starts with cutting small corners or trying to substitute a “big picture” excuses for not complying. To be effective, compliance has to mean universal compliance.
    (Dr. Bienkowski, my grandson is a Junior at CMU, so Go Chips!)

  5. Dr. Bienkowski,

    I’m sure the pilot appreciated your note. It will, no doubt, reinforce his commitment to ethical conduct even in the face of pressure, both direct and indirect, to do the expedient thing.

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