The “Root Cause” Of Most Workplace Problems Is A Lack Of “Good Judgment”

I no longer use the term “common sense” other than to criticize the term as having lost its meaning.  The majority of the 500 or so workplace death cases I have investigated have involved poor judgment by an otherwise decent and skilled worker.  Many incidents of alleged harassment and discrimination may not meet the legal standard of unlawful behavior but demonstrated remarkably bad decision making.  There is an absence out in the work world of this so-called “common sense.”

Commonsense demands that the term be renamed “uncommon” sense.  The “common” aspect of common sense is supposed to be “knowledge, judgment, and taste, which is more or less universal and which is held more or less without reflection or argument.”  The “common” behaviors described above do not match Miriam Webster’s definition of “common sense”as “the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.”  Nor do these worker behaviors satisfy Karl Albrecht’s definition of “Practical Intelligence” which is the “mental ability to cope with the challenges and opportunities of life.” 

I do not know if there was a time when more people practiced common sense, but certainly I do not live in that period.  I prefer to use the term “good judgment,” which is hardly “common.”  Rather than define “good” judgment, let’s look at the McMillan Dictionary discussion of “bad” judgment:


Foolish –                      lacking good sense and judgment;

Impulsive –                  tends to do things without thinking about what will happen as a result;

Unthinking –                done without thinking that it might be wrong or stupid;

Impetuous –                 does things quickly without thinking about what will happen as a result;

Ill-considered –            made or done without careful thought;

Undiscriminating –       deciding what one likes without carefully thinking about the value of qualities of different choices;

Hasty –                        doing things in a hurry, without careful planning or thought;

Automatically –            without conscious thought or intention, especially because of habits; and

Shallow –                     not interested in serious ideas, strong feelings for other important things.


Teach people how to avoid bad “judgment” and you’ll eliminate most workplace problems.

Fortunately, you can train most workers to practice good judgment.  As an example, the essence of using good judgment in working safely is to constantly pause before the next task, think about the hazards and how to perform the job, and take the necessary steps to finish the job without incident.  Similarly, many claims of harassment and discrimination would be avoided if a supervisor simply paused to think about how their remarks would appear, or to ponder whether they really should say that in an email.  I will continue to write about the role of good judgment in the workplace, but as a starting point, I encourage you to dig more deeply in your root cause analysis as to why employees do the wrong things.  The “J” word may pop up.  Then perhaps you can regularly conduct “tool box”-type talks to remind employees to use that uncommon good judgment.

About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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