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When the Canary Stops Singing

When the Canary Stops Singing

Miner’s canaries were once routinely used in coal mining as an early warning system. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. Because canaries tend to sing much of the time, they provided both a visual and audible cue of impending danger.

When the canary was singing everyone knew the environment was safe. The use of miner’s canaries in British mines was phased out by 1987.

The phrase “canary in a coal mine” is frequently used to refer to a person or thing which serves as an early warning of a coming crisis.

miner canaryIt is my hope we have not phased out the corporate canaries in the American workplace: Those people who are willing to sacrifice their jobs, incomes or careers for the benefit of others who may not be aware of the toxic cultural practices inside a company’s work environment, including unethical or illegal leadership practices.

For the sake of long-term business viability – for the sake of coworkers and vendors who have bills to pay – for the sake of employees with mortgages, children to feed, and college expenses to cover, I hope we have not lost this immovable moral courage.

It is the right thing to do. Having moral courage is in the best interest of your company’s leaders and coworkers. Company loyalty occurs when a person is willing to stand up when others are looking the other way. The person with moral courage is ultimately devoted to their fellow man.

Canaries sing for a living. They have great attitudes and help make the environment more peaceful. If the canary is alive you know the mine is safe.

Canaries are not dangerous, fearsome, rude or aggressive creatures. They are pleasant to be around. They give their lives in order to keep people safe.

Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), says, “When an employee picks up the phone and dials the company’s ethics helpline; when a student approaches the teacher to raise a concern; even as a leader references organizational values as the prevailing principle guiding a strategic decision there is an important dynamic at work.”

She further states, “It is a concept that is not often talked about, but we certainly notice when it is absent. Nevertheless, the ability for people to take risks to do what is right, and the presence of a climate that supports that courage, is a necessary element to the success of any ethics effort.”

We need people with moral courage in today’s business environment. Moral courage is the ability to make a decision, take a stand, express an opinion, while it may not be popular or culturally acceptable, and face the loss of status or even your job.

People with moral courage do not simply observe and stay silent when laws are broken, policies are ignored, or people are not treated fairly.

If you are ever faced with a toxic company culture situation, it is my hope you will possess this life-saving moral courage.

Kevin Kennemer is founder of The People Group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kevin is driven by his passion for company owners and their need to earn a profit, employees' desire for a positive and fulfilling work experience, and the community that benefits when both groups do well.


  1. Shannon Warren 15 years ago

    Outstanding article! We need to post this link somewhere on the OK Ethics site. Is that okay with you? I’ll try to figure out a location for it.

  2. Rubens Cunha 15 years ago

    Wonderful article. If I knew about this speech before I would have been there!

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