A case of collective lying: how deceit becomes entrenched in organizational safety behavior

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Professor Jan Hayes, Ph.D.

RMIT Australia, Design and Social Context


Accident prevention in complex sociotechnical systems focuses on cultural explanations of behavior. In this framing, ethics is held at arm’s length with organizational actors assumed to behave ethically unless the organizational culture pushes them to act otherwise. In this paper we focus on the daily work interactions that impact on ethical behavior, in particular lying at work. The paper draws on the case study of reporting of the performance of locate and mark activities within Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). Gas company representatives liaise with third parties planning excavation works so that the location of any gas assets is marked on the ground before excavation starts. Regulations require gas companies to respond within two days. Despite internal and external reporting of 99% compliance for over a decade, PG&E’s actual performance was approximately 60%. Individuals at all levels and over an extended period lied about this key safety metric. Based on publicly available documents produced as part of the subsequent prosecution of PG&E, our analysis tracks how the lie was born from a computer error and continued through the successive decisions of workers and managers in the years that followed.


Professor Jan Hayes is a sociologist with 35 years’ experience in safety and risk management. She is a Program Leader for the social science safety research activities of the Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre and a Board Safety Assurance Advisor for Airservices Australia. Prof Hayes is a former member of the Advisory Board of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. The Research Council of Norway contributed to her research funding. Her research interests all connect to organisational accident prevention and include professionalism, expertise, decision making and use of standards.  Professor Hayes holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Adelaide) a Master of Business (Swinburne) and a PhD in Sociology from the Australian National University.

Presentation Slides

Presentation Recording/Video