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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.         Vol. 32, No. 14 * July 31, 2000

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Foreseeability Analysis

The HR Doctor’s favorite poem is “Maud Muller” by Whittier. Near the end of the poem are the famous lines “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ”

When things don’t turn out the way we expect or when unanticipated events, mistakes, or disasters intervene and cripple our plans, we all have a tendency to say to ourselves or to others words like those written by Whittier. If we could only have demonstrated the same wisdom before the fact that we apply afterwards, our careers as stewards of the public trust would be far more successful.

There is one common characteristic in every crisis. That characteristic is the search for a scapegoat. We see demonstrations of how effective we have become as individuals and as a nation in searching for scapegoats by tuning into the many congressional committee hearings. In our own agencies we employ auditors who, as the old saying goes, “come on to the field after the battle and bayonet the wounded.” The HR Doctor recognizes the importance of after-the-fact analysis of events so that we can learn from mistakes and benefit from them. In fact, in the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, the real key to learning and advancing can be found in learning from our mistakes, not our successes.

In Public Administration, however, we apply due diligence more often than not in after-the-fact inquiries than in initial work, trying, as well as we poor humans can, to see into the future.

The HR Doctor calls for more attention to a concept called “foreseeability analysis.” For example, in the very serious challenge of preventing and reducing the risks of workplace violence, the entire process should begin with the question “What dangers and risks can we reasonably foresee or predict?” From the pro-active assessment of a team can come a list of hazards or possible outcomes that can focus the organization’s attention on needs and lead to productive policies and actions.

In the workplace violence example, the team may identify possible future incidents such as parking lot assaults. That may lead to identifying physical security weaknesses such as the need for more lighting. By improving visibility in the parking lot, the agency can “get in front” of a realistic threat scenario. The foreseeability analysis may identify the fact that there are no controls or mitigation measures present at all in the organization. In other words there is no policy. This recognition can lead to creation of a pro-active policy, training for employees and managers, the banning of deadly weapons, and other steps that can render the agency far safer from the threat of violence standpoint but also from a litigation liability and defense perspective.

Every agency would be well served by beginning a public policy debate with a foreseeability analysis. This is certainly true in human resources management, where concepts such as liability control and projecting ahead to try to identify agency needs is critical. Asking the “what if” question opens doors to more effective administration. When we don’t focus on diligent forward thinking, we run the risk of stumbling ahead right into a sliding glass door we didn’t see or falling off the edge of a cliff we didn’t expect to find.

The absence of foresight is either short sight or no sight. Neither of the latter two options is appropriate in modern HR management or in administration in general. Foreseeability analysis is one powerful tool in an agency’s “tool kit.” Please know however, that it can also be a powerful tool in our personal lives as we look ahead to the growth of our family, our own retirement, or our dreams for a bright future.

The HR Doctor foresees all the best for you. Don’t forget to “visit” at

(Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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