Engage to Go from Good to Great

You already have many of the tools in place to achieve lofty corporate safety goals; what is needed is the spark.

What does it mean to be "at your industry number," the average OSHA incident rate for companies in a given business group? Technically, it means that your incident rate is on par, and therefore it is an indication that you are as good as the average. As benchmarks go, it is a very easy to understand reference point relating to your company's safety performance. Companies with troubled safety records may be prideful when they lower their incident rate to their industry number, as it clearly would be a step in the right direction. But a safety professional in a company that already has a good safety culture would not feel comfortable telling his boss that the goal is to have an average safety performance.

Rather, the goal of most safety professionals is to have a good, or ideally great, safety record, which can be defined as some percent better than the average. You can get there in most industries by doing the "normal things" that adequately funded safety departments with good management can do. The tools used to get to a good safety culture range from offering competitive salary and benefits packages to providing extensive training and mentoring, supplying all the necessary personal protective equipment, etc. Deploying these tools with enthusiasm and skill will very often deliver better-than-average results and lead to what is loosely defined as a good safety culture. But then what?

To evolve from a good to a great culture requires inspiring people in a way that convincingly breaks through the clutter of everyday life and makes a lasting impression. It requires sustainable engagement at levels that safety managers have not traditionally been asked to consider. In fact, "employee engagement" does not necessarily feel like a safety issue -- it feels more like something that HR and/or operations should pursue. Nevertheless, a safety manager who is looking to go from good, to great, to best in the industry must think outside these departmental boxes and take on the challenge because there is a very real correlation between employee engagement and safety performance.

The challenge of improving engagement may seem daunting, but it is really just another way of saying that you need to improve the connection between the employer and employee (or contract workers/channel partners). It is about focusing on the shared interests of both groups and about making and keeping commitments to inspire trust. It's not about punishment, which most companies are already very well equipped to dole out, but rather it involves deploying tools and processes to recognize and reward the good behaviors and thereby eliminate the bad ones. Luckily, most companies already have many of these tools in place, such as new employee orientation processes, training programs, wellness initiatives, safety meetings, and employee communications systems, just to mention a few. These tools form the structure and the wiring that are essential to achieve lofty corporate safety goals; what is needed is the spark.

So what does it take to engage a person, to catch their interest or improve their concentration for a brief minute more than normal? What will it take to get them to pay attention just a bit longer in a meeting and to remember what they were taught at exactly the moment when they need to act a certain way? Ask yourself, "What do I respond to, and what motivates my behavior in small but meaningful ways?" Consider a few simple questions about your own habits as a consumer, and you may find the answer:

  • When you reach into your wallet for a credit card, which one do you grab and why?
  • When you decide where to get lunch, what influences your choice?
  • How do you choose a hotel, airline, or rental car company?
  • Which gas station, casino, supermarket, or shoe store do you choose, and why?

To be sure, many of your answers to these questions will relate to price, quality, service, and convenience. These are baseline issues that affect behavior. Similarly, your safety program has many baseline elements that influence behaviors that are already "baked in." But when we are looking to go from "good to great," we are looking for change within the margins. In this space, we must look at what motivates that last bit of performance and realize that only there will we truly be able to induce those final behavior changes that move the needle.

So back to the questions. The tipping point for many consumers when deciding which credit card, airline, restaurant, gas station, or clothing store to choose is affected by the loyalty programs offered by those institutions. In fact, the average American household is now enrolled in approximately 18 loyalty programs. And why do companies spend billions to develop and deploy these programs? Because they work, and the same principles that affect consumer behavior are also applicable to what motivates worker behavior. In the end, human nature will always rule the day.

So if loyalty programs are that valuable to companies pursuing consumers, how valuable could your safety rewards and recognition (employee loyalty) program be when it properly targets your workforce? If it is built correctly, it can affect not only your incident rate, but also the performance and profitability of your entire organization. According to a comprehensive three-year study conducted by Towers Watson, companies with engaged employees grew at 19 percent while companies with disengaged employees declined by 30 percent during that same period. Here are some other stats from that same study.

Organizations with higher-than-average employee engagement realize:

  • 27 percent higher profits
  • 50 percent higher customer loyalty
  • 38 percent higher productivity
  • 20 percent more revenue per employee
  • 57 percent higher shareholder returns

Making the Case for Engagement Initiatives
With stats like these, and with unsafe behavior accounting for up to 96 percent of workplace accidents (according to an article in Occupational Health & Safety) it would be natural to assume that the mandate to deploy more engagement initiatives should come from the top down, but generally this is not the case. Often, the department most interested in behavior change must lead the organization when lobbying for initiatives that are outside the norm. With tight budgets and a shaky economy, the best way for a safety manager to get financial support for a "non-traditional" safety initiative is to demonstrate to the organization how effective the program can be.

The trick is to do so without risking substantial amounts of time and money, and this often involves the running of a test or trial program. By doing so, a safety manager will be able to prove the concept and hone the program format with minimal risk of failure. Armed with proof that the program will deliver a positive return on investment, management can much more easily sign off on a full-scale deployment of the concept.

Whether it is a test program or an enterprise-wide rollout, there are five overarching elements to consider in order to achieve the levels of engagement necessary.

1) Commitment: There are many overlapping words and phrases that speak to this -- "management support," "buy-in," "long-term solution" -- but they all add up to one thing. There must be a strong, companywide commitment to create and deploy such a program.

2) Marketing and Communication: Your safety program should have a brand name. If it doesn't, you are missing an important piece of the puzzle necessary to create the "loyalty" needed for success. Your employees need to know what your safety brand is, and it needs to be communicated on a consistent basis. Branding and marketing are not just for soft drinks, they are effective tools for internal company initiatives, as well.

3) Tangible: Cash and cash substitutes will not work at generating long-term behavior change. While many managers have come to understand this, there are still many who opt for the simplicity of cash and as a result. end up with an ineffective solution. That $50 bill you gave your employee (or $50 tank of gas) for being safe is not memorable and will not result in behavior change. Tangible awards are the only carrot that will produce measurable results.

4) Culture: This element requires a bit of heavy lifting on the part of the company. Rewards and recognition solution providers can build, manage, and measure a program, but the actual deployment must be handled by well-informed managers, supervisors, and workers where the "rubber meets the road." Face-to-face recognition wherever possible is the best way to reward the proper behaviors that lead to a great safety culture, and it must be done in a timely and consistent manner to maximize the effect that it has on future behaviors.

5) Structure: What is the appropriate budget, and what does success look like? How will you ensure that it is fairly applied, not abused, and what measurements will be in place to monitor its success? How and where will you first test the program to ensure that it was built properly before being deployed to the larger audience? The more questions asked and answered up front, the better the program will operate.

Change Your Approach
In short, if your company's incident rate is higher than the industry average, start by doing all of the normal things that safety departments typically do to improve performance. If you have achieved an average or good culture but you are searching for ways to get to great, stop doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results. Instead, solicit help from experts on generating long-term employee engagement as a method of improving safety and reducing spending.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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