Checking Your Culture

Does your organization have a "safety-friendly" corporate culture? Here's how to find out.

THIS article deals with the subject of health and safety as cultural imperatives in organizations attempting to compete in a global environment; the article will help determine whether your organization has a safety-friendly corporate culture and provides a 10-step model for establishing such a culture.

When a workplace disaster occurs, the term safety culture often surfaces as part of the ensuing discussion and debate. Organizations that experience major health or safety failures are sometimes said to lack a safety culture. This has become a popular term, but I'm not sure it's the right term in these cases.

The term safety culture can be misleading because it implies that health and safety are stand-alone, non-integrated concepts that are somehow separate and apart from an organization's broader corporate culture. For this reason, I use the term safety-friendly corporate culture to make the critical point that an organization's culture relating to health and safety must be an integral part of its overall corporate culture, not a separate and tacked-on appendage.

Taking this approach, in turn, make it easier to help executives and managers who lead organizations understand that providing a safe and healthy work environment is just as much a competitive strategy as providing customers with superior cost, quality, and service. In fact, the concepts of health, safety, and competitiveness are inextricably linked. Without a healthy and safe work environment, employees cannot consistently do the things that are necessary to deliver superior cost, quality, and service.

To make the point that health and safety should be fully integrated components of any organization's overall corporate culture and competitive strategy, I define a safety-friendly corporate culture as follows:

A safety-friendly corporate culture exists when the tacit assumptions, beliefs, values, attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that are widely shared and accepted in an organization support the establishment and maintenance of a healthy and safe work environment: an environment which, in turn, supports peak performance, continual improvement, and maximum competitiveness.

Does your organization have a safety-friendly corporate culture? One way to answer this question is to conduct a self-assessment.

Organizational Self-Assessment
I use the following criteria for helping client firms determine the extent to which they have or lack a safety-friendly corporate culture:

• Are health and safety top priorities in the organization? In organizations with a safety-friendly corporate culture, health and safety are included as core values and competitive strategies in the strategic plan. Job descriptions include expectations that employees will work in a safe and healthy manner, and performance appraisal instruments contain criteria for evaluating the extent to which this happens. Finally, the chief health and safety professional in the organization is part of the organization's higher-management team.

• Are personnel in the organization recognized and rewarded for working in a safe and healthy manner? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, when personnel are recognized--as employee of the month, quarter, or year, for example--health and safety-related work habits will be part of the selection criteria. In addition, when decisions about incentives, raises, and promotions are made, employee performance relating to health and safety will be given substantial consideration.

• Are health and safety major considerations when corporate decisions are made? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, when major organizational decisions are made--about new equipment purchases, facility expansions, or re-engineering of processes, for example--the potential effects on employee health and safety will be factors in the decision-making process. Further, the chief health and safety professional in the organization will be part of the decision-making team.

• Do management personnel make it clear that safe and healthy behaviors and attitudes are expected in all cases? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, management personnel will consistently demonstrate the fact through their words, actions, examples, decisions, and resource allocations.

• Are employees encouraged to make any concern they may have about the work environment known to management? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, employees will be encouraged to voice any concern they might have about the work environment without fear of retribution or the "shoot the messenger" syndrome, and they will be provided convenient vehicles for doing so. Further, they will be able to voice their concerns with the expectation that appropriate action will be taken in a timely manner.

• Does peer pressure in the organization support or undermine health and safety? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, peer pressure in the organization will support its policies, procedures, and practices relating to health and safety. Employees will "police" themselves and one another in ways that encourage healthy and safe work habits.

• Do widely accepted practices in the organization support or undermine health and safety? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, common practices, tacit assumptions, and normal behaviors--sometimes referred to as the organization's unwritten rules--will support its written policies and procedures relating to health and safety. There will be no cases of doing things the safe and healthy way when management is watching, but circumventing policies and procedures when unobserved.

• Does the pressure of deadlines cause safe and healthy practices to be put aside? If there is a safety-friendly corporate culture, the right way to work will be the safe and healthy way, irrespective of deadlines and other productivity pressures. For example, machine guards will stay in place on all machines even when removing them might speed up a given process.

When a safety-friendly corporate culture exists, health and safety are not viewed as separate appendages grafted onto an organization's corporate culture. Rather, they are viewed and, in turn, treated as fully integrated components of the organization's broader corporate culture.

Keys to Competing and Winning
One of the key concepts contained in the definition given above is that providing a healthy and safe work environment is viewed not just as a compliance issue, but as a way to enhance an organization's ability to compete in a global environment. Consistently providing superior value is the key to winning in today's intensely competitive global marketplace. Organizations deliver superior value by producing products that are superior to those of competitors in the key areas of cost, quality, and service. This is a critical concept for health and safety professionals and the organizations they serve to grasp, because in order for employees to do what is necessary to ensure superior value--consistently perform at peak levels and continually improve their performance--they must have a healthy and safe work environment.

Hazardous working conditions will quickly rob personnel of the focus and energy needed to do what is necessary to consistently deliver superior cost, quality, and service (i.e., to innovate, think critically, take the initiative, work together in mutually supportive ways). Consequently, for organizations that do battle in the global business arena, providing a healthy and safe work environment can be a competitive advantage.

Corporate cultures in organizations are established through the systematic application of expectations, role-modeling, orientation, mentoring, training, monitoring, evaluation, recognition, and rewards. The following steps will help organizations apply these concepts systematically.

1. Understand the need for a safety-friendly corporate culture. All personnel in leadership positions in an organization, from the CEO to first-line supervisors, need to understand the need for and benefits of a safety-friendly corporate culture. In my experience, decision makers in organizations come to such an understanding in one of two ways: a) as the result of a major incident or disaster that gets their attention, or b) through the persistent efforts of dedicated health and safety professionals who take every opportunity to show other management and professional personnel in their organization the connection between competitiveness and the work environment.

2. Assess the current corporate culture as it relates to health and safety. To assess the current corporate culture as it relates to health and safety, survey all personnel in the organization (without attribution) and ask them to code the following questions as being completely true, somewhat true, somewhat false, or completely false: a) Health and safety are high priorities in this organization, b) Key decision makers view the work environment as a potential competitive advantage, c) Employees are considered to be valuable assets who should be properly protected from hazardous conditions, d) Employees are recognized and rewarded for working in a healthy and safe manner, e) Ceremonies are held to celebrate health and safety-related accomplishments, f) Health and safety are factored into the decision-making process at all levels, g) Managers make it clear by their words and actions that the safe way is the right way, h) Employees are encouraged to speak out when they have concerns about the work environment, i) Peer pressure in the workplace supports health and safety, and j) Personnel at all levels are dedicated to maximizing product safety for customers.

3. Plan for a safety-friendly corporate culture. Based on the tabulated results of the assessment from the previous step, develop a plan for making any necessary change and improvement. For example, if the survey results show that health and safety-related work behaviors are not considered when making decisions about recognition and rewards for personnel, an appropriate planning goal would be: Revise the recognition and reward system to include health and safety criteria.

One of the reasons all personnel at all levels should complete the assessment instrument is that there are often differing perceptions between management personnel and employees and between supervisors and higher management concerning the state of the work environment. For this reason, although the surveys are completed without attribution, I recommend coding them (e.g., executive management, middle management, supervisor, employee). In this way, taking appropriate action to clear up differing perceptions can become part of the plan that is developed in this step.

4. Expect appropriate health and safety-related behaviors. If an organization wants its personnel to work safely, it must let them know safety is expected. This means that the job descriptions and performance appraisal instruments used for all personnel, from the CEO down, should contain items relating to health and safety. For example, one item in an employee's job description might read as follows: Employees in this position are expected to: a) comply with all applicable health and safety-related rules, regulations, and procedures; b) work safely and encourage other to do so; c) assist supervisors and managers in identifying and mitigating potentially hazardous conditions; and d) help the organization maintain a healthy and safe work environment.

There would also be corresponding criteria in the performance appraisal instrument used for employees in this position.

5. Role-model the desired health and safety-related behaviors. One of the worst mistakes people in leadership positions in an organization can make is to tell employees (either verbally or through their actions), "Do as I say, not as I do." Nothing speaks more loudly to employees than the examples of supervisors, managers, and executives--both good and bad. Consequently, it is critical that people in positions of authority in organizations set consistently positive examples relating to healthy and safe behavior.

6. Orient personnel to the organization's health and safety-related expectations. The orientation provided for new employees gives organizations an excellent opportunity to get them started on the right foot. Remember, the orientation is the best time for an organization to make a good first impression on new employees--an impression that conveys the right message about health and safety-related matters. Consequently, the organization's health and safety professionals should be given a major role in conducting orientations for new employees.

7. Mentor personnel concerning health and safety. Once new personnel have completed their orientation, it is important to assign them a mentor who can help them understand, absorb, and internalize the organization's cultural imperatives (one of the most important of which is working in a healthy and safe manner). Personnel assigned as mentors to new employees should be carefully vetted. They should be walking, talking examples of what the organization expects--especially as these expectations relate to health and safety.

8. Train personnel in the healthy and safe ways to work. There are two fundamental principles of good management that apply when trying to establish a safety-friendly corporate culture. The first is that organizations should never expect employees to do anything they have not been trained to do. The second is that organizations should never assume that employees have had the necessary training. If organizations want employees to work in ways that are healthy and safe, they must teach them how. Training relating to health and safety should be frequent and ongoing.

9. Monitor and evaluate the work habits of employees. An important principle of supervision is this one: You get the behavior you accept. Supervisors who allow their direct reports to get away with unhealthy and unsafe work behaviors are silently saying, "Your bad habits are acceptable to me." Letting unsafe work habits go unchallenged and uncorrected is the same as approving them. Consequently, it is critical that supervisors carefully monitor the work habits of their direct reports and correct all unsafe behavior immediately.

10. Reinforce and maintain the safety-friendly corporate culture. Just as employees should never stop working safely, no matter how good their team's safety record is, organizations should never stop doing what is necessary to maintain a safety-friendly corporate culture. Such a culture is not a goal an organization achieves and then moves on to other things. It is a dynamic state of being that must be reinforced constantly, or it will be lost. What follows are several strategies organizations can use to reinforce and maintain their safety-friendly corporate culture once it has been established:

• Reward healthy and safe work behaviors by making them important factors when promoting personnel.

• Reward healthy and safe work behaviors by making them important factors when making decisions about wage/salary increases.

• Reward healthy and safe work behaviors by making them important factors when making decisions about performance incentives.

• Recognize healthy and safe work behaviors by making them part of the criteria for selecting employees for monthly, quarterly, and annual performance awards.

• Encourage supervisors to verbally and publicly acknowledge, on a just-in-time basis (right when it is happening), employees who do their jobs safely.

By systematically applying the 10 steps presented in this article on an ongoing basis, organizations can establish and maintain a safety-friendly corporate culture that will contribute greatly to making them more competitive in the global marketplace.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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