You want new employees to share your vision, embrace your vision, and live by it. How do you influence them?

Social Influences Affect Your New Employee's Safety Behavior

The why is important for all employees and is a critical ingredient to all of your safety communications.

New employees bring their unique personalities, perspectives, and history to your job site. What is their safety mindset? What was the safety culture of their previous employer? These are worth considering during the onboarding process of new employees. You are reading this publication because you have a passion for safety. You promote a safe work environment for your employees. You have a clear vision for your job site's safety culture. You want new employees to share your vision, embrace your vision, and live by it. How do you influence them?

Typical safety orientation processes include things like:

  • Review of company's life-saving rules and safety policies
  • Equipment training
  • Personal protective equipment use and compliance
  • OSHA or certification requirements for their jobs
  • Emergency procedures

Each new hire goes through the organization's checklist of safety knowledge and compliance requirements for their job. This is critical because it provides hires with clear safety expectations in their new position. What many safety professionals may not have considered are the social influences that affect new employees' behaviors. There are social and psychological factors that have a tremendous influence on employee behaviors. These factors are especially powerful for new employees. These factors are not on a safety orientation checklist, but they may have a greater effect on a new hire's approach to safety than the formal activities in your safety orientation process.

When in Rome, We Do as the Romans Do
Social Proof is a phenomenon that has been studied extensively by social psychologists. Prominent psychologist Robert Cialdini summarized many well-known experiments, studies, and historical examples of social proof in his book "Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion." Few realize the overpowering effect social proof has on our behaviors. One everyday example is the laugh tracks that are applied to sitcoms. TV executives add artificial, canned laughter to sitcoms because they influence us to laugh. You may consider laugh tracks fake and corny. You may not like them, but researchers have demonstrated they work (Smyth & Fuller, 1972; Fuller & Sheehy-Skeffinton, 1974; Nosanchuk & Lightstone, 1974). Others laugh, so we feel compelled to laugh. TV executives know what they are doing.

A more serious example of Social Proof is the infamous 1964 New York City murder case of Catherine Genovese. More than 30 witnesses viewed the victim being stabbed for over 30 minutes in public. The police were not called, and none of the witnesses intervened. This manifestation of Social Proof has also been called the Bystander Effect. "I would have done something!" you may say to yourself. Maybe, but this is an extreme example of the power of Social Proof. We take behavioral cues from those around us. This isn’t about being right or wrong. It is about being human.

Once you are aware of this phenomenon, you will start noticing it in your day-to-day life. Last summer, my daughter attended a day camp. One of the classes she participated in was about etiquette. She brought home a life-size diagram of a formal dining place setting in which she had to label the different forks, plates, etc. that are associated with fine dining. She explained when to use each specific fork and knife, where the plates are placed, etc. She did a good job training me! A few weeks later, I found myself attending a ceremony that included a formal dinner. I knew the rules from my daughter; she trained me well. I knew the placement of the bread plate, what knife to use, etc., but I couldn't help myself. When the server with dinner rolls started walking around, I started looking at my tablemates to see what plates and knives they touched. My training took a backseat. The Social Proof present in that situation influenced me more than the prior training I had received.

Two aspects of Social Proof are worth considering:

  • It is more powerful when persons are in ambiguous or uncertain circumstances.
  • A person’s perceived peers exert strongest level of Social Proof.

Imagine you are a new hire in your organization. You are naturally uncertain in your new work environment. You are going to look at your peers to see how to behave. If your new peers are behaving in a safe manner and following the company rules, you will do the same. What impacts a person’s safety behaviors more, a checklist of rules and technical training or the behaviors of their fellow employees? When in Rome, we do as the Romans do. Not because we want to, but because we can’t help ourselves. Consider Social Proof when devising a strategy for your new employee’s on-the-job training. Surround new hires with the employees that embody the safety behaviors you want replicated. Social Proof is a powerful force. Use it to your advantage.

Communicate the 'Why' of Safety
There is a wise man named Charlie Munger. He is the long-time business partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. Charlie has had a lifelong fascination with the intersection of psychology and business, or what he calls The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. After noticing patterns in life and business, a very curious and well-read man, Charlie seeks reasons for why intelligent people make poor decisions. The conclusions Charlie reached have informed his investment decisions. Berkshire Hathaway’s stock performance over the past 40 years may be an indicator of the effectiveness of his model.

Charlie's model is a beautiful blend of psychological research and life experience. His writing and speeches to universities are full of insight applicable to day-to-day life. Charlie has identified several natural, human tendencies that lead to misjudgment. Why do smart, well-intentioned people make poor decisions? In our safety context, why do hard-working good employees make poor decisions that put themselves or coworkers at risk?

"Reason-Respecting" is on Charlie's list of human tendencies. He illustrates this important tendency with an anecdote he frequently tells during public speeches.

"Carl Braun, who created the CF Braun Engineering Company, had another rule, from psychology, which, if you're interested in wisdom, ought to be part of your repertoire . . . .

"His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five Ws—you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when, and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.

"You might ask why that is so important? Well, again, that's a rule of psychology . . . if you always tell people why, they’ll understand it better, they’ll consider it more important, and they’ll be more likely to comply. Even if they don’t understand your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply.

"So there's an iron rule that, just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it’s obvious, it’s wise to stick in the why."

Charlie Munger's "Reason-Respecting" is all about the communicative power of why. Humans love stories. Story-telling is the most powerful human communication method. It's part of our DNA. Our greatest leaders, teachers, and communicators know this. They also know that good stories contain the why element. We must know why the hero takes his dangerous journey. Likewise, effective learning also contains the why element. The why ties facts together into a coherent, memorable story.

The why is critical to safety communication. Why brings meaning to an employee's actions, otherwise, why do it? Every safety communication must be a coherent story that contains the why element. Remember Braun's keen insight. The why element in safety communication . . .

  • increases employee understanding
  • increases employee perception of importance
  • increases employee compliance

The why is important for all employees and is a critical ingredient to all of your safety communications. Do your new hires know the why of each of your organization’s life-saving rules? If not, they will only be a list of rules that will not resonate on a personal level. Maximize the impact of your communications to new hires by making safety personal. Push safety orientation beyond a checklist activity. Include the why element every time when communicating safety.

The first few weeks on the job for a new employee are critical. This is the company's best opportunity to influence the employee's approach and attitude towards safety. Be mindful of natural human tendencies when executing your orientation process.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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