Choosing a behavioral safety consultant
Checking into backgroundsMany environmental safety and health folks are uncertain about qualifications for behavior-based safety consultants: Should only someone with a Ph.D. in psychology be hired? What about former managers from industry who have been trained in behavioral theories? Not surprisingly a mix of academic and real-world experience is preferable, according to experts. It's important to have at least one Ph.D. on the consultant's staff to serve as an in-depth educational resource, says Terry Mathis, president of Integrated Performance Technology in Houston, Texas. When Tom Krause, Ph.D., co-founder of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc., started his business 18 years ago, he hired six Ph.Ds. Five turned out to be failures because they were too academic. The sixth is his current vice president of research and development. "We learned that you can be a good psychologist but not a good consultant," he says. "To be a good safety consultant, you need to know how industry works and understand accountability. Possessing a Ph.D. is one valuable qualification, but it is not necessarily an indicator of success." In contrast, Scott Geller, Ph.D., started a successful behavioral consulting firm, Safety Performance Solutions, that has relied primarily on academically trained Ph.Ds. He has concerns about on-the-job behavioral training from former industry people. "They haven't necessarily learned the roots [of behavior-based safety]," he says. What's apparent is the need to go beyond stereotypes when shopping for behavioral consultants. Not all Ph.D.s are jargon-spewing techies. And not all old hands from industry are weak on principles and theories. Get a detailed account of a consultant's previous work experience as well as educational training. And keep in mind some industries require special knowledge. Mathis says he's seen some fledgling consultants have a hard time understanding the complexities of the petroleum and chemical businesses, for example.
Probing for detailsSince you can't judge a behavioral consultant solely on the basis of their background, it's important to conduct a thorough interview when meeting with a candidate. Gene Earnest, one of the originators of Procter & Gamble's pioneering approach to behavioral safety some 20 years ago, says you should first define a consultant's basic philosophy about accountability and responsibilities. Ask, "With whom does safety begin?" and, "Exactly who is involved in the behavior-based safety process?" he suggests. If the answers are "management" and "everyone from line workers to maintenance to union representatives," respectively, Earnest says the consultant has potential. Also, listen to how vague or specific the consultant is when describing his work. Says Earnest: "Be sure he looks for specific behaviors, such as a person throwing the disconnect and then locking it out," as opposed to generalities such as "maintaining safe behavior." Other indicators of a poorly prepared behavioral consultant can be as arresting as a neon sign -- if you're listening closely to what they say. Geller offers these reminders:
- Behavior-based safety is more than just observation and feedback;
- "Behavior modification" is a term that turns off many employees;
- Principles must be taught with supportive theory;
- There is no one "best way" to implement a behavioral process -- every company requires a unique approach
Try to get a sense of how familiar a consultant is with behavioral research, adds Geller, and ask how they learned about behavior-based safety. As with hiring any type of consultant, it's important to ask about past successes and references, says David Sarkus, a behavioral consultant who holds master's degrees in both safety management and industrial psychology.