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When and how to use discipline: Principles for getting it right

January 2, 2013
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ISHN Guest BlogPosted by Don Groover at www.bstsolutions.com

Reprinted by permission

Discipline is among the most confusing and controversial topics in safety.

On one hand, it is obvious that companies must have safety procedures and rules. And once those rules are established, it is crucial to support and enforce them. Managers know—as company attorneys routinely remind them—that if they know about a safety rule violation and they ignore it, they put themselves at risk.

On the other hand, the punitive aspect of disciplinary programs seems to undermine the kind of workplace collaboration and participation essential to success in productivity, quality, and safety. The topic becomes even more delicate when an injury does occur.

There are two aspects to the discipline question: When and how. Both must be thought through and carried out in an effective discipline system.

Understanding Discipline

Before we can define the rules around when to discipline, it is essential to understand the purpose of discipline in safety and its role in an overall system for injury prevention. The discipline system is a mechanism for providing clarity around organizational standards and what the organization values. It is also a mechanism for providing corrective consequences to those individuals who do not live up to these standards and values.

When it comes to managing exposure and influencing behavior, discipline is the last line of defense; it indicates failure in the systems designed to control exposure. When discipline is routinely required to control behavior, then one really needs to consider what failures have occurred in the overall system. The failures could be related to hiring decisions, leadership capabilities, or competing rewards systems.

When to Use It

Given that discipline is a valuable tool, but with significant downside potential when misused, how do organizations begin to evaluate its use in their own approach to safety?

Discipline works best when it is used consistently and the rules around its application are fair and well understood. The following principles, derived from our work with organizations around the world, provide a helpful starting point for governing your decisions around when to administer discipline as it relates to safety:

1. Decide on what is crucial and treat those things accordingly.

2. Do not determine discipline based on the fact that someone was injured.

3. Avoid increasing severity of discipline simply as the result of a reported incident.

An effective discipline system establishes a clear set of rules and applies them consistently. That sounds simple enough. But as we’ve seen, assuring the consistency means providing managers with the necessary support to attend to safety needs regularly, not just when it is in crisis. With a good foundation, managers can begin the work of refining the practice of discipline itself.

How to Use It

Discipline serves as the last line of defense in managing exposure and influencing behavior.

To be successful, a manager who must discipline an employee must be clear and decisive. At the same time, he or she must be sensitive to applying discipline at the appropriate times and with the right intent. When we don’t consider the effect that discipline has on people, we undermine the integrity of the discipline process and in turn that of our exposure control systems. We also create negative effects in the culture that linger long after the disciplinary action itself.

The “how” of an effective approach to discipline comes down to achieving the delicate balance between rigor and flexibility. We don’t compromise on the principles and timing while at the same time we seek always to apply the rules fairly and with the good of all employees in mind.

These practices come down to five principles concerning causation, procedural justice, transparency, feedback, and maintaining discipline in the right perspective:

1. Keep an open mind on causation, avoiding preconceived ideas in the disciplinary process.

2. Understand procedural justice and consider it in applying discipline.

3. Regularly review your policy on disciplining safety violations, explain how the system works, and explain why the system is designed the way it is.

4. Avoid the “focus on failure” trap.

5. Don’t rely on discipline as the main tool in fixing a broken safety climate.

There are times when the safety climate and behavioral reliability (in terms of safe behaviors) have degraded to a point where leadership decides to do something drastic to regain control before someone gets seriously injured. The most important thing to remember is that the employees are not to blame for the situation. They are operating within the structure, systems, and culture that leadership has allowed. So moving from the current state to a new, desired future state takes more than firing an employee to make a statement.

Bringing It All Together

It is important to recognize that most employees follow the rules and comply with the safety requirements most of the time. While discipline is a necessary tool to get the attention of a few, it is one of the least effective for handling the majority of employees.

As you think about applying discipline for safety violations, consider whether your approach is balanced (meaning the majority of feedback employees get about safety-related behavior is positive) and fair. A safety program without a discipline component is incomplete, but a safety program with a poor discipline component is ineffective.

This post is an excerpt taken from BST’s newest book, The Manager’s Guide to Workplace Safety. This book is designed for everyone who manages people, from the senior executive to the first-line supervisor. Understanding and using the guidance in this book can help every manager to be more effective in driving safety excellence. For more information and to order the book, please visit www.managersguidetoworkplacesafety.com.

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