Thought Leadership


Is there a glass ceiling for safety professionals?

June 7, 2011
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The idea for this discussion came about a few months back when I was talking with a fellow safety professional. He has been a Corporate Safety Director and a Global Safety Director for several years and he told me that he would like to be a VP of Safety before he retires. This started me thinking that while there are some VPs of Safety it is not a large total number and certainly a small percentage of corporate level safety professionals.

For years the "Glass Ceiling" has been associated with female and minority employees who can see the upper levels of management in the company but cannot break through the barrier and join the folks above. It seemed to me this just might apply to safety professionals of any gender or race.

I geared up for a straight-forward article that should be easy to write about. WOW… as I investigated and talked to safety professionals I was introduced to more twists and turns than I would have imagined.

Understanding that company size and focus would influence the issue, in my naivety I was convinced that it was all about dollars. Just saying the words "Vice President" conjures up thoughts of large salaries, country club memberships, great big spending allowances, yup, all those desired perks. It just seemed that companies would not be willing to incur that much financial obligation for a position that does not provide a revenue stream.

Thinking back to my days as a risk consultant for an insurance company we were taught that every dollar spent on safety was rewarded with a 4 -10 dollar increase in the bottom line. Great, now I am thinking maybe we, as safety professionals, have been creating our own problems. Is that not exactly like a revenue stream? Perhaps we have not been explaining this to the 'suits' in the board room properly. Safety folks like to talk technical. I remember once when trying to explain to a company president the need to certify crane operators. I rambled on about OSHA 1910 and 1926 as well as ANSI requirements until his eyes glazed over. Finally he says, "I am just a little busy so please cut to the chase. What is the cost to do this, and more importantly what is the cost if we do not do it"?

Obviously I lost him with my technical prowess and I failed to convey what he most needed to know. COST. Might take awhile to get invited back to this office. A respected CSHM said that more and more CEO's have a financial background and in order to be heard we are going to be required to speak to them in those terms. The HR community has long lamented that it seems that HR VP's do not become CEOs. In a commentary in "HR PLATFOM" Dr. John Sulliven suggests that one needs to declare their intentions to be CEO, then build a well-recognized brand and also to develop the financial acumen and metrics to prove that HR programs work. That certainly sounds as if it applies to the safety profession as well. More and more job announcements mandate a person be bi-lingual to apply. It is clear that safety professionals need to be bi-lingual. You must talk safety in terms the work force understands and you must talk safety in dollar terms to the management team.

Safety professionals often think they own the program and get just a bit testy when outsiders try to 'help'. This tends to isolate us from the mainstream. Maybe we should work on making it everyone's program and share the mission with the entire team. In the same light we tend to be very altruistic about safety. It is the right thing to do. And indeed it is! I believe most CEO's and Company board members agree with that. But let's make it easier for them. Let's give them some dollar reasons along with the emotional reasons to assist them. At the same time we are looking more and more like one of the team.

More than one professional informed me that when the safety record is bad then it is easy to get ongoing total support. As the company losses improve, injuries are reduced and things are looking good complacency sets in and the zeal for safety dwindles away. We know one can never rest in this arena. We must help everyone understand that. This was really brought to the front during the most recent recession. Some companies gutted their entire safety department to save money. Losses were under control, and safety obviously was not producing revenue so dump the safety folks. Ongoing dialogue about cost savings and containment realized by a functional safety program may have spared some folks.

Finally, I talked to several corporate level CEO's before tackling this project. One of my thoughts was that company Websites champions an organizations products or ability to bring a project in on-time and under-budget. All the things that would make someone want to use their product or services. However, so very often the website does not boldly show a company's commitment to safety. I found it interesting that every person I talked to told me they had not looked at the company website in a long time. I am not sure how that fits in with this discussion but it would be nice if all companies would start highlighting safety and its commitment to a positive safety culture.
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