Employee safety discipline ain’t what it used to be
The focus is on “what failed?” not “who failed?”
Every safety pro has a story about discipline:
“I had to terminate a woman in 1987 because her body odor was so repulsive, affecting other workers (and her boss… me),” says a pro who requested anonymity. “I remember progressive discipline: gave her a chance to shower, use powder/oils, change clothes, even seeing a dermatologist. Come to learn, it wasn’t a hygiene issue, rather a rare genetic disorder not previously diagnosed. You bet I asked the HR manager for assistance.”
A tricky thing, disciplining employees. Always has, always will be for professionals.
Here’s how one veteran safety pro puts it: “Discipline is challenging because good workers are safe workers, and hard to find. Turnover and re-training (due to terminations) is expensive. Production and construction projects can be delayed when employee morale is affected by discipline. Too often, the ‘we-they’ perception that surrounds discipline impedes collaboration and effective communication. Affirmative-action lawsuits and whistleblower protection can also exacerbate the disciplinary challenge.”
He adds another complication: “I found most males, especially in construction, so macho they felt impervious to serious injury or death at work. When adding the spin that family members often lived elsewhere, staying safe at work – and ensuing discipline issues – became even harder.”
The divide over discipline
Something of an old-school versus new school “discipline divide” exists in the profession. “Older baby boomers versus the younger generation’s beliefs on how to approach discipline,” is how one pro describes it.
Mid-size and small companies with very limited safety budgets and few or any safety staffers still focus on what author Erik Hollnagel of the University of Southern Denmark calls “Safety - I” – command-and-control rules and compliance practices. Command and control and a sole focus on rules compliance has been the heart of many safety programs for a hundred years. This translates to: 1) workers are to be fixed; 2) workers are the problem; 3) tell workers what to do and what not to do.
“The easy way out is to not discipline anyone. In which case, the inmates have the keys to the asylum,” a member of the old school tells ISHN. He blames avoiding tense disciplinary confrontations on “soft managers — everybody likes to be the good guy and hates to be the bad guy. They don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do their job. This is the same reason performance reviews are inflated.”
Fear is another factor. Fear of employees angered by discipline filing lawsuits or complaints against the safety manager. And in this age of active shooters, fear of vengeful employees.
Rare are active resisters
Let’s keep in mind that when talking about safety discipline, we’re talking about a very small cohort of workers.
One safety consultant calculates: “About five percent of employees will help a person for most anything that needs to be done. About 90 percent will do their jobs day in, day out. About five percent are people who always seem to be a challenge. At most one percent is hardcore resisters or flagrant abusers of rules and principals. They will fight against most any needed change, and must either change or exit your organization.”
Applying discipline in the rare instances that it is required is at something of a tipping point in 2018. One safety pro, Flavio Simon, captures the thinking of many: “If an EHS professional is trying to discipline workers the program is doomed to failure. Safety cops went away with snail mail. If safety is of paramount importance then the discipline problem generally goes away.”
“Our recent experience at the United Steelworkers is a shift by some portion of employers away from worker injury-related discipline,” says Jim Frederick of the USW’s environmental health and safety department. “But there remain employers or workplaces where the vast majority of safety-related discipline occurs following an injury report. At these workplaces, the problems remain of employers shifting blame to the victim.”
Indeed, a shift is on, however gradual. ISHN reader research conducted in 2017 found that 69 percent want supervisors (usually the ones at the sharp end of discipline confrontations) to be more safety leaders, not just enforcers. Almost all readers (97 percent) want supervisors to inspire and influence worker engagement. Nine in ten (90 percent) say supervisors must give positive reinforcement to employees. Less than one-third (32 percent) say it’s important to develop supervisors’ abilities to deal with resistant, confrontational or apathetic workers.
Most of those who do want aggressive discipline tactics are executive managers, not safety professionals – evidence of an old-fashioned, top-down, command and control culture.
Discipline won’t disappear
To be sure, no one is saying throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to discipline. Almost two-thirds of readers (64 percent) say disciplining employees for flagrant at-risk behavior and safety rules violations remains an important task.
“It is quite possible to distinguish between intentional — relatively few cases —and human error — more common,” says Flavio Simon.
“If you know how to manage and document behaviors and provide progressive discipline, you can rescue employees from bad behavior. If they can’t be or refuse to be rescued, then termination is the path that must be traveled,” says safety pro Mark Hansen.
A new mindset
But a more updated approach to discipline is captured by an HR manager writing in Forbes magazine: “It is past time we got rid of Henry Ford-era progressive discipline policies. Your employees are not wayward children. Threats of termination never made anybody work harder or care more about their work.
“Honest, human self-reflection and collaborative problem-solving are vastly superior to progressive discipline for helping your team grow and learn together.”
Note the emphasis on collaboration, team growth, learning and not treating adults as children. These are key facets in organizational cultures that value: 1) employees as talent assets; 2) engaging and learning from employees; and 3) motivating employees to speak up and report on hazardous conditions, at-risk behaviors, incidents and near misses, injuries, and other factors affecting safety and health performance. Decades ago, all this was the responsibility of one person – the “safety man.” Today, more organizations seek grass roots, bottom-up, not top-down, activism and communication.
Says the USW’s Frederick: Employing discipline as the automatic, indiscriminate default response to safety problems “prevents employers from engaging with their workers to identify the real causal factors involved with the injury. As a result, the prevalence of under reporting of injuries remains. Controlling workplace health and safety hazards is exponentially increased when the hazards are unknown because injuries are not reported (or investigated) due to the chilling effects” of management systems that lean hard on discipline.
OSHA chimes in
Even the nation’s top workplace safety enforcer is embracing new thinking about human error and human performance. In a little-known speech given earlier this year, Richard Mendelson, an OSHA regional administrator, said, “Employee misconduct is NOT a root cause. An employee not following a rule might certainly be a cause, but you can’t end your investigation there. What part of your safety and health program failed to catch this, tolerated the deviation, or perhaps even condoned it?”
Error is inevitable
“We’re humans and we’re going to make mistakes. Errors are going to happen. Drive at what happened, not who did it. Don’t accept human error as the root cause,” said Tesla VP of EHS Laurie Shelby in an interview with ISHN for the October issue cover story.
“I love human performance because it really changed how I thought about injury prevention and control,” said Shelby. “We’ve got to be able to put controls in place so when humans do make mistakes, they fail safely. We can try to engineer out everything but humans still find a way to potentially go around that. So how do you think about failing safely? I think that’s what really changed my mindset.
“In many cases early on in my career at Alcoa we were tracking how to prevent people from making errors. This is still very important,” she said. “Because people are in different performance modes, you really need to realize that errors are going to happen. “
Skill-based performance emanates from pre-programmed stored knowledge. Rules-based performance addresses familiar problems by relying on pre-set rules. Knowledge-based performance tackles novel problems by planning actions based on conscious analytical processing and stored knowledge.
Skill-based errors are slips and lapses when the action that occurs is not what was intended. Rules-based mistakes are actions that match intentions but do not achieve the desired result due to incorrect application of rules or inadequate rules. Knowledge-based mistakes involve actions that do not achieve the intended outcome due to knowledge-deficits.
What failed, not who failed
“At Tesla, when an incident does happen, our leaders are very good at not focusing on the person,” said Shelby. “It’s so easy to go, ’Oh my gosh, why did that person do that?’ Our leaders are really good at driving at what failed, not who failed. It’s huge when you can get off that narrow people-only focus. The mindset becomes one of engineering out hazards and finding strong controls.”
Easing up on snap-judgment penalties for performance errors opens up communication channels and energizes engagement. Said Shelby: “When you’re looking at the way work is performed, and talking with the associates, you’re really asking them, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen and if it does, what keeps you safe? Is the control good enough?’ You get really great insight.”
Approaching discipline differently is part of “Safety Differently,” the title of a book written by Sydney Dekker in 2014. Dekker is a human factors expert, psychologist, former airline pilot and safety specialist. One of his themes is the shift in paradigms he sees from crime and punishment to diagnose and trust.
“When the response to an ineffective or unsafe action morphs into embarrassing or punishing the worker, I’ve found the potential for learning and improvement diminishes – with a corresponding increase in worker resentment and/or ‘cover your rear while there’s a chance of being caught.’ People are then less likely to report hazards, near misses or ‘minor’ incidents that they believe they can readily hide,” says longtime safety consultant Robert Pater.
Pater makes another point: In a time where many employees are either working with minimal or absent direct supervision – such as remote workers — a punishment-first approach is often laughed off or backfires because so many daily actions aren’t actually observed .
Discipline best practices
Here’s advice from safety and health pros and consultants on how best to employ discipline:
- Discipline is a management tool that must be in each person’s toolbox. But it sits too close to the top and is overused. Discipline must be the tool of last resort and even then applied in a positive manner, says safety pro Skipper Kendrick. He says, “Positive discipline may seem like an oxymoron, but it is very effective if understood and applied in a consistent, effective manner.” Positive discipline requires understanding the issues surrounding the need for discipline (the all-important context) and understanding the choices and consequences of the at-risk decision that was made.
“If properly applied, positive discipline can create a deeper understanding of the context surrounding the reasons for its application and result in a better outcome,” says Kendrick.
- There is still too much emphasis on “post-hiring” issues than on “pre-hiring” issues, says Mark Hansen. It should be hard to get hired rather than hard to get fired. If you have hired correctly then firing is a remote possibility.
- To establish the unpreventable employee misconduct defense, the employer must show: a written or verbal work rule to prevent the act of violation; the work rule is adequately communicated to employees; take reasonable steps to discover work-rule violations (steps not limited to frequent walkarounds, JHAs, JSAs, near-miss reporting, safety-meeting feedback); and effectively enforce the work rule — using a progressive disciplinary process, which may or may not include documentation, says Flavio Simon.
- Spend one-on-one time with employees and managers getting to know them and make your personal evaluation of who they are, what they do, and their individual attitudes, says safety consultant Mike Williamsen.
- Consider that resisters might struggle because they need more training, more time spent with them to get it right; they are in the wrong job/position for their skill set capabilities and need to be transferred to a position with duties in line with their capabilities; or they are cynical due to a history of failed or poorly executed change efforts and they dig their heels in if what they’ve seen fail before is tried again, especially by the same leadership, says Williamsen.
- So-called “discipline problems” sometimes may be lonely, unappreciated, unengaged outsiders, often with family problems that are at the root of their difficulties. They will require one-on-one time by the front-line leader and often upper management, says Williamsen. He makes the following points:
- “Once you make your evaluation about the person, their actions and attitudes, and what must change, bring in a competent human relations person to participate in the one-on-one counseling and documenting process that needs to take place. If the person is part of a union, bring in the business agent/grievance person to each meeting.
- “These are difficult meetings that can get intense. You must stay the course or you will never be able to solve the challenging performance / safety issues the resisters bring to your organization. The HR person documents what happens and may provide advice as to how to continue. They must be a part of the mix.
- “List the problems that bring this group together and state in no uncertain terms that the resister employee will have to improve on the issues or there will be progressive discipline that can lead up to termination. Ask the employee what they believe to be their problem. Usually you will get a straight answer. If not, reiterate the charges. Then ask if they understand and make sure they do. Set up regular performance evaluation meetings appropriate to the circumstances and follow it through to discharge or sustained change/improvement.
- “Unfortunately, the hardcore types have trouble sustaining the needed changes. They usually have been having the same type of troubles wherever they go. Most of these problem type of employees improve for one to three months and then return to what put them in trouble; thus the need for documentation and consistent meetings. This kind of person will take a huge amount of your time until they leave. But they are like a cancer to your culture that must be resolved. There is no easy path,” says Williamsen.