Describing how she brought her company’s safety culture out of the Dark Ages, a safety manager sounded almost apologetic. “Guidelines and goals must be developed and enforced.” Pause. “Yes, discipline.”

Discipline — it’s a word you don’t hear often in safety these days. Bring up discipline when everyone else talks about visions, values, and “harnessing the enthusiasm of employees” and you sound like a Theory X (control those slack workers) Neanderthal.

How did discipline get a bad name?

Dancing around the “d” word

“It’s going to take some discipline to change a bad safety culture,” this safety manager explained in a teleconference sponsored by J.J. Keller & Associates. Supervisors, managers and employees all must realize that a “new regime is in, and they mean business.”

Her company needed a wake-up call. She was new on the job, and so were her rules and goals. Discipline signaled that this was not another program of the month she was selling. Employees of all rank were written up, even for speeding in the parking lot. She handled it privately, but “getting written up gets around,” she said.

Once most of the employees hop on-board, you can move from a negative to positive approach, she said. “People want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how,” she explained.

Her strategy worked. Open jobs were hard to fill at her company, given its reputation for OSHA inspections and penalties. But word of the turnaround spread, and recently 300 résumés flooded in for 12 production jobs.

So why the hesitancy to discuss doling out discipline?

Why do we get policy statements that dance around the “D” word with phrases like “recognize undesired behavior with certain and immediate feedback.”

Or code words like “consequences” or “accountability.” Even “condemnation.” Anything, it seems, but old-fashioned discipline.

Why won’t you find discipline on the agenda at this year’s American Society of Safety Engineers’ World Class Safety Symposium, ASSE’s professional development conference, or the upcoming National Safety Congress?

Has workplace safety gone warm and fuzzy?

Aggressive culture

Discipline hasn’t disappeared. It’s just not talked about, at least in public, like a skeleton in the closet.

Safety professionals still agree with OSHA’s voluntary guidelines for safety programs issued in 1989, which state that a clearly communicated disciplinary system “is an indispensable piece of a whole approach to safety and health protection.”

“We have an aggressive safety culture,” said the safety manager of a major Las Vegas casino and resort, eating at a lunch table during ASSE’s conference in June.

He oversees the safety of a small city — 5,600 “team members,” 7.3 million square feet of space, 4,000 rooms, 8,000 guests, 40-50 departments, 10,000-15,000 MSDSs. Thirty percent of employees are Hispanic. Turnover runs eight to ten percent annually. Hazards range from making beds, needlesticks and cooking food to welding, electrical maintenance and slips and falls.

“We had safety awareness, but no focus, no muscle,” he said. So he “fired up” the culture with no-nonsense tactics. Safety citations are issued for behaviors that lead to an accident. Get three or four citations and “you have a career decision day,” he explained. “Then comes dismissal.”

This safety manager also blends discipline with positive reinforcement — handing out “gracias” cards when employees are spotted “doing the right thing,” he said.

His recordable rate is down to 6.2 cases per 100 full-time employees, below the hotel industry average of 6.7 in 2002. Now he’s thinking of applying for OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program.

“What needs to be done?” is the question effective executives always ask, according to management guru Peter Drucker in a recent Havard Business Review article. The Vegas hotel safety manager did just that. His discipline policy follows another of Drucker’s rules: Executives owe it to their organization and fellow workers not to tolerate non-performing individuals.

Or in the words of Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” leaders get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.

Reasons for reluctance

Experts like Drucker and Collins pull no punches about the need for a disciplined organization. Safety pros achieve success with discipline as an “indispensable” part of their program. So with the buzz now about building safety cultures, why don’t we hear honest talk about the confrontations that are often part of the process? Four factors:

1) Companies don’t want their necks on the legal chopping block. So discipline, like other sensitive human resource issues, is quietly handled behind closed doors.

2) Image is a factor. Companies don’t want to talk about problem employees. And like OSHA, safety pros want to shed the stereotype as the cop on the beat. The role is known to limit budgets — and careers.

3) “You can’t be everywhere, watching everyone,” says one pro. So, like OSHA, today’s safety pros have expanded their roles to be facilitators and advisors.

4) “Accentuate the positive” is the spirit of the times. Psychology professor and safety consultant Dr. E. Scott Geller advocates a kinder, gentler approach to safety. Discipline lectures embarrass injured employees, fuel resentment and make it less likely they’ll volunteer for safety assignments, he writes in “Working Safe.”

Use the rod sparingly, Dr. Geller advises. Bottom line: “Managers who use negative consequences to motivate compliance do so at their own risk,” he writes in a recent article in Professional Safety (co-authored by Sherry Perdue and Anne French).

Research by the Gallup Organization reinforces the benefits of stroking. Based on surveys of more than three-million employees, Gallup contends that truly committed employees:

  • Receive weekly praise for doing good work.
  • Have someone at work who “truly cares” about them as a person.
  • Have someone at work who encourages their development.
  • Receive reports on their progress several times a year.

This is Theory Y management. Focus on attitudes and feelings. Motivate employees to be self-directed by building esteem. Give them the chance to self-actualize. Sounds New Age, but it dates back to the Roaring ’20s. Today it appeals to executives busy cutting costs, eliminating supervisors, and trying to “empower” employees.

Styles come and go, in safety management and OSHA politics. Enforcement and penalties are out. Empathy and outreach are in. Discipline? It’s still meted out. Just call it “delivering unfavorable feedback” and you may not raise an attorney’s eyebrow.