In search of discipline
Discipline â€” itâ€™s a word you donâ€™t hear often in safety these days. Bring up discipline when everyone else talks about visions, values, and â€œharnessing the enthusiasm of employeesâ€ and you sound like a Theory X (control those slack workers) Neanderthal.
How did discipline get a bad name?
Dancing around the â€œdâ€ wordâ€œItâ€™s going to take some discipline to change a bad safety culture,â€ this safety manager explained in a teleconference sponsored by J.J. Keller & Associates. Supervisors, managers and employees all must realize that a â€œnew regime is in, and they mean business.â€
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 â€œgetting written up gets around,â€ she said.
Once most of the employees hop on-board, you can move from a negative to positive approach, she said. â€œPeople want to do the right thing, they just donâ€™t know how,â€ 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 rÃ©sumÃ©s 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 â€œDâ€ word with phrases like â€œrecognize undesired behavior with certain and immediate feedback.â€
Or code words like â€œconsequencesâ€ or â€œaccountability.â€ Even â€œcondemnation.â€ Anything, it seems, but old-fashioned discipline.
Why wonâ€™t you find discipline on the agenda at this yearâ€™s American Society of Safety Engineersâ€™ World Class Safety Symposium, ASSEâ€™s professional development conference, or the upcoming National Safety Congress?
Has workplace safety gone warm and fuzzy?
Aggressive cultureDiscipline hasnâ€™t disappeared. Itâ€™s just not talked about, at least in public, like a skeleton in the closet.
Safety professionals still agree with OSHAâ€™s voluntary guidelines for safety programs issued in 1989, which state that a clearly communicated disciplinary system â€œis an indispensable piece of a whole approach to safety and health protection.â€
â€œWe have an aggressive safety culture,â€ said the safety manager of a major Las Vegas casino and resort, eating at a lunch table during ASSEâ€™s conference in June.
He oversees the safety of a small city â€” 5,600 â€œteam members,â€ 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.
â€œWe had safety awareness, but no focus, no muscle,â€ he said. So he â€œfired upâ€ the culture with no-nonsense tactics. Safety citations are issued for behaviors that lead to an accident. Get three or four citations and â€œyou have a career decision day,â€ he explained. â€œThen comes dismissal.â€
This safety manager also blends discipline with positive reinforcement â€” handing out â€œgraciasâ€ cards when employees are spotted â€œdoing the right thing,â€ 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 heâ€™s thinking of applying for OSHAâ€™s Voluntary Protection Program.
â€œWhat needs to be done?â€ 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 Druckerâ€™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 â€œGood to Great,â€ leaders get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.
Reasons for reluctanceExperts like Drucker and Collins pull no punches about the need for a disciplined organization. Safety pros achieve success with discipline as an â€œindispensableâ€ part of their program. So with the buzz now about building safety cultures, why donâ€™t we hear honest talk about the confrontations that are often part of the process? Four factors:
1) Companies donâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€” and careers.
3) â€œYou canâ€™t be everywhere, watching everyone,â€ says one pro. So, like OSHA, todayâ€™s safety pros have expanded their roles to be facilitators and advisors.
4) â€œAccentuate the positiveâ€ 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 theyâ€™ll volunteer for safety assignments, he writes in â€œWorking Safe.â€
Use the rod sparingly, Dr. Geller advises. Bottom line: â€œManagers who use negative consequences to motivate compliance do so at their own risk,â€ 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 â€œtruly caresâ€ 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 â€™20s. Today it appeals to executives busy cutting costs, eliminating supervisors, and trying to â€œempowerâ€ employees.
Styles come and go, in safety management and OSHA politics. Enforcement and penalties are out. Empathy and outreach are in. Discipline? Itâ€™s still meted out. Just call it â€œdelivering unfavorable feedbackâ€ and you may not raise an attorneyâ€™s eyebrow.