For all the talk about safety cultures these days, a reality check might be in order. And we received one last week via email from the Society for Human Resource Management, in the form of the group’s annual employee job satisfaction survey.

The “culture vultures” say you need trust, fairness, openness, ownership, teamwork, leadership, accountability, feedback and recognition, among other building-blocks, to create an organizational culture that turns on employees. That increases job satisfaction, morale, participation, productivity, innovation, and other positives.

Well, the SHRM survey reminds us, let’s not forget about this little matter of take-home pay. “Show me the money,” say employees. Or at least 70 percent of them, according to the survey. Seven in ten employees surveyed reported compensation to be the most important factor in job satisfaction.

Or to look at it this way: What are the chances of building a world-class organizational culture, and more specifically an excellent safety culture, if your employees are not satisfied on the job because they feel under-paid?

“It should come as no surprise that employees are more concerned about their compensation,” said Susan R. Meisinger, president & CEO of SHRM, in a press statement. “With the rising costs of health care premiums and prescription drugs, employees know they need to put more of their money toward covering health care and retirement.”

Missing ingredient?

That’s today’s reality. But we don’t hear culture experts talk much about compensation in their lectures on building world-class safety organizations. Compensation plans get one mention in Dr. Tom Krause’s new book, Leading with Safety. Competence, commitment, communication and risk compensation are covered in Dr. Scott Geller’s 2005 book, People-Based Safety™: The Source, but not financial compensation as a factor in what makes for a satisfied employee — one more likely to engage in safety activities.

This isn’t to say Drs. Krause and Geller are somehow naïve or off the mark. Their books are chock-full of ideas and strategies for building a better, safer workplace. And they are psychologists, not economists. Plus, they might argue “of course money matters” — and compensation is part of the equation when issues such as “organization justice” and “perceived organizational support” and “recognition and rewards” are discussed.

In his column this month (page 17) on world-class organizations, Dr. John Kello lists seven characteristics. These cultures are well-led and have values beyond bottom-line returns. People at all levels are held accountable for meeting goals and objectives. Management structures are kept simple and leaders constantly scan the horizon for new trends and developments. Employees are committed to cohesive teams, and leaders listen to what those teams have to say. And finally, Dr. Kello says the best of the best “invest heavily in their people.”

But he doesn’t directly say their people are well-paid. The best of the best in his words are “employee friendly.” That conjures visions of wellness centers, EAPs, flex hours, training and more training offerings, on-site daycare, bright lights, colorful walls, quiet cubes, any number of things. What about being friendly to the employee’s pocketbook?

Pay scales & safety performance

Let’s look at it in terms of safety. It’s difficult to imagine employees committing to cohesive safety teams and striving to achieve safety goals and objectives if they don’t believe they are being compensated fairly. Indeed, a 1979 NIOSH study of “Safety Program Practices in Record-Holding Plants” found: “Pay scales were generally quite high in relation to other (plants) in the surrounding community, and fringe benefits were typically quite good.”

That’s about as direct a statement as you’ll find in the safety literature linking wages to safety performance. The entire subject of economics — profits and ROIs and compensation plans — make many safety pros uneasy. It’s the school of thought that safety excellence is achieved for reasons above and beyond dollars and cents — with the emphasis on “above,” as in higher values, the moral high ground. “I’ll shoot the first accountant who comes to me showing how safety pays off on the bottom line,” ex Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill famously once said. “That’s not the message about safety we want to send employees.”

But in surveys such as the latest job satisfaction poll from SHRM, employees are sending their own message. Money matters.

The bottom line

Sure, we can’t overlook other important ingredients that go into highly effective work cultures — communication, planning, listening, relationships, conversation, delegated decision-making, providing a safe and secure workplace, adapting to today’s need for work/life balance. All the points made by experts such as Drs. Kello, Krause and Geller. Plus, you need the technical essentials of any safety and health program, as spelled out by Dr. Dan Petersen in our recent June and July columns — accident investigations, accountability systems, discipline, rewards et al.

But the fancy words and feel-good stuff shouldn’t hide the fact when it comes to safety, like politics, employees vote with their wallets. If you want their “vote” — their participation and commitment — check how satisfied they are with their compensation. Wages tell employees, more than any flowery vision statement, just how much they are truly valued by an organization. If employees perceive they are being “supported” fairly when it comes to compensation, your safety program will be on much stronger ground than if employees feel exploited.