The safety and health pro takes a deep breath and steps into his boss's office. "Sir, it's time for our annual safety culture check-up. First month of the new year, you know." The exec looks up and groans, like a man being ordered to undergo a physical himself. "OK, but make it quick," he mutters.
Culture is a hot topic in professional safety circles, but actually surveying cultures is not popular. Several years ago (2003) we asked approximately 500 subscribers to rank the significance of eight safety and health program tools - perception surveys scored dead last. Only 13 percent considered them important.
Employee perceptions make managers nervous, it appears.
A former safety and health specialist in the chemical industry recently told us: "I was in charge of developing a case for safety perception surveys at my corporation when we launched our response to a major disaster in the early 1990s. After I brought in a leading consultant to perform the studies, and the implications of what was going to happen was fully realized by management, the project was cancelled. Getting unbiased input from the rank and file was going to create and unleash extremely powerful forces that management would not be able to fully control."
IGNORANCE IS A RISKStill, companies ignore the feelings and opinions of their workforce at their own risk.
"Employees in the U.S. feel dissatisfied and disconnected from their employers at an alarming rate," reported The Conference Board in 2005.
"American workers are increasingly cynical and suspicious of information they receive from their own organizations," Towers Perrin reported in 2004. "An organization will find it difficult to motivate, engage and retain their most talented employees if their messages are not believed."
Even if you can't get the backing for a full-blown organization-wide survey of safety-related perceptions, you might pull together a focus group of employees or a steering committee and survey their attitudes. And if that's too provocative, you can close your office door, review typical survey questions, and ask yourself how most employees would respond.
After all, most experienced safety and health pros have a good, almost intuitive, feel for how their employees feel about safety efforts. A survey tool, even one only used by yourself to assess your workforce, allows you to organize your analysis, compare your findings with other research, and perhaps identify specific areas that need attention.
HOW CONNECTED ARE YOUR WORKERS?For starters, what percentage of your workforce falls into these three categories, as defined by The Gallup Organization:
Engaged - These employees work with passion. They like their supervisors, like their coworkers, feel challenged at work and seldom frustrated.
Not-engaged - These are your clock-watchers and sleepwalkers. Employees who put in time, but not energy or passion. At your safety meetings you could call them passive participants. According to The Conference Board, 25 percent of employees are just showing up to collect a paycheck.
Actively disengaged - Chances are you're already familiar with these folks. They don't sit on their hands or daydream at your safety meetings, they complain about supervisors, coworkers, rules, room temperatures - you don't know what their next target will be, but there's always another beef.
According to Gallup telephone interviews with about 1,000 employed adults aged 18 and older, here's how the sampling of employees shook out:
- 27 percent were defined as engaged;
- 59 percent were not engaged;
- 14 percent were actively disengaged.
The next time you bring in employees for a safety training session or general safety meeting, see how close or far these Gallup percentages approximate your work population, especially in terms of their engagement in your safety processes.
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS...Here are other perceptions that can affect your ability to run an effective, if not a more ambitious, safety program:
- Are employee interactions with immediate supervisors positive or negative?
- What about daily interactions between coworkers?
- How do your employees perceive their own self-worth? How difficult do they think it would be for the company to replace them?
- Do employees perceive your organization's supervisors and managers to be strong leaders?
- How satisfied are employees with company training programs?
- How motivated are employees to help achieve company business goals?
- Do employees believe your company is open and honest when communicating information down through the ranks?
These questions are important because, let's face it, what chance does you safety program have if it resides in a culture where the majority of employees - or even a sizeable minority - feel negative about leadership, coworkers, their own self-worth, training, company goals, and communications? Safety expert Dr. Dan Petersen says any perception survey question with less than a 70-percent positive response deserves looking into, and questions eliciting less than a 60-percent positive response are red flags indicating potentially serious problems.
BENCHMARK YOUR CULTUREYou can compare your answers, or estimates of how you think your workforce would respond, with these findings:
- Gallup reported 77 percent of workers who are defined as "engaged" feel positive about their immediate supervision, compared to 23 percent of those "not engaged" and only four percent of "actively disengaged" workers.
- Eighty-six percent of engaged employees said coworker interactions were always positive or mostly positive, compared to 72 percent of not-engaged workers and just 45 percent of actively disengaged workers, according to Gallup.
- Employee self-worth is an important underpinning of your safety efforts. If employees believe they are disposable and easily replaced, they can be less motivated to watch out for their own safety, care less about coworkers' safety, and less interested in volunteering for safety assignments. According to Gallup, 76 percent of engaged employees said it would be extremely or somewhat difficult for their employer to replace them. That compares to 54 percent of disengaged workers.
- Less than one-third of all supervisors and managers are perceived to be strong leaders, reported The Conference Board.
- Only 30 percent of workers claimed to be satisfied with educational and job training programs offered by their employers, according to The Conference Board.
- Two out of every three workers do not identify with, or feel motivated to drive, their company's business goals and objectives, reported The Conference Board. (What might that say about interest in your safety goals?)
- Just over half (51 percent) of 1,000 working Americans surveyed by Towers Perrin in 2003 believed their company generally tells employees the truth. An equal number (51 percent) believed their company tries too hard to spin the truth. (Something to remember when promoting your safety record.)
ENGAGED EMPLOYEES: A COMPETITIVE STRENGTHCompanies that understand the competitive strength of possessing an engaged workforce, and help more employees become engaged, can boost their productivity, says The Gallup Organization.
It's only logical that safety performance would get a boost as well, we'd add.
But it's clear from the research that step-level improvements in employee engagement - and safety performance - require quality leadership, supervision, employee relations, training and communications.
How does your organization stack up?