Let’s face it; we don’t go into the field of Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) without wanting to make a difference in the world. And yet, whether we work in a small, medium, or large-sized organization, none of us is solely responsible for how well EHS performs. The “home” that EHS has within an organization can make a big difference in its effectiveness — and in how well EHS professionals meet our personal career goals.

Suppose you are interviewing for positions as an Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) professional at Organization A and Organization B. EHS reports to a director in the Human Resources department in Company A, three levels below the CEO. At Organization B, EHS reports to the VP of Product Development. What does the placement of EHS within the organization tell you about the likelihood for on-the-job fulfillment or frustration? What does it tell you about each organization’s vision for and commitment to EHS? Does this align with your own perspective on EHS?

Other things being equal, you might favor the organizational structure offered by Organization B. Reporting to an executive in charge of product development (the heart of the company’s mission) seems to offer greater likelihood that EHS will be well integrated in the organization and wield more influence.

 What about your boss, however? How does he/she view EHS? How many functions report to this individual? How much “mind share” will you have? In either organization, you will need to assess your prospective boss.

Assessing your boss

If you are looking at a mid-level position, perhaps the organization’s EHS leader will be your boss. It’s important to assess his/her position and influence — is he/she a manager? Director? Vice President?

 Does he/she seem to be able to acquire the resources to achieve his/her goals?

On the other hand, if you’re looking at the top-level EHS position, you will need to assess the “C-level” individual to whom EHS will report. Especially if the organization does not have an EHS department before you step aboard, this is your moment of greatest leverage. What’s this senior executive’s perspective on EHS? Does he/she have familiarity with EHS from a previous experience? What are his/her expectations for EHS?

It’s impossible to generalize across industries or agencies and across organizational sizes and structures. But it is possible to glean useful information about an organization’s EHS culture from its placement of the EHS function.

 Informal surveys conducted by The Phylmar Group, as well as formal surveys conducted by other management consulting organizations, show EHS “housed” in a wide variety of locations — Operations, Facilities, Legal, Human Resources to name a few. Which functional department “owns” EHS is attributable to a number of factors, including the organization’s perceived EHS risks as well as the legacy of influence of various organization leaders.

In my experience as a consultant working with environmental, health and safety groups across a variety of industries and government agencies, three factors contribute greatly to the effectiveness of an organization’s EHS department.

Visibility

How visible is EHS within the organization? Does EHS partner with others throughout and across the organization, all of whom have EHS roles and responsibilities? Is EHS only visible when things go wrong or when there’s an inspection?

Influence

How influential is the EHS department or the EHS Leader? Does the EHS Manager, Director, or VP have clout with his/her boss? Is EHS able to effect change — to establish and carry out safety or sustainability initiatives, for example? How involved is EHS in process or product design reviews? Is EHS viewed as an additional cost or as a partner in keeping costs down and maximizing benefits? How well is the EHS mission aligned with the organization’s mission?

Support

Whether EHS reports to a manager, a director, a VP, or the CEO — how supportive is that individual? What’s his or her perspective on EHS? Is basic compliance with EHS regulations sufficient? Or does he/she have a deeper commitment to employee safety and health and to the environmental sustainability of the company’s processes and products?  How accessible is that individual to EHS leadership?

Optimal placement of the EHS department

As the model below depicts, the optimal placement of the EHS department within an organization would maximize visibility (of the department within the company), influence (of the department or the leader) and support from above — from the individual to whom the department reports.

Moving toward optimal

What if, instead of seeking a new job, you have a position as an EHS professional within Organization A and are frustrated by the layered reporting structure and the lack of influence EHS has within the organization. How can you and your department move the needle in the direction of greater influence and effectiveness?

While it may not be possible, in the short term, to change the functional “home” EHS has within an organization, it may nonetheless be possible for EHS to move along the visibility, influence, and support axes. EHS departments that have successfully created and implemented management systems have seen themselves become models for other departments within an organization, increasing visibility, influence, and support for EHS.

Success and collaboration

Look for opportunities to save money and increase effectiveness. If you’re successful, let people know.

By its nature, EHS work involves identifying technical as well as management solutions for a wide variety of problems. VPs, directors, and managers will seek EHS leaders and staff out for help developing training management systems, document control systems, corrective action logs and follow-up systems, even branding — if EHS is viewed as efficient and effective in reducing costs, increasing morale, and improving relationships with regulators. This type of collaboration improves visibility for EHS within an organization and has the potential to increase the department’s influence and the boss’ support. Communicating EHS successes effectively — not “grandstanding,” but getting the word out clearly and positively — will also increase visibility.

Key relationships

Establish a good “track record” and cultivate strong relationships at the highest levels of the company. Developing good relationships with the company’s senior executives and being viewed as an effective problem-solver goes a long way. I know of one such EHS leader who is met by the chief financial officer with the following greeting whenever he pitches an initiative, project, or program: “The answer is yes, now have a seat and tell me why.” Clearly, this EHS leader has established his credibility!

Perception: Desirable asset or liability?

In my career, I have seen numerous instances of infighting within companies regarding ownership of EHS. If EHS is perceived as a liability, organizations will struggle to avoid taking it on. On the other hand, organizations will fight to keep or acquire an EHS department that is viewed as a valuable asset. As the model above depicts, it’s important for EHS to be located in as influential an organizational home as possible. Paradoxically, EHS sometimes has to be viewed as valuable in order to get there.

Viewing EHS with key factors in mind

EHS professionals, as I suggested earlier, most often have a sense of purpose greater than simply drawing a paycheck — and along with that comes important personal career goals. Whether you are considering a new position or seeking to work within an organization to improve the position of the EHS function, it’s useful to understand that visibility, influence, and support are key factors in an EHS organization’s success. And this, in turn, strongly impacts your own career satisfaction.