Understanding the Impact of Organisational Safety Culture
When it comes to safety onboarding and induction, it’s easy to pinpoint initiatives like compliance training and familiarisation with policies and procedures. But how often do we consider the implicit safety onboarding and induction activities in our organisation?
New employees aren’t just in the process of becoming an expert in their role, they’re also in the process of becoming an expert in the culture of the organisation. Think back to when you first started at your organisation. Did you look to see what time people started and finished work? Did you notice who sat with whom at lunch? What stories did you hear? What did employees say and do? Was this consistent with leaders? All of these were signs that provided clues on the culture, what is valued and how to behave. Your observations allowed you to become an organisational ‘insider’.
Imagine you’re starting a new job at a mine site…
When you applied for the role you saw that safety was a key company value and questions during your interview targeted safety. As part of your safety onboarding process you complete site safety inductions, area inductions and acquire work permits. It’s clear safety is important.
Several weeks pass. You’ve mastered the main duties of your role, but are still learning the ropes of the business and how people operate. You start to notice things that don’t quite align with your safety induction. When completing a risk assessment, you notice your team purposefully downgrade the risk of hazards to ‘get on with the job’ and meet production demands. You notice how quickly your supervisor runs through safety shares and how no one seems to be engaged in the conversation. You notice how an injury was ‘swept under the rug’ and see that the sign at the front of site still indicates 250 days since the last LTI. You notice that reward schemes are tied to LTIs.
Confronted with these scenarios you think to yourself, perhaps this company doesn’t really value safety after all. But you need this job and you want to fit in with your crew. So, when you see people act unsafely, do you speak up? Do you stick to your guns and face the social repercussions, or do you look to fit in and follow everyone’s lead? Do you abide by the unwritten rules of how things are really done around here?
It’s more than likely that people look to fit in with the culture of the organisation, and specifically in the scenario above the safety culture. Culture is not what is said, rather how things are done and what is actually valued. Our induction into an organisation’s culture or ‘socialisation’ is defined as “the process by which a person learns the values, norms and required behaviours which permit him/her to participate as a member of the organisation.”1
Why do we look to fit in?
Humans are social beings. Our innate need to belong dates back to prehistoric times, when our survival was dependent on our ability to group together to share resources, overcome predators and procreate. In addition, humans tend to avoid feelings of uncertainty and have a need for predictability. When starting a new job at a new company there is a period of disorientation—everything is new and there is uncertainty around what to do and how to do it. Knowing how things are done reduces this uncertainty and provides guidelines on how to behave such that we can fit in with the group.
A recent Sentis study illustrates just how quickly what is actually done differs to what is said. The study explored reporting behaviours of over 12,460 individuals from 16 companies across 8 industries. New employees are formally inducted in the process for reporting incidents and the value of reporting incidents to the company. Therefore, it would be fair to assume that new employees are the most up to date when it comes to the ‘written rules’ and thus more likely to report incidents. However, consider the following statistics:
- 33% of incidents go unreported for those who have been in their company for less than 1 year
- 41% of incidents go unreported for those who have been in their industry for less than 1 year
- 44% of incidents go unreported for those aged <20 years old.
These employees are new to the company, industry and work in general. So, where are these non-reporting behaviours learned? It’s not from safety inductions or formal safety onboarding. More than likely, it’s from the cues they observe within the organisational culture. These cues may come from their peers or even their leader and can be the result of first- or second-hand experiences. In fact, the study found that underreporting behaviour was prevalent at all organisation levels, ages and positions. Download the study to learn more.
How we learn to fit into a new culture
Organisational onboarding practices are a way for newcomers to become formally oriented to the organisation and their role. Although there are a number of formal orientation practices, people typically look to organisational insiders (peers and leaders) for information. Do you ever notice how new people are typically quiet and focused on observing as much as possible?
We are not passively inducted into a culture—we seek information and make sense of what is going on to know how to act. Therefore, it is important to consider the formal and informal leaders in our business and how they are role-modelling safety. This can help us to determine subtle cues that speak to the value that is placed on safety, and separate what’s said versus what’s done.
The need for people to belong and the ways in which they go about it are not a problem, if the organisational culture is a positive one. If your safety culture is not positive, you may be indoctrinating new employees into a culture where it is okay to cut corners or not speak up if they have safety concerns.
There are individual differences though. Not everyone will accept the ‘status quo’. If your culture is one where safety is not valued, then chances are the people who have a strong unwavering commitment to safety will opt to leave. Of all the people in your organisation, these are the ones you should be striving to keep.
However, if a person does value safety, but perhaps not as strongly as the former example, they are more likely to be swayed to follow the crowd and fit in. You might ask how one goes about fitting into an organisation if their values conflict. Humans don’t like the discomfort they experience when there is a mismatch in their values and beliefs and how they behave. Therefore, to alleviate this discomfort they find justifications for why this behaviour is okay. For example, they may think:
“The person who made the rules doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
“But my leader does it this way, so it must be okay.”
“It is hard to find a job in this market, it’s important I keep this job.”
This is how people are inducted into a culture and one method for how it is maintained. As mentioned earlier, this may or may not be a problem depending on the maturity of the safety culture. But how do you know if your safety culture is positive and driving safety excellence, or negative and driving counterproductive behaviours? Unfortunately for leaders, it is unlikely that they are privy to what actually goes on; a key feature of a negative safety culture is that people abide by the safety rules when management is looking.
What can I do to make a change?
It doesn’t matter if you’re a newcomer or an existing employee, if you’re not satisfied with how things are done in your organisation you can be the change you want to see. It’s certainly not easy, and it might go against your natural instinct to ‘fit in’, but when faced with a scenario that doesn’t sit right with regards to safety, consider the following:
- What’s in my control? Is there a choice I can make to ensure work is done safer or better?
- What can I influence? If I am not in a position to directly create change, how might I influence those that are?
- Do I choose to accept the status quo, or do I choose to demonstrate the safe behaviours I wish to see in others?
If you’re a leader, additional questions to consider include:
- Are there any unhelpful behaviours I might be inadvertently driving in my team? How am I role modelling safety? What could I be doing differently?
- What does the safety culture at my organisation look like? What are my employees being inducted into?
- What am I going to do to alter the ‘status quo’ to ensure the safety of my people?
Changes to culture do not happen overnight. However, with sustained effort from all levels within the organisation, safety can become what is said and done in your organisation.
- Tapomoy, D. (2009). Managing Human Resources and Industrial Relations. New Delhi:Excel Books India
Sentis specialises in safety culture measurement and transformation. Experts in applied psychology and neuroscience, Sentis helps organisations to enhance and move beyond compliance to empower employees to work safely—not because they have to, but because they want to. Offering assessments, training, coaching and consulting, Sentis has helped more than 300 companies and 150,000 people think differently about safety since 2003.