How successful organizations value safety reveals how they really care for their people. Worker safety is paramount for any organization that strives to be high functioning. Companies that protect their workers—their most valuable resource—are better positioned to achieve positive results on stock value, productivity and cost control.
Some would say committing to safety is easy when the money is flowing and resources are available. But what happens when times get rough: an economic downturn, leadership changes, near bankruptcies, or other business challenges that threaten the company’s stability? How do you keep the focus and energy on safety and exposure control when consumed with efforts to consolidate, eliminate redundancies, shutter divisions, or cut programs deemed not necessary to surviving the crisis? How do you protect the culture, employee relationships and the people working at the frontline?
At some point the crisis will pass and more normal business condition will return. But what will your organization look like then? And will you be positioned to respond to market opportunities with a culture and employee base not only intact but functional?
It’s easy to see why these issues may feel timely. Economists since the beginning of the year have warned a recession is looming before the next general U.S. election, and environmental disasters from the California wildfires to hurricanes in the southeast are creating uncertainties in the supply chain. Trade frictions and global economic weakness are also at play.
Committing to Safety
Economic uncertainty is not new; over the last two decades organizations have experienced robust times as well as difficult times, such as the challenges brought by the 2008 recession.
Aside from the ethical and moral aspect of ensuring a safe work environment, a work environment where exposure is recognized and controlled impacts a number of elements that allow organizations to prosper regardless of economic conditions:
• It’s easier to retain people if employees see their company is committed to safety.
• It forms the basis for respectful relationships across levels from frontline to supervisor to manager and makes union environments easier to navigate.
• Employees who believe the organization cares for them are more willing to contribute discretionary effort and accept changes to shift schedules, work assignments and restructuring—all bringing high value to “getting the work done” and keeping the focus on the customer.
Indeed, committing to safety programs reflects the long-term vision of leadership and their commitment to make a positive impact on not just the employees, but also the community they serve.
Studies show that workers who are engaged by leadership are more productive, more committed to improving the organization, and less likely to leave. They identify with the company mission, seek to live its values, and serve as ambassadors inside and outside the organization. What’s more, organizations with broad employee engagement tend to outperform other organizations.
Engaging Employees When Crisis Hits
Let’s talk about an organization in a tough industry—meat packing. This is a challenging environment—the work is hard, the margins are low, the environment is challenging, and finding employees who are willing to do this basically minimum wage job is constant. There is competition from other employers, and once employees gets a little experience and build their language skills, they are tempted to move jobs for an easier situation if not more money.
What can you do? You must find ways to engage them. You must find ways to help employees feel valued, believe their supervisor is interested in their success and find pride in being part of the organization. You must help them feel a part of a community. The foundation for this is the belief that people can work hard where they are protected from injury and cared about. When this is achieved the impact is amazing. The organization can overcome many of the elements that are an innate part of the job.
Now tie this example to a company near bankruptcy. The work is hard, money is very tight, customers are at risk of finding other sources, many employees “see the writing on the wall” and start looking for other jobs (most often these are the employees you most want to retain), supervisors and managers become obsessed with productivity and cost control, working relationships with frontline employees deteriorate, safety becomes a bargaining chip, and sometimes employees see claiming an injury as a way out as well as a way to regain some justice.
What can you do? Yet again, you must find ways to engage them. You must find ways to help employees feel valued, believe their supervisor is interested in their success and find pride in being part of the organization. You must help them feel a part of a community. The foundation for this is the belief that people can work hard where they are protected from injury and cared about. When this is achieved the impact is amazing. The organization can overcome many of the elements that are an innate part of the job.
There is no better way to engage employees than through safety. It forms the foundation for high organizational functioning—strong worker/supervisor relationships, beliefs of fairness, management credibility, teamwork, willingness to speak up, beliefs the organization cares.
Why would any company be willing to give up access to these tremendous attributes?
Consider the Employees
So what can you do when challenged with a downturn? First, you should consider the employee experience the following ways:
1. Make sure your message and your leadership’s message around safety are clear, aligned and supported with action. During times of uncertainty, exposure to injury goes up and messages about safety must be strong, clear and frequent.
2. Be honest. If you can’t share information, say that and commit to sharing when it is possible.
3. Talk about the importance of protecting each other. Find ways to make this real and practical through safety conversations with individuals and groups.
4. Find opportunities to highlight safety successes. For example, when a frontline employee or supervisor identifies and successfully controls exposure, let them and everyone know they are appreciated.
5. Find ways to highlight that, even though times are tough and there is laser focus on meeting customer commitments, controlling costs and minimizing waste, it is never acceptable to skip steps, be casual around established procedures, or proceed with work where exposure is uncontrolled.
6. Remind everyone that safety failures (i.e., injuries whether minor to severe) are organizational failures and everyone owns them—plus failures are very costly.
Passing the Test
Tough periods are tests. They test an organization’s commitment to what is at the core of the business and tell employees what really matters. These “moments in time” become moments of truth.
When confronted by outside business challenges like a recession, a company is ultimately tested about its core values. Workers (and others) will be watching because how the organization responds communicates what is ultimately important.
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