Is Civility Killing Risk Management? (Part 1)

HR departments have taken control of safety away from the professionals, and that could cause major problems.

In case you missed it, saving lives and preventing injuries on the job is now the duty of the human resources department. So is the choice of employee management tactics used to achieve safety. Civility is in; grumpiness is out. Insurers should be concerned, because the shift in responsibility and tactics has grounded the safety ship they worked hard to launch two decades ago. Safety, the social movement The takeover by HR was foretold by Samuel Greengard in his bold 1999 Workforce magazine cover story on zero tolerance. “Saving lives. . . requires careful thought and action—usually spearheaded by HR,” he wrote. Not the safety department. HR. A cursory glance at the organizational charts of mid- to large-size companies confirms the shift. Safety professionals have been dispossessed. Their authority to determine the overall tenor of safety management programs has largely been handed to those who think that relational development between employees is safety’s missing link. The new core belief guiding safety is simple: Unless safety is accomplished civilly—with first priority given to employee management policy—and produces harmony between workers, it is not done properly. As a result, it is no longer sufficient for workers to solely focus on accomplishing traditional safety objectives; they must also dedicate precious energy to ensuring tolerable relationships with each other. As Greengard says, “preventing harassment and avoiding discrimination” share the same priority as “saving lives.” Bottom line? The way workers treat each other in conducting the safety mission has become as important as the mission itself. Safety has become a social change movement. Alarm from safety professionals The change in focus has its detractors. Under the guise of zero-tolerance policies toward what Greengard calls “unacceptable and detrimental behavior,” some wonder if the real purpose of safety is being overlooked. Others express a deep concern that safety has merely become a powerful vehicle through which HR can effect social change. Safety professionals have long been wary of the potentially detrimental influence on risk management that such an emphasis can bring. They are quick to point out that risk control and incident prevention often involve critical, confrontational and sometimes blunt dialogue on the job site—behavior frowned upon by HR. Safety professionals' greatest fear is that there may be a purge of workers whose temperament is vital to risk management but whose behavior is deemed to be uncivil, therefore non-compliant. This includes a large percentage of workers currently employed in safety-sensitive jobs. One report published in Insurance Thought Leadership indicates that three-quarters of skilled and semi-skilled frontline workers exhibit primary personality traits that may be described as crusty or unfriendly. The traits include: task-focused, emotionally withdrawn, hostile and unsympathetic. Airline pilots, surgeons and most professionals whose job includes continuous risk-based decision-making bear the same characteristics. Opening the door for intolerance In research circles closely followed by HR managers, the rhetoric against those inclined to this prickly temperament has increased dramatically. In one study, researchers classify less personable workers as “negative mood” employees who harm the “positive affective states” of “positive mood” individuals. Experts say gruff and grumpy workers easily negate any good generated by people-oriented positive-thinkers. That’s tame compared with the harsh term used in a prestigious 2014 university research report on worker dispositional attitude. In this study, the word used to describe workers whose temperament is typically found in high-risk jobs is "hater," as in the opposite of "liker." Haters tend to initially dislike many things and to focus on tasks rather than people. Considered standoffish, they are not as popular as social-butterfly, anything-goes likers. (Social media is not meant for haters. If so, "dislike" would be their favorite button.) In the wrong hands and for the wrong purposes, "hater" is a derogatory categorization that could be used to isolate, shame or potentially terminate those whose only fault is that they occupy the wrong side of the behavioral spectrum preferred by leaders in the social safety movement. Part 2 of this series explores what insurers can do to stop the slide down this slippery slope.

Ron Newton

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Ron Newton

Ron Newton is the president of PEAK Training Solutions and the author of the top-rated business book No Jerks on the Job. Ron founded PEAK when business leaders and insurers asked him to help them improve employee engagement in change-resistant work environments through ‘soft skills’ training. Previously, he directed a rugged wilderness camp program to rehabilitate troubled teens. Newton is a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate.


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