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October 14, 2015

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Only human – why placing blame is bad for business

When accidents happen at work it can be easy to place blame, but that won’t lead to a culture that values safety and encourages trust, Andrew Sharman argues.

Along our journey to safety excellence things might not always go smoothly; accidents may occur. Each provides us with a unique opportunity to learn and take appropriate action to prevent recurrence. If we miss this chance, we really lose out. But so many organisations minimise the value they could gain from these incidents due to the way their culture responds to them.

Appointing blame

Clarity is key to developing a robust safety culture. We know it’s important that all incidents are reported and processes are in place for investigation and the implementation of suitable preventative actions. But if we truly want our employees to provide us with this information, we need to create an environment where they feel able to step forward to offer thoughts and opinions objectively and freely – and for these to be received openly and respectfully by the organisation.

A workplace where news of negative safety events such as accidents, injuries and near misses is met with disappointment and unease is not conducive to developing this clarity – and in fact it drives things in the opposite direction.

Organisations that place emphasis on identifying fault and apportioning blame will always encourage a culture of fear which will sooner or later lead to under-reporting when it comes to safety issues. Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum, an organisation attempting to operate a totally blame-free work environment is likely to suffer wilful neglect and violation frequently.

A just culture

Balancing our desire to learn from mistakes with the need to take corrective action to reinforce the notion of accountability is the way forward. In safety terms this is known as a just culture, where individuals are not punished for actions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training.

While it discourages apportioning blame, a just culture is not a ‘no-fault’ system. It doesn’t mean we have to operate under the auspices of ‘no blame’ but rather a sense of fair and appropriate accountability is incorporated into what we do. In a just culture there is an acceptance and understanding that human errors are often caused through system failures (as opposed to, but of course in addition to the potential for, personal failures) but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts occur these are not tolerated.

In simple terms, a just culture is about being objective, rational and fair. If we are thorough in our accident investigations and strive to identify what went wrong, we may find that the majority of unsafe acts and behaviours have occurred due to unintentional error rather than deliberate wrong-doing.

Behaviour in context

Of course, malicious or purposefully harmful behaviour must not be tolerated and individuals should be held responsible for their actions within the context of the circumstances in which they occurred.

Even where the act is found to be predominantly wilful and malicious it’s worth trying to understand – as objectively as possible – what caused that mind-set. Is there something that the organisation did that contributed to it? And could other employees have the same perspective?

Thorough and systematic evaluation of events is vital here, and investigations into where things have gone awry should include determining whether the actions were as intended, whether an individual knowingly violated procedures or policies, and whether there is a history of such behaviour. But remember – in order for there to be a violation, there must first be a rule, and secondly an intention to break it. If there’s no rule, there can’t be a violation!

Being ‘just’ is a crucial element in developing an organisational culture that values safety, builds trust and encourages employee engagement. A just culture allows people to concentrate on doing their best work – rather than worrying about watching their backs, trying to limit their personal liability. It embraces the notion that people are fallible and will make mistakes from time to time.

After all, we’re only human.

Andrew Sharman is chief executive of RyderMarshSharman


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