Why Workplace Fairness is Critical to Building Safety Culture

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Courtesy of Intelex Technologies Inc.

Many workplace leaders underline the importance of having a “safety culture”, but beyond the statements, policies and procedures, what are the key elements that make a workplace culture truly safe?

A prerequisite to creating a safety culture is to establish a culture of fairness characterized by respect and dignity for each workplace participant. This is because a culture of safety requires that employees believe they will be treated fairly and are safe to speak up about mistakes or safety risks.  Unintentional errors and unsafe acts will not be punished but used as learning experiences.  Furthermore, reckless or deliberate unsafe acts and unjustifiable risks will be punished.

Unsafe cultures are characterized by the fear of speaking up about safety hazards or risk because of fear of reprimands or sanctions and the related threat to one’s psychological safety. Unsafe workplace cultures also include those that view safety as a cost rather than an investment and where it is understood that productivity and profit are top priority regardless of policy.

When subtle forms of unfairness permeate an organizational culture, they can have an impact upon the psychological safety of workplace participants.  When employees feel unsafe, they will not participate in safety culture—they will keep their heads down. –Tweet This!

A “psychologically safe” workplace is one where every reasonable effort is made to protect the mental health of workers. Psychological safety in these terms is a new floor standard for conduct in the workplace.

 A psychologically safe workplace offers psychological protection to employees.  Psychological protection would be reflected in an employee’s affirmation of the following statements:

  1. My employer is committed to minimizing unnecessary stress at work.
  2. My immediate supervisor cares about my emotional well-being.
  3. My employer makes efforts to prevent harm to employees from harassment, discrimination or violence.
  4. I would describe my workplace as being psychologically healthy.
  5. My employer deals effectively with situations that may threaten or harm employees

(e.g., harassment, discrimination, violence).

At the Workplace Fairness Institute we have had the opportunity to study hundreds of workplaces across Canada and the world.  In our studies, we have found that time and resources spent specifically on engendering a safety culture are wasted unless that energy is first devoted to ensuring that there is fair decision-making and psychological safety for employees.  The concept of reprisal can be quite complicated for most workplace participants.  They know that being branded as “not a good team player” or “not a good fit” will have a material impact on their career aspirations.  They know that disagreeing with a person in a position of power can have serious consequences for them.

There is therefore a tendency to ignore safety issues unless reporting is truly encouraged and promoted as a positive reflection on one’s competence and ability to be a “team player”. Beyond compliance with rules and safety appropriate behaviors, a safety culture can only be achieved through commitment among people to uphold integrity between policy, process, and procedures. Commitment to fairness must cascade from senior executives to front line managers to every individual worker.

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