What to Do if Disciplinary Action Harms Your Safety Culture

An intriguing question was asked near the conclusion of a recent webinar, “Reinvigorating Your Incident Management Process.”

“Workers received disciplinary actions (counseling) in the aftermath of a workplace safety incident. While workers may have played some role in what happened, they were placed in the sort of pressure-packed situation that would have challenged even our best employees (in fact, they were some of our best employees). The [rest of the] workforce is rightly sympathetic and upset. Disciplinary action has harmed our safety culture. How can this be fixed??”

The group had just finished discussing how well-intentioned employees can be lured into errors that result in accidents. The group had also just discussed the ways in which unjust discipline can erode the effectiveness of operational learning, management awareness, and the overall health and safety culture.

Adapted from the US DOE Human Performance Improvement Handbook

My response to “fixing a discipline crisis” centers on the following points:

Culture is more easily harmed than restored. Don’t harm culture! Refer to Section 4-23 of the US DOE Human Performance Improvement Handbook for guidance regarding when disciplinary action may be appropriate.

If unjust discipline has been delivered, promising a brighter future is a start, but a history of actions – namely, appropriate focus on systems causation rather focusing solely on workers – is what’s required to win over skeptics.

Re-define discipline. Discipline is the self-control needed to observe a certain pattern of behavior. Punishment to promote desired behavior is a common element of textbook definitions. Few dictionaries list positive reinforcement as a means to pattern healthy habits. This is unfortunate.

Re-define discipline! Make it about a standardized approach, a rhythm and routine, integrating safety consciousness into the preparation and execution of all work activities. Begin every day and prepare for infrequent and high-hazard tasks this sort of good discipline. Develop and revisit job hazard analysis forms regularly. Complete a pre-task plan that compares JHAs and standard operating procedures to conditions of the day. Ask workers to challenge potentially dangerous situations. Stand behind workers. Do this every day because this is the sort of discipline that workers can LIVE with.

Re-evaluate discipline. Humans don’t always say and do the right things when under pressure (like when speaking in public). That brings me to my next point: there is something that I failed to mention in my response – If it’s suspected that employees may have been unjustly disciplined, and a company is truly committed to a different future – it may be appropriate to reopen investigations. Because individuals don’t always get things right, some companies establish a committee to affirm disciplinary recommendations.

Getting things right; not being right is what matters most. There can be second chances to get things right.

Restoring faith is more art than science

Companies, cultures, and circumstances surrounding disciplinary action vary wildly. What works in one situation may not work in all situations. The previously listed ideas are for your consideration. In the end, companies reasoning through initial actions must also reason through restorative approaches.

The need to redefine discipline cannot be overemphasized. Discipline is something that should be positive and protective. This is the most important proactive advice that I can provide so PLEASE pass the following credo along to supervisors, “If you do not like assigning disciplinary action, then build safety discipline into the workforce.”