Discipline has long been a hot button topic in safety. On one hand, it is imperative that leaders define rules and procedures to assure the wellbeing of employees, contractors, and customers. And once those rules are established, they must do all they can to support and enforce them. These leaders know that if they are aware of a safety rule violation and choses to ignore it, they put themselves and the company at risk.
On the other hand, rule enforcement can have a negative effect that undermines safety performance, stalls production, and pushes organizational goals beyond reach—especially when discipline is perceived to be arbitrary or unfair.
Not every rule violation is intentional. Employees who are punished for violating a rule they believe they were encouraged to break (because of production demands or the total absence of enforcement, for example) can feel blindsided by discipline and become resentful toward leadership. The issue can get worse when a rule violation results in an incident and the injured individual feels they are being punished for getting hurt.
How can leaders strike a balance that honors the importance of enforcing workplace procedures while also making employees feel comfortable reporting injuries and enabling them to work in compliance?
Here are 4 tips to get started:
Tip 1: Make rules and the consequences for violating them transparent.
- Define and thoroughly communicate clear rules that employees can follow. If a rule is not widely known, discipline may be seen as unjust, which can negatively impact the culture, workgroup relationships, and on whether future incidents will be reported.
- Do not establish rules that employees must break to complete their work. In other words, if you require PPE on a job, ensure that workers have access to it.
- When a rule is violated, discipline must be consistent, even-handed, and based on transparent criteria.
Tip 2: Decide on what is crucial and treat those things accordingly.
- For almost every organization there are a few infractions where there absolutely has to be zero tolerance for variation (e.g., LOTO, confined space).
- In these instances, management must ensure the workforce knows what these infractions are and why they require unique treatment.
- Managers must also ensure they have done all they can to support employees in performing these behaviors as required.
Tip 3: Do not determine discipline based on the fact someone was injured.
- When employees perceive that discipline only happens in the aftermath of an injury, there is a very real risk that future incidents, no matter what the level of potential, will go unreported.
- Effectively, this link tells employees that punishment and reporting are always connected.
- If 50% of your discipline cases follow an injury, employees are very likely to perceive they are being disciplined for being injured—not for the infraction that led to the injury.
Tip 4: Avoid increasing severity of discipline simply as the result of a reported incident.
- Most discipline policies apply counseling or coaching rather than a more punitive consequence to a first offense.
- Don’t ignore this policy simply because an injury occurred.
- If an employee was injured while violating a rule or procedure, and this was their first infraction, do not depart from the normal first step of progressive discipline.
Getting discipline right means understanding a few key practices. In our ebook, The Leadership Guide to Enforcing Safety Rules: Keys to Getting Safety Discipline Right, we navigate this delicate topic and provide practical solutions for creating balance in your disciplinary process. We cover:
- Why discipline can sometimes produce undesired outcomes
- Common ways leaders mishandle discipline
- The proven ways leaders can get discipline right
Download the ebook and learn the secrets to effective safety discipline.