AMSJ » Safe people corrupted by unsafe culture

Safe people corrupted by unsafe culture

OPINION Technical safety specialist, David G Broadbent, argues recruiting the right people will only get you so far. It’s the ingrained work culture they’re exposed to that makes the difference when it comes to maintaining a safe work environment.

Does safety recruitment work or is it all in the training?

This is a question I am regularly asked as I travel around the place. It is a very reasonable enquiry and I can fully appreciate why the appropriate answers are of such value. As the technologies being used to extract product are becoming increasingly complex, the requirement to support those processes with the requisite humanistic support similarly becomes increasingly critical.

The investment one makes in the human workforce is a significant one, and it serves no value if your workplace has a revolving door. To this point, the comments I have made are pretty general, and bear no real direct relationship to the question of ‘safety’. When we consider the need to ensure we have the ‘right people’ from a safety perspective, then we begin to have to consider an entirely different set of parameters.

For a start though, let’s consider some specific questions around the acquisition of people with the ‘right stuff’ for your business. What are the factors that are commonly considered as being effective in assisting you to pick the best person for an available position? Well, how many organisations have a HR Department? Do you then provide that HR Department with a summary of the required position and leave it up to them to do all the ‘leg work’ sifting through the reams of applicants? We then find that someone goes through all that ‘paper’ and on the basis of who knows what determines who should be elevated to the next pile.

Now you may think that such an observation is a tad disrespectful. Maybe it is. Nonetheless, I have spoken to recruiters who have told me that they look for anything that makes an applicant stand out from the crowd. Examples given have been different colour paper. In one case the applicant had cut down their own paper to be 3mm larger than standard A4. Brilliant. No matter which way it was stored it just stood out that little bit further than the rest. Did they get the position? No, they did not. Not because of the paper – because what was on the paper did not make a significant enough impact. They certainly managed to move past the immediate culling though and that can be a critical step. So let’s not think that recruiting people is an exact science. It has indeed been shown that it is not! For example, if you had a choice as to where your interview was throughout the day, would you have a preference? Is it better to be first for the day, first after lunch, or final applicant of the day? Which would you choose?


David Broadbent

Allow me to make anther critical observation about the question of recruiting the right people, and then we shall move on the safety space more directly.

What are some of the key factors that are actually considered when making the recruitment decision?

Well we know that in almost all circumstances people look at the ‘experience’ of the applicant and try to make a determination as to how that balances with the requirements of the position available. Associated with that ‘experience’ is the specifics of any education that may be considered pre-requisite. Now all of this makes every bit of sense, or so we would think.

What about those situations where an employee departs the business? After all, in many cases, that is the reason that you are on the recruitment merry-go-round anyway? How often is the departure a direct result of a lack of experience? Very rare. After all you checked for that during the recruitment process. Also if there are some experience issues that might have slipped through a crack you often can make that go away with on-the-job training.

In almost all cases it has been shown that employee departures are more closely aligned with a failure at what we might call ‘fit’. In other words, there has developed some dissonance between the employee and the context in which they are required to function.

The bulk of departures occur as a result of failure at the levels of ‘behaviour’ and/or ‘values’. When we again look at the manner in which the bulk of recruitment is achieved we see that these areas generally receive scant attention. Yes, we have seen over the last decade an increase in the use of psychological testing as a tool in the recruiter’s armoury. There is some mystical belief, promulgated by the ‘testing industry’, that using psychological testing as a key element of your recruitment process adds a greater level of scrutiny and validity to the outcome, along with a greater level of confidence in the predictability and sustainability of the recruited applicant. Sorry, the published evidence tells a different story.

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In an excellent review of the application of personality testing to recruitment, Morgensen et al provide a summary of the views of the leading scientific journal editors within this space. In short, their conclusions are that with the exception of one of the panellists, there was consensus that there are a number of significant problems associated with the use of self-report personality tests in selection contexts. Not the least of which is almost universal existence of ‘faking’ within the results obtained. Now it is true that the degree of faking varies. One might consider all sorts of reasons for this, although there are some pretty obvious ones.

Firstly if you have an employment decision being made based on your responses within a battery of psychological tests, is it not SPECIAL FEATURE EMPLOYMENT in your financial (or otherwise) interest to try and ensure that you provide what you believe is being sought? Stands to reason, or so I would have thought.

Now I fully expect to see a degree of ‘pushback’ from the testing industry – after all it is worth billions! You shall hear things like “we control for response bias”, “we have internal validity scales to identify faked responses” and the like. Again the published evidence suggests that even with these claimed ‘protections’, the level of protection is minimal. Indeed Morgensen1 quite specifically concludes that “Corrections for faking do not appear to improve validity”.

Having spent some time taking a look at the more generic use of psychological testing within recruitment we now find ourselves considering the specific application to the health and safety space.

Over the last several years I have seen a significant increase in the marketing of safety specific psychological testing within recruitment. This has been very aggressively promoted within the hydrocarbon and mining spaces. I recall being approached by a well-known publisher a few years ago now. They were asking me to review their offering and to consider endorsing/ promoting their product within my own operations. For some very elemental reasons I elected not to. So what could have me turning my back on what could be a very good little earner. Quite simple really. It does not work – or at least not in the way promoted. These organisations actively promote their ‘testing’ as a scientific method of ensuring that you recruit the ‘safest’ people from the pool of applicants available to you. Discarding the whole issue of response bias (faking), the implication is that if you use their ‘test’ then your business will have ‘safer’ people and shall therefore have less accidents. Like I said, not true.

A strong statement, so I had better have something to back it up. Well, it just so happens that the United States National Safety Council conducted a meta-analysis of some of the most recognised safety interventions and explored the relationship of those interventions to reductions in a workplace injury. This was an exceptional piece of work. In their analysis, they accessed over 19,000 subjects and conclude that ‘personnel selection’ contributed to a 3.7 per cent reduction in accidents – in other words, minimal impact. The interventions that offered the most ‘bang for the buck’ had behavioural elements within them. Ergonomic based interventions also were of significant positive value.

Does Freedom of speech really exist in the workplace?

Now I am not saying that safety specific psychological testing achieves nothing. It does! What I believe it does do is give you a place to start. Again, if we ignore the whole issue of ‘faking’ it is probably true that it does an OK job of identifying the very safe and the very unsafe. The ability to discriminate within the world of the average is somewhat questionable.

So allow me to assume that safety specific recruitment tests actually do deliver to you a group of “safe workers”. Fantastic, that’s what you paid some organisation a truckload of money to provide you with. I will even assume that you happen to be the business where the applicants were not trying to positively influence their results in order to put their best foot forward.

The million-dollar question (and that is a conservative estimate) is – do they remain safe? The answer to that question is pretty unequivocal. The most powerful influencing variable within your workplace is a little thing called ‘safety culture’. What we know is that employees’ behaviour is largely determined by the prevailing safety culture functioning within the business. In other words, you can spend a small fortune ensuring (or at least trying to ensure) that you get the ‘safest’ person/s available. If you then transport them into a sub-optimal safety culture they shall, over time, find that their behaviour is modified to ensure that they become more congruent with the cultural behaviours being practised around them. The alternative to that conclusion is that they shall leave. Why? Because their attitudes/values do not match the cultural environment in which they have found themselves having to function.

What does all this tell you? I hope it tells you that the use of psychological testing within your recruitment processes needs to be better understood. It is not some science based panacea that allows you to just ‘inherit’ safe people – and not to be too concerned about training or engineering and optimal environment.

Allow me to conclude this discussion with a personal experience some time ago. I was doing some consulting work for one of Australia’s largest facilities management organisations.

They had decided that they wanted to use a specific psychological tool within their business as a developmental instrument in the area of cultural enhancement. Now to be allowed to use these instruments you had to complete a several day internal, accreditation program. Within the accreditation process, I found myself to be one of three psychologists. As that type of animal, we are trained in psychometrics and statistical interpretation. So it stands to reason that one of we three would ask the question – “what is the statistical validity of XYZ culture tool?”. Firstly the fact that we asked the question seemed to be a surprise. The response? “We shall get back to you”. The following day we were given some internal mathematics conducted by the author of the instrument. When we asked if they could point us to any peer-reviewed articles about the validity of the instrument/processes the only material available was written by employees/ proponents of the process. A long way from ‘independent’.

So when you then use the world’s foremost scientific investigation tool, Google, you also find that whilst this instrument is widely known, there is scant evidence supporting that it does what it claims. In the end, I gave up almost 5K to find out that one of the country’s most well marketed corporate culture tools has very little empirical background.

The moral of the story is to not be seduced by the slick marketing. Locate a truly independent and recognised, professional who can assist you navigate the mine field of safe workplace behaviours.

Training & HR

Yes, it is important to recruit the right people!

There is the right and the wrong way to go about that process. The way to think about this is that you are recruiting a person that is the equivalent of a piece of clay. If you recruit correctly then you shall have the right consistency of clay for the particular needs of your workplace. If you then just throw that clay in the hole and don’t treat and train it appropriately it shall just dry up and crack.

You must use the opportunity to mould and train that clay for the years ahead. If you do that properly, your piece of clay shall not only give you years of trouble-free service, it shall also mix with all the other clays in the workplace to make a unique and sustainable environment.

One final comment. When the money gets tight, what is the first process that your business decides to cut? My experience is that the training budget is often the first to go. In other words, the programs that are designed to maintain, sustain and develop your workplace are quickly seen as discretionary. Let me suggest to you, they are not. It is when you decide to cut your safety programs that you are making one of the most elemental errors. The message such a decision sends to your safety culture is loud, and never good! When times are tight, that is exactly when you need to be enhancing your training/development programs. This then adds value to the current workforce; rather than adding an extra layer of risk within an already imbalanced environment.

Worth a thought, I hope.

This article was first published in Australasian Mine Safety Journal

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