If we reference Webster’s Dictionary, “accountable” is defined as being “responsible, liable, explainable, legally bound, subject to”. In the workplace, employees are obligated to comply with policies, rules, and standards. Accountability implies that our performance is measured, and that it will result in consequences that depend on our failure or success to meet the expected standards for which we are responsible.
Two Sides of the Accountability Coin
Some companies think accountability is only about administering progressive discipline. They emphasize only negative consequences that result from a failure to meet standards of performance. In reality, an effective accountability program is characterized by a balanced administration of consequences appropriate to the level of performance. So, what form should those consequences take? Let’s take a look at the consequences that might result from two categories of employee behavior:
1. Meeting or exceeding standards, and
2. Failing to meet standards.
Meeting or exceeding standards: In an effective accountability system, positive recognition is given regularly for meeting or exceeding employer expectations. If your company does not have a formal safety recognition program, look at some examples.
Failing to meet standards: Unfortunately, in some companies this is the only category that results in consequences. In an effective safety culture, corrective actions are rare and perceived as positive in the long term. Usually (not always), corrective actions involve some sort of progressive discipline
Bottom line: In an effective accountability program, recognition is given often and reprimands are rare because employees are performing above and beyond minimum standards.
Meet Your Own Obligations
It’s critical to understand before administering progressive discipline supervisors should first evaluate (make a judgment about) how well they, themselves, have fulfilled their own obligations to employees. This is important to make sure they are displaying effective supervision and justified in administering corrective actions.
Determining if discipline is appropriate does not have to be difficult. It can be a simple straightforward process. Again, all that’s required is that supervisors ask the following questions and answer honestly to determine if they have met their own obligations:
1. Supervision: Have I provided adequate safety oversight? I’m not stuck in my office all day. I’m overseeing their work regularly so that I’m able to “catch” unsafe behaviors and hazardous conditions before they cause an injury.
2. Training: Have I provided (or has the employee received) quality safety training? The employee has the required knowledge and skills to comply. The employee understands the natural and system consequences of noncompliance.
3. Accountability: Have I applied safety accountability fairly and consistently in the past? The employee knows he or she will be disciplined if caught.
4. Resources: Have I provided the tools, equipment, PPE, fall protection and other resources to do that job safely? Tools, equipment, machinery, PPE, etc. always in good working order.
5. Support: Have I provided adequate psychosocial support that promotes working safe?
If supervisors can honestly answer “yes” to each of the above questions, they are demonstrating effective leadership and it may be appropriate to administer discipline because they have first fulfilled their supervisor obligations. However, other safety management system weaknesses may exist that make discipline unjustified.
If you cannot honestly answer “yes” to each question, it’s probably more appropriate to apologize to the employee for failing to meet one or more obligations, and make a commitment to meet those obligations in the future. That may be hard to do, but it’s the right leadership response.