A "consequence" is anything that occurs as a result of something that happens. Another way to express it is to think it in terms of cause and effect: the initial behavior is the "cause" and the consequence is the "effect." For every cause, there is an effect. The effect may be something that affects you internally, externally, or both.
In each example below, the initial behavior or action is the cause: the reaction or response is the effect or consequence. Let's look at some examples:
Not in the workplace. It's important to understand there is no such thing as "no consequence" for an action. You cannot NOT have a consequence. For instance, if a supervisor thanks a worker for making a safety suggestion, the supervisor's recognition is a consequence (positive). If the supervisor ignores the worker who made the safety suggestion, the "act" of ignoring is also a consequence (negative).
If employee safety performance meets or exceeds the standards set by the employer, you know consequences are effective. When employees meet or exceed performance standards, some sort of positive recognition should follow. On the other hand, if employees make informed choices not to comply with the company's safety performance standards, some sort of appropriate corrective action should follow.
There are various strategies for administering positive and negative consequences. Careful planning is critical to ensure consequences are effective. So, let's first take a look at positive and negative reinforcement, and why positive reinforcement is best in producing a world-class safety culture.
Positive reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors through positive recognition and/or reward. Consequences for safe behaviors that meet or exceed expectations should include some form of positive recognition and/or reward. Consequently, workers will believe that if they do something well, they will get recognized.
Important criteria to remember about positive reinforcement include:
It's important to know "desired" behaviors may not always be safe behaviors. Unfortunately, this may be true in safety cultures where it is more important to work fast than safe. In this instance, working fast and not safe is top priority. This is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time. Here are some examples showing how perceived positive reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:
Negative reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors by withholding negative consequences. Workers will believe if they do something the employer wants, they will avoid negative consequences. If safety is what the employer wants, these strategies will be less effective because workers are generally only trying to do what is necessary just to "stay out of trouble". Important criteria of negative reinforcement include:
Once again, the outcome is dependent on the behaviors that the employer actually wants. Hopefully, the employer prioritizes safety, but that's not always the case. Here are some examples that show how perceived negative reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:
This is a little hard to figure out. How can punishment be positive? Positive punishment occurs when a worker's safety behavior or performance results in a perceived negative consequence that serves to decrease the probability of that behavior in the future.
For instance, a supervisor might yell at a worker who is violating safety rules. If the worker stops violating safety, the supervisor ceases yelling. The supervisor's yelling serves as a positive punishment because the supervisor adds an unpleasant response in the form of yelling.
Negative punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in the removal of a perceived positive consequence. Removal of the consequence decreases the probability of that behavior in the future. For instance, the supervisor withholds positive recognition if workers do not achieve certain standards of behavior or performance.
Both positive reinforcement and negative punishment occur in safety recognition programs that reward one employee for being first, best, or most improved. At the same time the one winner receives positive reinforcement, everyone else receives negative punishment because they are, in fact, losers. Everyone else may have performed quite well, but since they were not the best, positive recognition is withheld. The result is one winner and many losers.
Recognition programs that reward only the best performer can actually demotivate most workers. This form of negative punishment is one of the primarily reasons safety recognition programs do not work. The best strategy is a recognition program that is criterion-based and recognizes everyone who meets the criteria for recognition. The goal is to have many winners who all meet or exceed management expectations.
Ignoring, intended or unintended, is actually a common form of negative punishment. You might think ignoring employee behaviors is actually withholding a consequence. No such luck. Every response, including ignoring, is a consequence. In fact, ignoring desired behaviors in the workplace is usually the least effective consequence because it leads to extinction of those behaviors. Think about it. Have you ever been ignored when you thought you should have been recognized? I bet you were upset. And it didn't matter why you were ignored either: you didn't like it. So, let's take a look at some of the characteristics of extinction:
The worker is ignored and no matter what, desired behavior becomes less frequent. For instance:
Without the expectation of consequences, accountability has no credibility and will not be effective. In other words, no consequences - no accountability. Consequences need to be appropriate as well as effective. This is the element with which everyone is probably most familiar. Unfortunately, in some companies, consequences are either not appropriate, not effective, or both.
Negative consequences are justified when the person administering discipline has fulfilled their own accountabilities first. Positive consequences are justified any time employees meet or exceed expectations. Here's an important principle (I call it the 5-R principle) : The more Regularly you Recognize and Reward, the more Rarely you'll have to Reprimand.
It's critical to understand that before administering progressive discipline, managers and supervisors exercise real leadership when they first ask five important questions to how well they have fulfilled their own obligations to employees. Doing this is important to make sure they are actually justified in administering corrective actions. The negative impact on the company if employees are disciplined inappropriately can be dramatic over time.
The good news is that determining if discipline is appropriate doesn't have to be difficult. When conducting a self-evaluation, managers and supervisors can use the " STARS" acronym to the right to help them remember their five basic safety obligations to employees. Let's take a look at each of the five obligations:
If managers and supervisors can honestly answer "YES" to each of the above five questions, it may be appropriate to administer discipline because the five basic leadership obligations have been fulfilled. However, if they cannot honestly answer "yes" to each question, then an apology would be in order, and a promise to make personal and system improvements (provider better training, resources, expectations of enforcement, supervision and leadership).
In the examples above, a more severe level of discipline would be in order for the supervisor because the supervisor, in effect, gives permission for all employees to violate the safety rules. Consequently, the negative impact on the safety of employees has the potential to be much greater when the supervisor violates a safety rule.
On the other hand, if a supervisor or manager does something positive, the net impact will likely be greater than that of one of his or her employees. Consequently, more significant positive consequences would certainly be appropriate.
To build a high level of trust between management and labor, accountability must be applied consistently at all levels of the organization: up and down, and across functions. Every supervisor and manager must be held accountable in the same fair manner consistent with employees. If labor perceives the accountability system as applying only to them, they will naturally consider it unfair: the primary failure mode for accountability systems.
Evaluation of the accountability system, as with all systems should be a continuous process. Although as a supervisor you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system it's good to know that someone is. Usually, the safety coordinator and/or safety committee are involved in this activity. In some "state-plan" states, like Oregon, the safety committee is required by law to conduct an evaluation of the employer's accountability system.
The process usually involves three levels of activity:
OSHA looks primarily for two program elements when evaluating an employer for accountability: Policy and consequences. OSHA does not mandate or require specific recognition/disciplinary procedures: That's the responsibility of the employer. But, an effective accountability policy that is written and clearly communicated should be in place. Make sure your company has a written policy that addresses accountability including the three key components.
If you believe there are weaknesses in your employer's accountability system, make sure to take notes on the behaviors and conditions you see in the workplace that may be pointing to accountability system policies, plans, processes, and procedures that are inadequate or missing.
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One of our favorite speakers, Kevin Burns talks about how safety leaders define responsibility and accountability. Kevin Burns is a management consultant, safety speaker and author of "PeopleWork: The Human Touch in Workplace Safety."