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Ensuring Accountability

What is accountability?

Does this picture show an unsafe practice? Yes!
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If we reference Webster's Dictionary, "accountable" is defined as being "responsible, liable, explainable, legally bound, subject to".

In the workplace, employees are obligated and held accountable to comply with policies, rules, and standards. Being "held accountable" means that employee performance is evaluated against expectations and subject to one of two basic outcomes:

  • If performance standards are not met, perceived negative consequences occur.
  • If performance standards are met or exceeded, perceived positive consequences occur.

As you learned earlier, the supervisor is legally an "agent of the employer" and is charged with carrying out a very important responsibility; that of holding employees accountable for their actions. Before that can happen, the concept of accountability must be understood so that an effective accountability program can be developed and deployed.

To better understand accountability, let's answer some very important questions:

  • What are the behaviors for which an employee should be held accountable?
  • How does a supervisor measure those employee behaviors?
  • What are the obligations management must fulfill before holding employees accountable?
  • What are appropriate and effective consequences?

With the above questions in mind, let's take a look at accountability in the workplace, and how we can implement and apply it.

1. Being "held accountable" means that employee performance is evaluated against expectations and subject to _____.

a. retribution
b. investigation
c. consequences
d. questioning

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Elements of Accountability

Clearly state standards of performance
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Now that we're a little more familiar with the concept of accountability, let's examine the five elements of effective accountability programs. The criteria within each of these elements should be present, or effective accountability in the workplace is ulimately doomed to fail.

Element 1: Established Standards of Performance

Established standards inform everyone about desired behaviors and expected levels of performance. Standards of performance should be in writing, clearly stated, and communicated to all employees so that everyone understands them.

Standards of performance are presented in several documents:

  • the mission and vision statements;
  • policies, programs, and written plans;
  • job descriptions, procedures, and safety rules.

2. In an effective accountability program, standards of performance must be _____.

a. designed by the human resources department
b. written, clearly stated, and communicated
c. reviewed by employees within six weeks
d. stated in formal, legal, or regulatory language

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Element 2: Resources to Achieve Standards

We can't work safe while overly stressed!
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If the employer is going to hold employees accountable to perform to standards, he or she has the obligation to ensure that those employees are provided the resources to achieve those standards. This obligation is detailed in OSHA's "General Duty" clause that we discussed in Module 1.

The employer may not be justified in administering progressive discipline unless all resources to help employees achieve established standards are provided. If, in fact. all resources are provided, the employer

will probably have many opportunities to recognize and reward employees for meeting and exceeding those standards. What resources are necessary? That depends on the task, but generally employees should be provided:

  • Safe tools, equipment, machinery, materials and facilities so employees can safely produce or provide the highest quality products or service. The place of employment should also provide a healthful physical environment that ensures minimum exposure to extremes in noise, toxic chemicals, hazardous atmospheres, and temperatures.

  • Work procedures and practices that makes sure employees are free from hazards that will cause serious injury or illness. It also means a healthful psychosocial environment that minimizes distress by making sure employees have adequate control over the various aspects of their work life. This includes healthful relationships with co-workers and management.

3. To hold employees accountable to perform to standards, the employer must ensure employees are _____.

a. required to attend safety training
b. closely supervised during work
c. provided the resources to achieve those standards
d. reprimanded whenever an accident occurs

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Develop a way to measure performance.
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Element 3: A System of Measurement

Once performance standards are established, processes should be developed to measure employee and manager behaviors against those standards. You are probably familiar with the process OSHA uses to measure your employer's safety performance. They conduct workplace inspections and issue citations.

Measurement implies more than merely observing behaviors. It's actually keeping track: quantifying behaviors. You put numbers to something. In the workplace, it's important that supervisors measure their employees' safety behaviors. And, managers should be measuring supervisors' activities. OSHA measures employer performance through an inspection process. They measure, they do not merely observe. And, as you know, OSHA issues citations that may include monetary penalties.

In an effective accountability system, the employer also conducts inspections to measure how well employees at all levels are meeting the established standards in element one. Take a look at more information on the measurement process.

By the way, to find out when/if your employer was last inspected/investigated by OSHA and the results, click here.

4. Which of the following is NOT an effective method to identify and measure employee behaviors?

a. Observation
b. Delegation
c. Inspection
d. Investigation

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Be careful, or you'll suffer the natural consequences!
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Element 4: Application of Effective Consequences

What is a consequence?

A "consequence" is anything that happens as a result of something that happens. Another way to express it is to think of cause and effect: the initial behavior is the "cause" and the consequence is the "effect" of the cause. For every cause, there is an effect.

In each example below, the initial behavior or action is the cause: the reaction is the effect or consequence. Let's look at some examples:

  • If you hit your thumb with a hammer (cause), the natural consequence is pain, injury, embarrassment, etc. (effect)
  • If you think safety is not important, you take unsafe shortcuts that can get you injured.
  • If a supervisor yells at you, you might yell back, apologize, go home, or even quit.

Is there any escape from consequences?

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).

Every cause has an effect. Every action has a consequence.

Effective consequences increase desired behaviors or decrease undesired behaviors. If employee safety performance meets or exceeds the standards set by the employer, some sort of recognition should follow. On the other hand, if the employee makes an informed choice not to comply with the company's safety rules, some sort of appropriate corrective action should follow.

5. In the statement, "If you hit your thumb with a hammer, your thumb will hurt," which part of the statement describes the effect?

a. "If you hit"
b. "with a hammer"
c. "If you hit your thumb"
d. "your thumb will hurt"

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Reinforcement and Punishment

There are various strategies for administering positive and negative consequences in the workplace. Careful planning is critical to ensure consequences are effective. So, let's look at the two primary strategies: reinforcement and punishment.

A sincere handshake can go a long way!
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Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors through positive recognition and/or reward. Positive reinforcement can result in worker performance that far exceeds minimum standards.

It's important to know that "desired" behaviors may not always be safe behaviors. Unfortunately, this may be true in safety cultures where it's more important to work fast than safe. Working fast, not safe is top priority. This is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors by withholding perceived negative consequences. Workers think that if they do something the employer wants, they will avoid negative consequences. If safety is what the employer wants, negative reinforcement will be less effective because workers are generally only trying to do what is necessary just to "stay out of trouble". 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.

Positive Punishment

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

Negative punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in the removal 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.

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.

6. Which of the following consequence strategies will most likely cause workers to perform far beyond minimum standards?

a. Positive reinforcement
b. Negative reinforcement
c. Negative punishment
d. Positive punishment

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Element 5: Appropriate Application of Consequences

No control, No discipline
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In addition to an expectation of consequences, they must also meet certain criteria to be appropriate.

Three Important Criteria for Appropriate Consequences

  • They are justified.
  • They correspond to the degree of positive or negative results of the behavior.
  • They are applied consistently throughout the entire organization.

Are Consequences Justified?

Employees should be held accountable for their performance only if they have sufficient control of the resources and ability to perform. If employees are being measured and held accountable for performance results over which they have no control, they will attempt to somehow gain control of those results. Their attempts may include inappropriate behaviors. For example, supervisors measured only on department accident rates may threaten to fire anyone who completes an OSHA injury report. Not only is this attempt counterproductive, it's illegal.

Employees may have little control over their work schedules, the quality of materials provided, work assignments, production quotas, and co-workers. On the other hand, complying with safety procedures, policies, and rules are personal behaviors over which they have some degree of control. Control also implies that employees can choose to meet expectations or choose to "do it their way." The decision is theirs to make and the degree to which they have control over their performance, determines the nature of the resulting consequences.

Do consequences correspond the impact of behaviors?

Consequences should correspond with the resulting positive or negative impact of performance. If employees perform unsafe work practices that could result in fatal injuries, that certainly warrants a serious consequence. On the other hand, if an employee violates a safety rule that would not result in an injury or illness, a less serious consequence may be more appropriate. Progressive discipline should be carefully considered.

Consequences should increase as employees assume greater levels of responsibility. If employees neglect to perform safe work practices such as wearing eye protection, discipline may be in order. However, if supervisors or managers neglect to wear eye protection, a more severe level of discipline would be in order because of the position of responsibility they assume. Supervisors or managers, in fact, give permission to all employees to perform unsafe work practices. The negative impact on the safety of employees has the potential to be much greater when supervisors or managers violate safety rules.

On the other hand, if employees, supervisors or managers do something positive, the net positive impact should be considered and result in recognition and/reward corresponding to the degree to which their performance improved safety.

Are consequences applied consistently?

To build a high level of trust between management and labor, consequences, both positive and negative, must be applied consistently at all levels of the organization's workforce and management. Again, it's critically important to remember that employees and managers should be held accountable only for performance over which they have control.

7. Consequences should _____ as the severity of the negative impact of an unsafe behavior increases.

a. increase
b. decrease
c. remain the same
d. be monitored

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Two Sides to 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 system administers consequences for all behaviors in a balanced manner: 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/management safety behavior:

  • Meeting or exceeding standards, and
  • Failing to meet standards.

Meeting or exceeding standards: In an effective safety accountability system, positive recognition is given regularly for meeting or exceeding employer expectations.

If your company does not have a formal safety recognition program, take a look at some examples.

Failing to meet standards: in some companies, this is unfortunately 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

8. An effective accountability program administers consequences for _____.

a. unacceptable behaviors
b. non-compliant behaviors
c. all behaviors
d. compliant behaviors

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Five Very Important Leadership Questions

"STARS" Leadership

It's critical to understand that before administering progressive discipline supervisors should first evaluate (make a judgment about) how well they have fulfilled their own accountabilities. This is important to make sure they are displaying effective leadership and justified in administering corrective actions.

Determining if discipline is justified does not have to be difficult. It can be a simple straightforward process. All that's required is that supervisors honestly answer "yes" to the following five "STARS" leadership questions:

  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 fulfilled your obligations. However, other safety management system weaknesses such as inadequate safety training may exist that make discipline unjustified. If supervisors cannot honestly answer "yes" to each question above, it's probably more appropriate to apologize to employees and make a commitment to meet those obligations in the future.

You can take the "Five Stars" leadership test by clicking on the Exercise tab.

9. Which of the following is a question supervisors should ask when considering discipline?

a. "Have I provided this employee with adequate safety training?"
b. "Have I disciplined everyone who has had an accident?"
c. "Have I reported all incidents directly to OSHA?"
d. "Have I covered all of my bases to deflect blame?"

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Element 6: Evaluation of the Accountability Program

Continually evaluate the system.

Although as a supervisor, you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system, but 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 activities:

  • Identify: you inspect the accountability system policies, plans, procedures, and processes to identify what exists.

  • Analyze: you then dissect and thoroughly study each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process to understand what they look like. The devil is in the detail.

  • Evaluate: finally, you compare and contrast each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness.

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.

Finally, accountability is an extremely important element in the safety and health management system. Having a firm understanding of the concept and program will help ensure success.

10. Which of the following activities compares and contrasts each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness?

a. Analysis
b. Identification
c. Evaluation
d. Assessment

Check your Work

Click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and recheck your answers.



If you have time, watch this 44-minute video presented by Mike Tasker, from WorkSafeBC, who provides an excellent presentation on supervision and how to set up a system that sets supervisors up for success and also improves the safety culture and performance of a company.

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