The Ethics of Safety

June 1, 2007
How a safety program can be the starting point for building an ethical organization

In the last Leadership column, we discussed the motivations for leaders to improve safety – human compassion, building a performance platform and contributing to profitability. Among these, we have seen that the predominant motive driving safety leaders is a deep sense that it is the right thing to do.

This motive poses a noteworthy question: What role does safety play in helping leaders meet the demands placed on them by legislation, regulation, shareholders and the public at large for greater responsibility in, and oversight of, their organizations? It is our view that safety offers a natural starting point for building an ethical organization, once you acknowledge the principles that underlie ethical leadership and culture.

Safety and Ethics

Derived from the Greek work ethikos (“of or for morals”), ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of values or morality. The ancient philosophers who pioneered the study of ethics were largely concerned with the functioning of society as a whole and the individual’s role in it.

Today, ethics also relates to corporate social responsibility. What is it that we owe our employees, customers, shareholders and the community at large, and how does our fulfillment of these obligations ensure our long-term sustainability as a company?

Many leaders have come to see safety as the starting point for answering these questions. To them, providing a safe workplace lays the foundation for organizational excellence and integrity in strategic, financial and operational performance. These leaders are driven by a deep sense of commitment to ethical principles that include:

  • Value for human life – The belief that preservation and protection of human life supersedes other goods.
  • Integrity – That the commitment to telling the truth and keeping promises, plus applying the best of one’s abilities, promise worker loyalty and commitment.
  • Justice – That a strong sense of fair dealing with employees establishes trust between leaders and their reports.
  • The good of the many – That excellence stems from a concern for the achievement of the common good (as opposed to what is good just for the individual person or company).
  • Excellence – The belief that whatever degree of safety or integrity we have achieved, we always have the opportunity to improve.

A Principle-Driven Culture

What do these principles look like when developed in an organizational culture? Our work with organizations has led us to identify five key cultural factors predictive of desired ethical and safety outcomes:

  • Procedural justice – If leaders seem to be making decisions in fair ways, workers assume they can follow instructions without fear of mistreatment.
  • Open and candid upward communications – In an environment where supervisors and other leaders respond well to communications from lower down in the organization – even to bad news – ethical issues are more likely to surface before they become a crisis.
  • Inclination of workers to approach peers on sensitive issues – A leader can foster a culture where it is acceptable and expected that employees approach each other about difficult issues surrounding safety, ethics and other critical areas.
  • Perceived organizational support for espoused values –When employees see their leaders demonstrate a commitment to stated values, they are more likely to respond in kind.
  • Management credibility – Employees who see their managers as credible are more likely to take personal responsibility for their performance and support new initiatives.

Leading With Safety

A culture that truly values ethical (and safe) behavior must be led by men and women committed to principle for its own sake, not solely for the purpose of compliance. This foundation in principle perhaps is the greatest strength that safety offers to organizations interested in ethics. Safety appeals to the ethical ideals that motivate a company’s best leaders at every level of responsibility.

Finally, as a performance metric with outcomes consequential to the lives and livelihoods of employees and their families, safety provides tangible proof that doing the right thing always merits an organization’s best efforts.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.

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