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Question: I’ve been in an EHS role with the same company for over eight years and have recently decided to see what other opportunities might be available elsewhere. So far every company I’ve interviewed with has talked a great game about safety but I’m a bit skeptical. What can I do to find out what their safety cultures are really like?
This is such a timely question, especially with jobs in the EHS field expected to grow 6-7% over the next several years and with additional focus being placed on worker health and safety thanks to the pandemic. Even in a less-than-stellar economy, the availability of work in a variety of EHS disciplines has always been one of the great things about the EHS career field. But just like with any other type of supply and demand situation, when there are only a handful of potential candidates and a large number of job openings, employers will do whatever they can to make their companies and open positions look as good as possible even if it means hiding a few “safety skeletons” in the basement.
The goal is to try and uncover as many of those safety skeletons as you can, but not necessarily to weed out companies with poor safety cultures because sometimes those are the best companies to work for in the long run.
One of the first places to start is with your own mindset. Going into this process with a good idea of what kind of role you’re looking for and with the understanding that you’re interviewing potential employers as much as they’re interviewing you, will get things off to a good start.
What do we mean? Well, just like a company will interview multiple candidates to find the right person for the position, you need to interview multiple companies to find the right position (and company) for you. We know this is easier said than done especially if you’ve been out of work for a while, but even then try and do a little due diligence so, at the very least, you know what you’re getting yourself into.
It’s likely that while you’re doing a little due diligence, you’re going to find some of those safety skeletons we mentioned earlier but finding these things or uncovering a few discrepancies doesn’t necessarily mean the role isn’t worth perusing. It really just depends on what kind of role you’re looking for. For EHS professionals it’s often the roles with the companies who are struggling the most that turn out to be the most rewarding and professionally advantageous and that provide the most opportunities to grow. However, while it’s one thing to unearth a few safety issues, it’s quite another to be told there aren’t any and then find a whole bunch (which we’ll talk about later).
Once your mindset is in order, the next thing is to do a little light research. Researching a company before going into an interview is always a smart move because not only can it help you determine a few thought-provoking questions to ask but it can also help paint a picture of what a company’s safety culture is really like.
The best place to start your research is on the company’s main website because that’s where a company tells the public, their customers, and potential customers who they are. You’ll want to look for information stating their public commitment to protecting the environment and the health and safety of their workforce. Sometimes this information will be a part of the company’s overall mission statement and sometimes companies will have a special section just for safety, but either way, take a look at what they’re putting out there and make a few notes.
Next, did you know that investigations, citations, and penalties from OSHA are public information and can be found by doing a simple “establishment search” on OSHA’s website? This is often a great place to see where a company is and/or has been with safety. While this information certainly doesn’t tell a company’s entire safety story, it does provide some good insight. (Just be sure you follow OSHA’s instructions on how to perform a search and make sure that if your search yields results, the information is actually for the company being searched for.)
Once you’ve dug in a little, step back and see what you’ve got. Are you looking at a company that’s boasting a strong safety culture and commitment to worker health and safety while at the same time having experienced a laundry list of complaints and recurring inspections that have yielded numerous citations and penalties, etc.? If so, that’s not necessarily a red flag but it is a discrepancy you’ll want to consider asking about during an interview.
Doing a little reconnaissance before the interview is one thing, but it’s really during the interview itself that you’ll find out the most about a company’s safety culture. There are several things you can do during an interview to help reveal more about the safety culture and to help get a better understanding of what the work-life would be like for an EHS professional at that company. During the interview, you’ll most likely be asked if you have any questions about the company and this is where you’re going to ask a series of pointed questions.
When you were researching, did you find a discrepancy between what the company says about their commitment to safety and their inspection and incident history with OSHA? If so, this is your opportunity to ask about it. How a company responds to this question is important because if the interviewer is unaware of a negative history with OSHA (especially if it’s extensive) or if they blow it off—that’s a red flag. But if they acknowledge a less than ideal situation and the admit that the reason they’re looking for someone like you is to help move things in the right direction, that’s a really good thing!
While it may seem unusual to ask about a company’s organizational structure, understanding how a company structures its EHS department can often provide important insight into its culture and what it might be like trying to get things done.
The best way to find out about the structure is by looking at an organizational chart if the company has one and is willing to share it with you. If not, ask someone if they can help you understand the company structure, where EHS fits into it, and how it compares to other departments.
Ideally what you’re looking for is a structure showing that EHS is an autonomous department with its own department head that reports up through the same top leadership that other departments do. If every other department is structured differently than the EHS department, it may mean that EHS is undervalued compared to the others. Now, sometimes companies will structure their EHS departments to report up through another department such as Human Resources or Operations for a good reason and while this by itself doesn’t automatically signal a red flag, it’s worth asking about.
It’s not uncommon for people outside of the EHS function to be somewhat “in the dark” about the sheer number of EHS tasks and compliance activities contained within an EHS program. This is why it’s so important to ask how the routine, day-to-day EHS tasks and activities get done and ultimately who is responsible for safety.
If the response is akin to “safety does safety”—that’s a big, red flag. Why? Because it means you’ll not only be responsible for more work than one person can handle, you’ll also be responsible for things outside of your control, like accidents that happen because someone chose to work unsafely and got hurt. Additionally, the “safety does safety” mindset also most likely means that you’ll be working in a silo pushing paper instead of making improvements and teaching people how to do things safely. It also probably means that you’ll be the only person who knows anything about the EHS policies and programs and attempts to expand that knowledge to 1st line supervisors and managers will be met with some resistance, meaning, it’ll always be a fight.
On the other hand, if you ask this question and the answer is that safety and safety tasks are a shared responsibility and that the EHS role is there to provide guidance and support rather than to “do all the EHS stuff”, that’s the sign of a more mature safety culture. More mature cultures like this will better understand the magnitude of the EHS role itself and also that a good safety culture relies on the notion that everyone needs to do their part for it to be successful long term.
During the interview, you might ask about what kinds of safety metrics and KPIs a company tracks—and what they do with the information. Nearly every company tracks metrics of some sort but it’s really what they do with that information that matters. Do they simply use their metrics and KPIs as a measuring stick against how they did last year or do they use that data to help predict where future incidents might happen so they can be resolved before someone gets injured? Not every company is there just yet but it’s still a good piece of information to find out during an interview. And, if you end up taking the job, predictive analysis is something you can introduce that will wow just about everyone.
One last thing that you might consider asking during an interview is about worker empowerment where it pertains to safety. Asking a prospective employer whether their workers feel empowered to make decisions about safety that might result in a loss of production is a serious question that many employers aren’t prepared to answer yet, how a company answers this question is extremely important.
You’re not asking if any worker can shut everything down the moment they feel something is unsafe. Rather, you’re asking whether or not any employee can raise the red flag and know they will be listened to with their concerns taken seriously, irrespective of production needs and potential profit loss. In other words, does safety truly come before production and customer needs or not? Where a strong safety culture exists, this question is easy to answer and it’s easy for everyone to answer, not just the EHS department.
On a final note, don’t forget that how you phrase questions and the tone of voice you use to do so matters a lot, especially with more serious questions like the ones we’ve talked about. So, it’s always a great idea to practice the questions you’re going to ask and bounce them off of someone else for feedback on the tone of voice and presentation. The right question asked the right way can yield a tremendous amount of information that can be the difference between taking a job you love and taking one that makes you miserable.
Katy Lyden is a EHS Domain Analyst and Subject Matter Expert for StarTex Software, the company behind EHS Insight. Prior to her current role, Katy spent 17 years successfully leading EHS programs for several large companies within the manufacturing industry. Katy is a Navy veteran, Licensed Emergency Medical...
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