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Question: I just took an EHS role with a company that is working on cleaning up its safety programs and improving its safety culture. So far everyone talks a good game about safety and having a “safety first” mindset but I’m noticing that sometimes when I bring problems to management, the responses I get are frequently things like; “We’ll work on the safety stuff when all the other fires are out” and “We’ll put money in the budget to handle that issue next year.” It seems like these responses are sending mixed messages and I’m never sure how to respond. What’s a good way to handle these responses?
This is a great question albeit a frustrating one for any EHS professional who is trying to improve the safety culture. For an EHS professional working in an environment where these responses are being given, there are possibly (and probably) a few deeper problems going on that you might not be aware of. We do have a few suggestions on how to best respond when given responses like this however before we get into that we think it’s important to help you understand where these responses may be coming from and why you might be getting them. Let’s start with timing.
One might think in a “safety first” environment that it’s never a poor time to discuss safety, but that’s not entirely accurate. Not every safety concern is at a “Defcon 1” level and a savvy EHS person is going to realize this and make sure they time important safety discussions accordingly. For example, if you’re on your way over to talk to management about why only 75% of the workforce is completing their required monthly safety training and along the way you discover that the production operation has come to a grinding halt due to losing a primary piece of equipment, it’s probably safe to say that now isn’t the right time to discuss that particular safety issue. That’s not to say it’s unimportant—it’s just not as important at that moment. Usually, you’ll know when a serious operational issue is happening when whatever it is that’s on “fire” receives an “all hands on deck” response from management. Because of that, it shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize these situations and plan your safety discussions for a better, more appropriate time when you’ll have management’s full attention.
However, just like every safety issue isn’t a Defcon 1 level issue, neither is every business or operational issue that might be happening, even if you’re being told differently. If you’re given the “we’ll get to the safety stuff when all the other fires are out” response every time you approach management to talk about safety issues, there’s a good chance that one of two things is happening. Either the operation is actually in constant crisis mode because it’s being managed from one crisis to another or management wants you to believe that’s what’s going on—and both are a problem for EHS.
Operations that manage from one crisis to the next often do so because they never really resolve any of the underlying reasons for the crisis situations to exist in the first place. They just temporarily patch the problem and move on to the next and by the time they’ve finished patching, the first patches have already come off and need to be repatched. It’s a series of never-ending issues which perpetuates a fairly toxic environment to work in and for an EHS person, it can be really isolating too. In this environment the safety function is extricated from the overall operation, fostering the expectation that the EHS person will “do safety” for operations until things are in better shape. However, managing from crisis to crisis like this pretty much guarantees that “better shape” never actually happens. We hate to be the bearer of bad news but if this is your situation, you might consider finding a different place to work because for an operation like this, safety isn’t something they’re ever going to fully incorporate or participate in—and why would they? You’ve just proven you can do it without their help.
Now, once management in this situation realizes that being in chronic crisis mode means they can avoid getting involved in most EHS activities, they will often continue to perpetuate being in a constant state of crisis even when they’re not. If this sounds like a form of behavior conditioning, that’s because it is. If the EHS person believes the operation never leaves crisis mode and if they know that approaching management with safety issues will result in being put off, they’ll eventually just stop approaching management. The good news is that you can easily determine whether this is happening by gauging your level of understanding of the operation and business in general. If you’re a little confused by this, we’re going to explain.
In a company where EHS and Operations are fairly segregated, there’s a great chance that EHS will have very little knowledge about what’s actually going on in the operation. If they don’t know a lot about the operation, they can’t really know whether it’s in crisis mode or not. The best way to overcome this knowledge gap is to be knowledgeable about the overall business and the inner workings of the operation. When you understand what’s going on behind the scenes, it’ll be much harder for management to put you off under the guise of being in constant crisis mode. (And, having a good working knowledge of the equipment, operational processes, etc., will make any EHS person more credible and better equipped to do their job.)
Now that we’ve given a little bit of insight into what might be driving this kind of response, let’s talk about how to respond.
Our first suggestion is to respond using a simple, professional response that might look something like this:
By doing this, you’re locking them into making a commitment to meet with you that day. If they agree to a time, wonderful. Make sure when the meeting time comes around that you’re organized and properly prepared with concise and clearly thought out talking points that you’re ready to present—and make sure you’ve got a few solutions to suggest for any of the issues you bring up.
If they don’t agree to meet later in the day, try and get them to commit to a time first thing the next morning but if that fails and there’s not really a legitimate reason for declining to meet with you except “other fires” (which you already know aren’t overly significant), do yourself a favor and exit the conversation. Standing there and becoming confrontational is the last thing you want to do so, our best advice is to thank them for their time, excuse yourself, and then document the entire conversation for a different type of conversation we’re going to suggest a bit later on.
Something else to be aware of in this situation is the use of certain tactics for the sole purpose of either derailing the conversation or avoiding it altogether. Two very common ways of doing that are by trying to minimize the seriousness of your concern and by scheduling a meeting with you for a time when they know they’ll either be called away or will be interrupted multiple times (like during lunch or shift change).
If you approach management about a safety concern you’d like to discuss and you’re able to thwart their initial attempts to blow you off, don’t be surprised if a very frustrated manager blurts out something like “What is it that you want to discuss, anyway?” If you’re asked on the spot like this, do yourself a favor and understand that this might be an attempt to get you to condense a 30-minute conversation down to 30 seconds for the purpose of minimizing the seriousness and getting you to go away. Instead of doing that, our suggestion is to recognize this is happening and respond with something like, “I’d rather discuss this with you in a more appropriate environment. If now is not a good time, let’s make time for later today. I only need 30 minutes. When would be a better time today to come back?” By doing this, you’re diffusing the situation and making sure management knows you’re not going to let them minimize the discussion.
Another tactic used to avoid difficult conversations or ones they’re not interested in having, is to reluctantly schedule a meeting with you for a time when they know they’ll be called away or possibly interrupted multiple times (like during lunch or shift change). Usually, these meeting times are proposed in a way that makes it sound like you’re being given a gift of their time—but you’re not and they’re possibly suggesting that time because they know they’ll not have to fully participate. The best thing you can do in this situation is to respond with something like, “I’m sure you’ll want to give this issue your undivided attention which I don’t think we’ll be able to do during (lunch, shift change, etc.). Can we find a more appropriate time that’s less apt to be interrupted? I only need 30 minutes.”
The most important thing to remember here is that if what you have to discuss with management is important, don’t let anyone make it less important because they don’t want to deal with whatever it is—and document everything! Now let’s discuss the other response mentioned in the question and why that might be happening.
An easy way to both acknowledge the importance of an issue while at the same time not having to do anything to resolve it, is to blame the budget. For example, if you’ve brought an EHS concern to management that will require the spending of money to resolve and the immediate response is, “We’ve put money in the budget to handle that issue next year”, it may be a legitimate response from management who genuinely wants to resolve the issue or it may be a simple way to appease you for the time being to get you off their back. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which one it is because a lack of funds is typically never a valid reason to allow health, safety, or environmental issues to continue, especially if that issue could cause an injury or worse.
This is where things can get a little tricky for the EHS person because if the issue is not something that can wait until the next budget cycle to be resolved or if there simply aren’t acceptable alternative solutions to be had, you’re going to have to find a way making management understand that. When you explain to management that a lack of funds can’t be a reason why (fill in the blank) safety concern is allowed to continue, there’s a good chance the response will be something like, “Well what are we supposed to do? If there’s no money, there’s no money!”—and while management might think that’s a valid response that puts an end to the discussion, it doesn’t. In fact, that response, when given to any federal regulatory agency as a reason why serious issues weren’t resolved (especially if they resulted in an incident or injury), will most likely be met with something like, “If you don’t have the funds to operate your business safely, you can’t operate it at all.”.
Luckily, most situations like this can be resolved well before an incident actually happens and our best suggestion for responding to management when they are trying to go this route is to simply say: “I appreciate your willingness to add funds to next year’s budget to resolve this issue, but what will we do between now and then?” In other words, even if it’s only temporary, something needs to be done to resolve this issue right now. This is where it’s absolutely critical for the EHS person to have solutions ready to discuss. It’s also really important for the EHS person to understand that a compromise may be the best solution, even if the compromise isn’t perfect. As long as the solution reduces the hazard or issue to an acceptable level, it should be considered.
Regardless of what you do in any of these situations, be sure to keep your cool, be professional, and as hard as it is sometimes to do this, don’t take it personally. In these situations try to remember that you can’t control how others behave but you can control how you respond to that behavior. Oh, and document everything because at some point if these issues don’t get resolved, having information documented about these conversations will come in handy for the next suggestion we’re going to offer.
When all else fails and you’re unable to make headway with management, it’s time to consider bringing in reinforcements. And by “reinforcements” we mean going to your immediate manager, their immediate manager, or to Human Resources. We know this is a big step but at a certain point, when you realize how much time you’ve actually spent trying to work with management that isn’t interested in working with you, it becomes a bit fruitless to waste any more time on it. A good way of approaching this step is by going into it with the understanding that you’re not necessarily looking for anyone else to resolve this issue for you and you’re really just looking for some guidance on how to handle things.
If you’re able to set up a meeting with anyone from this group, make sure you’re prepared. Have your talking points together, make sure you can convey the issues clearly and concisely (leaving out personal opinions), and to support your side of the situation, bring all that documentation we recommended you keep. While you’re having this meeting, it might be a good idea to ask whomever you’re speaking with to clarify who is actually responsible for the safety function. Meaning, ask them whether you’re taking the right approach to identified safety issues and whether handling these issues is solely your responsibility or whether you’re correct in going to site leadership about them because safety is a shared responsibility. If the response you receive is along the lines of “safety is safety’s responsibility”, it might be time to get your resume together because these issues will be a constant struggle that will hinder your ability to improve the culture and move the safety needle forward—two things that cause a lot of stress, overall job dissatisfaction, and job burnout.
These situations can be extremely frustrating to handle, especially if you’ve been dealing with them for a while and weren’t sure what to do. Hopefully, the information and suggestions we’ve provided will help you understand a little bit more about the situation you might be in and also help you prepare to respond in a way that will provide a good outcome.
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