Ways to Avoid Scapegoating the ‘Stupid’ Worker

avoid scapegoating a worker how to create a culture of accountability

“Every day I see pictures posted or images of workers doing unsafe acts and I ask myself, ‘Is anyone learning from these mistakes? Are people simply getting a good laugh?’” says Lasey Thompson. “Seeing these posts, I keep thinking to myself, ‘What are their colleagues doing to correct this? Why is this still going on in that organization?’” Thompson is Senior HSE Advisor and Training Coordinator at SafetyPro Resources, LLC. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, SafetyPro Resources is an independent safety consulting firm that focuses on helping clients with safety management system auditing, process safety management, site safety inspections, safety meeting training, safety compliance tools, staffing and recruiting services, and more. Thompson has experience across shipyards, oil and gas, and construction industries. We sat down with Thompson to talk more about the top ways to avoid blaming individuals when mistakes or accidents occur.  

Finding a Scapegoat?

When people post photos to social media in an attempt to make light of situations where something unsafe occurred, they may just be looking for a good laugh, at the “stupid” workers’ expense, but in many cases, it’s worth a closer look. “Scapegoating is the easy way out,” says Thompson. “I’m of the belief that, as safety professionals—many of us having some sort of credentials that holds us to an ethical standard—[we should not always first] blame the employee,” explains Thompson. Instead of making light of the situation or simply using the worker as a scapegoat, says Thompson, safety pros should be looking closer at systems, processes, standards and the culture at large to determine what happened, why, and how. If people fear asking questions or fear reporting information, culture will be affected. “It’s like being in a classroom and being afraid to ask a question even though you don’t completely understand it. There could be the stigma of, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I’m not allowed to…’ or ‘If I ask this question, peers will laugh at me.’”

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Moving Away from a Culture of Blame

“We’ve all heard it from so many people—but it’s true: safety culture has to start at the top. It cannot occur without full participation, from your CEO down to your field worker.” If you have buy-in across the organization, and you still see signs that employees are the first to be blamed when an incident or near-incident occurs, there are several ways you can work against this tendency: Make sure you aren’t mandating or punishing behaviors. “The concept of mandating doesn’t work, just as the concept of ‘policing’ doesn’t work, and the concept of punishing doesn’t work, either,” says Thompson. “And, of those three, punishment seems to be the absolute least effective way to improve a safety culture.” Punishment is in the eye of the worker, not management. “So, it’s the worker that feels that punishment,” says Thompson. Stop the blame game. First and foremost, Thompson says be sure not to blame or to mock a worker if an incident or near accident does occur. In most cases, the worker is looking to do their job to the best of their ability. When leaders are quick to blame a worker, it’s belittling and it can do more damage than just in that moment. “Among other things, our action as leaders should be to start a conversation with the worker and ask the questions that will support continued improvement in our safety programs.” Bring clarity to “how” work gets accomplished. Work with individuals and teams to show how work actually gets done; it may be important to make processes visual so that systems are made clear to all those in the organization. It’s a way of mapping how work gets done, but it also can put a stop to the so-called blame game. Questions that might be answered include: What are the inputs to the work, what’s the process being used, and what are the outputs that come from these tasks? “When you get down to trying to figure out what’s going on, you need to ask questions that recognize the how and the why,” says Thompson. “And then, you need to give and receive feedback to make sure everyone is on the same page.” When employees are involved in making work visible and sharing this with others, they are more likely to be engaged. They’re also sharing how they get their work done on a job site, which can show areas for improvement, too. The emphasis can then be on how to fix or improve the system, or the process—rather than a focus on what an employee did “right” or “wrong” on the job site. Go back to your standards. Do you have clear, written ways of handling work on your job sites? Do all workers have to abide by these same standards (and do they, by choice)? How often are exceptions made? Last, how consistent is your approach for assessing risks and for applying controls? This is all of what can drive your corrective action, says Thompson.  Recognize those who are embracing your values. Recognizing employees’ work and giving them positive feedback when they act in ways that aligned with promoting a positive culture is essential for any high-functioning organization. That’s also one way to make sure every employee knows their job is important; this can be forgotten about by leadership, but is critical to keeping engagement high.

Moving From Blame to Accountability

“Culture is a big word that is commonly used, but is often misunderstood. It’s important. A positive, engaged culture is not externally motivated. It must be internally generated,” adds Thompson, who says that’s especially true when making that shift from blaming to accountability and proactivity. Most of all, says Thompson, do not forget that employees in the field can often provide the best solutions to improving operations or to improving safety-related issues. “After all, they are the ones experienced in the field. If given the opportunity to speak up without feeling judged as the ‘stupid’ worker that will get blamed, organizations can move closer to having an excellent safety culture.”

Making World Class Safety a Reality

Move from blame to accountability with iReport.  You can avoid complacency and manage risk by reinforcing behavior-based safety practices, all while staying OSHA compliant thanks to an easy way to do safety audits, site inspections, and more. Best of all, because all of the data is in one place – there is one system of record.  Learn more about iReport today.

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