NANCY ORR, CIH, CSP, retired as the senior global director of environment, health, and safety for Becton, Dickinson and Co. Prior to this role, Nancy’s 40-year career included work as an OSHA compliance officer, insurance loss control specialist, industry environmental health and safety manager, and consultant. Send feedback to The Synergist.
Empowerment or Obstinance?
Editor’s note: The case study in this article is fictitious and is intended to highlight ethical issues in the practice of industrial hygiene. Any resemblance to real people or organizations is coincidental. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of AIHA, The Synergist, the JIHEEC or its members.
Please share your responses to the discussion questions below by filling out the form at the bottom of this page or emailing The Synergist. Responses may be printed in a future issue as space permits.
Consolidated Fixtures Corporation (CFC) is a manufacturing company that specializes in fabricating aluminum and steel ventilation system components, such as laboratory and restaurant hoods, ductwork, and air filtration enclosures. CFC was founded by two brothers over 65 years ago but was sold to a larger manufacturing company in 2010. As in many smaller, family-run operations, CFC’s early procedures and company policies tended to be informal and were implemented on an as-needed basis. But as CFC grew and became integrated into its new, larger parent organization, these policies gradually became more structured, although the company still has a long way to go toward being able to anticipate and address a range of potential issues. And like many manufacturing companies in the U.S. in the last few decades, CFC has worked hard to attract and retain skilled operators to meet existing and anticipated demand for the high-quality products the company is known for.
HOW TO EMPOWER EMPLOYEES? By 2015, CFC’s human resources department realized that, in order to find and keep the best employees, the company needed to offer more than good salaries and comprehensive benefits packages. Sharon Cupper, CFC’s HR manager, met with Tom Fried, the plant manager, to work on this problem and discuss a strategy to help attract excellent employees to CFC. They both hoped that the right approach would increase the likelihood that motivated and qualified workers would come to the company and, once there, would want to stay. At about this time, Sharon was learning from her professional association and HR colleagues that companies that implemented substantial programs aimed at institutionalizing employee engagement activities seemed to be more successful at retaining employees and boosting their productivity. After further discussion, Sharon and Tom agreed that CFC should make a concerted effort to implement specific engagement mechanisms to help achieve the company’s operational goals.
In recent years, the concept of an active, structured employee engagement strategy has enjoyed a renaissance within the business community. Clearly, the principles of effective employee engagement have been understood by business leaders for some time. Many highly-regarded companies that have been in business for decades appreciate the value that a satisfied, motivated workforce brings to their operations. There is a basic consensus that the following elements are foundational to an effective employee engagement approach: •a positive work culture grounded in company values that resonate with workers •leaders who are trusted and managers who are effective •routine opportunities for learning and development •structured mechanisms for giving and receiving feedback •an environment where taking the initiative is encouraged
THE NEW REVIEW PROCESS Tom and Sharon considered CFC’s positive culture to be one of its strongest assets. The founding family, and the business itself, had been extremely active in the local community for more than 50 years. In addition to the positive economic role that CFC played in the region, the company consistently participated in social initiatives important to the community. This reputation helped the company become one of the most desirable employers in the area and helped it attract qualified operators and managers. Every business needs to commit to continuously improving the ways it operates, and CFC had a good reputation in this respect.
But Sharon and Tom also recognized that some of CFC’s practices and policies for seeking and providing performance feedback were not well structured. In addition, the company did not necessarily encourage workers to actively speak up on issues or offer recommendations on various operational matters. CFC didn’t discourage this practice but hadn’t recognized that empowering workers to contribute in this way could have a positive impact. To address these shortcomings, CFC created a more formal employee review process and explored ways in which employees could take a more active role in steering some functions, such as quality, operations, and health and safety.
Should an individual’s response to a perceived safety risk have any impact on their performance review?
CFC began by adopting a comprehensive employee performance review process that sought feedback annually for all supervisors and managers from their fellow employees. Some of an employee’s supervisors, as well as workers who reported to the employee under review, now had to help evaluate that person’s performance over the past year before pay raises or promotions could be considered. Although it could be a time-consuming process, CFC recognized that this effort would give employees an opportunity to provide meaningful feedback that could address potential problems and lead to overall improvements. Similarly, managers within the quality, production, and health and safety departments established mechanisms to regularly draw out suggestions from the workforce. In quality circles, production briefings, and safety committee meetings, employees were encouraged and even expected to raise concerns and propose changes that might improve these functions. Management worked to create an atmosphere that was judgment-free and to ensure that all suggestions or concerns would be given serious consideration.
The new employee performance review process and the reinvigorated suggestion system have been in place for a couple of years. CFC’s leadership team is generally pleased with the results. Many employees report feeling empowered to speak up, and a majority say they feel the ideas or concerns they raise are generally given a fair hearing. Inevitably, not all shift supervisors or hourly employees embraced the empowerment efforts to the same extent, but the culture seems to be enhanced by this more structured level of involvement.
THE SHIPPING TEAM’S CHALLENGES The workforce in the shipping and receiving department, however, is not really on board with these processes. The team has been chronically understaffed for some time and is routinely required to work unwelcome overtime shifts. The turnover rate in the department is among the highest in the plant, which contributes to the shipping team’s frustration. Although some shipping personnel have raised what they consider to be genuine logistical and safety concerns, the department perceives that management is too focused on growing CFC’s business to hear them out. Some shipping department workers say that CFC’s emphasis on engagement and empowerment only seems to apply to departments where things were already going smoothly. Even the longest-serving employee in the department, Fred Johnson, who has a reputation for being easygoing and collaborative, is becoming discouraged. At the same time, Suzy Bastine, the shipping manager, has reviewed some of the issues brought up by the shipping employees but considers many of them impractical or unlikely to result in any noticeable improvements.
Now, CFC has won a large contract that requires rapid delivery of new, larger production equipment. When these new components arrive, Fred prepares to unload the massive pallets from the delivery trucks, but he finds that the weight and configuration of the new machinery make maneuvering the loads extremely difficult. He suspects the weight of the pallets might exceed the capacity of even the largest lift truck available to him. As Fred struggles with one particularly heavy load, he thinks that the back wheels of his truck lift briefly off the ground. Fred becomes concerned, stops unloading the trailer, tells Suzy the task cannot be done safely, and briefly leaves the area.
The plant is under pressure to get the new equipment promptly installed and validated. Surprised by Fred’s actions, Suzy escalates the situation by alerting Tom and Sharon. As far as Suzy is concerned, Fred’s behavior amounts to insubordination and should be reflected in his pending 360 performance review. Fred takes issue with this and files a report on the parent company’s ethics hotline. Although Tom and Sharon value Suzy’s opinion and want supervisors to have reasonable autonomy to operate their departments, Suzy’s position appears to conflict with efforts at improving CFC’s employee empowerment. Furthermore, all members of the plant leadership believe that there are times and situations that require all employees to pitch in to meet a common objective.
FOR DISCUSSION Should an individual’s response to a perceived safety risk have any impact on their performance review? Did Fred have any specific obligations to his coworkers or alternatives to leaving his work mid-task? What potential message would the plant leadership send to other employees if they support Fred’s actions? What if the leadership suggests that this situation requires everyone to get through the task safely and address any issues as soon as possible afterwards? How should the corporate ethics office respond in this situation, if at all?
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