Beware of the Blanket Policy
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Organizational leaders are understandably frustrated sometimes when employees are injured on the job. Of course, their primary concern is the well-being of the affected individual. However, they may also feel like they have policies in place which, if followed, would have prevented the incident. This leads to a common occurrence where an injury is almost immediately followed by a new rule or blanket policy that applies to everyone. Sometimes these policies make great sense as people were unaware of a risk. It may even save a life. Too often, however, these policies are applied poorly and don’t apply beyond the specific area or job where the incident occurred. This leads to irritation and, occasionally, odd responses.
For example, one auto manufacturing facility over-reacted to an employee eye injury by mandating safety glasses in all areas of the plant even where glasses really weren’t needed. This is sometimes called the shotgun effect. Although most employees begrudgingly wore their safety glasses, several employees got creative and popped the lenses out of their safety glasses and simply wore the frames over their noses in areas where safety glasses really weren’t needed.
Similarly, a light manufacturing company instantly outlawed baseball caps after an employee cut his head open and told his supervisor that he mistakenly thought his cap was a hard hat. Most of the employees wore caps at this site and were extremely unhappy with this decision. The following morning a number of employees entered the plant wearing cowboy hats, sombreros, Dr. Seuss hats, and other caps/hats to protest the rule (which was later overturned). In general, the best safety rules are clear, logical, consistently enforced, and often created with input from employees doing the work.
In an extreme example, an offshore oil rigger was going through a difficult divorce and was coping with the situation poorly. His company’s work schedule was set up so employees were on the rig (on an island in the ocean) for a month at a time and then at home for a month. In this case, the employee returned to the rig and learned that a new mandate was established ordering employees to wear hard hats and steel toed boots at all times following an injury in an isolated area. This was followed by a myriad of signs on the rig telling employees to always wear their boots and hard hats. The embittered employee reacted to the signs by showing up on the rig with his hard hat and steel-toed boots on and nothing else. This emotional, volatile, and now “clothes-free” employee strolled around the rig doing his job. Clearly, the blanket policy had an adverse reaction.
Before enacting new policies and procedures get employee input first as much as possible. Corporate policies don’t always apply cleanly to various locations or areas. Also, explain the rationale behind the new rules that are created. Finally, effectively share (and consistently enforce) new rules once it’s determined they are appropriate. This improves employees’ optimism about safety policies which has a powerful impact on their future behaviors. In a study of college freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, students’ optimism (measured before the start of school) was a better predictor of academic success than SAT scores or high school grades (Seligman, 1991).
Intelligent handling of new policies leads to the greater likelihood of compliance and less negative reactions to their application.
At Propulo, we help leaders improve safety rules, policies and procedures to make them more practical, applicable, and well-received by employees.