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In recent months our company has been promoting a Culture of Accommodation as a means of engaging employees in the cost saving endeavor of a disability management plan. Our goal has been to change the language and perception of disability management or return to work programs by re-tooling our program to be a more inclusive project in the development of a culture where Accommodations are not only offered but expected by employees.

I will be presenting at the upcoming HRMAM conference, Converge, where I’ll be taking the Culture of Accommodation a step further and looking at how good leaders “protect” the workforce and the importance of creating a feeling safety. In researching for this I’ve come across some interesting resources and want to offer some foundation to these concepts.

Personally I feel that a company culture exists whether you try to manage it or create it. It is what it is. A culture of non-compliance creates negativity, lack of production, poor morale and ultimately, a low return on investment. These companies do not last long, or at least have a very high rate of turnover. In today’s multigenerational workplace, culture is a dynamic, shifting entity where it’s hard to keep up with what is required. We’re virtually in a stalemate between Boomers and Millennials with their widely diverse needs, wants and desires; so managing the culture becomes quite challenging. I’m going to break this down to something very simple that works for all generations, feeling safe.

Leading a company is a lot like parenting. When I held my first born in April of 1987 I vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of love and responsibility. Responsibility to protect her. This was repeated 4 years later with my second child. As a CEO I have similar feelings of responsibility to protect my staff. What came after that feeling of protection was guidance and direction to help my children be the best they could be. Characteristics like work ethic, independence, assertiveness and not putting up with abuse were instilled. When translating this to the workplace it means ensuring you’re respected and valued, and of course compensated fairly.

This is the kind of company I want my children to work for, hence the kind of culture they should seek, as well as the kind of culture I, as an employer, should develop. My working career has spanned 42 years and I’ve done everything from pumping gas to being a government employee, and now a private industry employer. I have seen a lot of workplace cultures and the concept of feeling safe means different things to different people. Some boomers see safety as meaning good salary and good benefits. In this environment I’ve also seen people who have this, with strong union support, yet still feel trapped. This is illustrated when someone tells you exactly how long they have until retirement. The concept of leaving this “great” job, despite hating it, is so preposterous that the only coping mechanism is to have the retirement date chosen, circled and carved in stone. Even if you’re still 12 years out.

On the other hand, my Starbucks Barista is having the time of her life meeting new people, being part of a friendly team, engaging with customers, getting to know people’s names and making a great cappuccino, however she does not have a great salary, union support or necessarily long term benefits. Happy as anything. Feeling safe therefore is more than job security, a good salary, work friendships and having fun at work.

The definition of safety includes elements of well-being, protection, security, soundness, dependability, reliability, shelter, sanctuary and refuge. In a work setting this translates into 6 simple statements:

  1. Respect: treating all employee's with the same level of respect, regardless of position
  2. Being valued and bringing value
  3. Knowing and understanding expectations, of management and of self
  4. Creating an inclusive environment
  5. Being physically and mentally safe, free of abuse and workplace hazards
  6. Ensuring employee's feel their well-being is not only considered but cared for.

When employees, or any group, feel safe, they feel part of a team and they take care of each other. Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last, refers to this as the Circle of Safety. You know when you’re in the circle. Trust exists and one feels respected, valued and cared for by management. It is the absence of fear, threats, bullying or being taken advantage. It is the SENSE OF BELONGING.

Trust begets trust which leads to teamwork and collaboration, on all levels. Threats to an organization exist on many levels.The primary one that becomes the only one in a culture of safety is the threat from the outside, the competitors. Internal threats exist, make no mistake, but in such an environment these threats fizzle or are removed. Competition exists with the outside forces but collaboration exists inside, hence the absence of internal threats.

Good leaders should have 2 important traits. According to Simon Sinek the first trait is empathy. An empathic leader is in tune with the needs and wants of the workforce and takes action to provide the culture/circle of safety. The second, based on Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, is that leaders should be Givers. He emphasizes that while many Giver's don't succeed, the most successful business leaders are Givers.

It is the responsibility of organizational leaders to provide the circle of safety and develop such a culture. Particularly important is to act swiftly to remove internal threats and competition. In Jack Welch’s book, Winning, he provides his philosophy of “DIFFERENTIATION”. In this system every organization has its top performers, middle performers and the lower 10% of non-performers. This 10% is what every organization should turnover, according to the 20th Century’s pre-eminent CEO. In a Culture of Safety this 10% are the threat to the internal organization and will either move on as their bullying and underperforming are not accepted in that culture, or they conform. When they do neither the leaders have to remove them. They’re not hard to identify. In my organization I’ve not always been fast enough to remove this 10%, rather I was hoping, wishing and even suggesting that this group moves on. I’ve learned, very emphatically, that the leader, me, in our case, must act swiftly and confidently. In the first instance, not taking action, can send the message that leaders are not caring for the productive side, may favor certain employees, or worse, not care about the culture. When swift action is taken, it sends a powerfully positive message of empathy and strong, caring leadership. One will never hear, “thank you for taking care of the rest of us” but you may notice more smiles, less stress and more importantly higher productivity.

Strong, empathic, caring leadership is the start of developing a safe workplace, beyond physical injury hazard management. Listening, understanding and providing for the well-being of employees will ultimately lead to higher morale and greater productivity which increases profit. Taking responsibilities as leaders to protect the well-being of our workforce, as we protect our children as parents, we can meet the fundamental needs of all generations. To feel safe, have a purpose and a sense of belonging. A win-win situation if ever there was one. Culture is not underrated, it is essential.