Poison people — who’s obstructing safety in your workplace? Part 2

By Andrew Douglas*
Tuesday, 10 June, 2008

Part 2 — Identifying poison people and keeping a culture of safety?

Also: Part 1 — Who are 'poison people'?
          Part 3 — How do we manage poison people?


Mr Munchausen, Mr Resentful and Mr Bully are not obvious members of an employee group. Each character is something of a prototype — a number of employees may exhibit some of the qualities associated with these characters in different amounts and at different times. There will always be employees that are more difficult than others, which is not in itself a cause for concern. In addition, difficult behaviours may arise in the workplace due to temporary difficulties and stresses. However, there is no doubt that some individuals repeatedly exhibit the characteristics identified above and that those behaviours impact negatively on the workplace. When this occurs, proactive steps must be taken to manage the employees in question. Problem employees such as these can derail the initiatives of even the most determined OHS professional.

It’s important to note that these problem types aren’t limited to sub-management level employees, but may include supervisors, plant managers or operation managers. These problem behaviours can obstruct innovation at all levels, from senior management to the ground floor.

The costs associated with these problem employees should not be underestimated. Their actions attack lines of command, destroy appropriate communications, dislocate work and undermine the authority of the business as a whole. They leave other employees unhappy and distressed and may damage retention rates of skilled employees. This can result in recurrent workplace disruption, absenteeism, higher turnover rates and even legal exposure due to the risks created in the workplace. Importantly, their influence can hamper attempts to address OHS issues in a constructive and unified fashion. Worst of all, they are hidden like a virus in your workforce and, even when detected, are difficult to manage and manoeuvre because of the power and fear they generate.

Why are they that way? There are a myriad of social and psychological forces at work but, at the most basic level, toxic employees behave that way because:

  • the behaviour has proved effective for them in the past, and/or
  • they don’t know any other behaviour, and/or
  • they lack the insight to see how their behaviour impacts on others.

These people are allowed to exist because within the corporate culture in which they function there is no clear understanding of the vision, purpose and values of the business and insufficient objective measurement and monitoring which would allow the business to address the behaviours before they become pathological. And it is pathology that we are speaking about — a diseased process in the business that needs to be detected, treated and, if the treatment fails, excised. Therefore, the first rule of dealing with these aberrant employees is early detection.

An integrated OHS approach

OHS is a difficult sell in most businesses. It is to often seen as a bolt-on to a business rather than core business. Frequently, reporting lines for OHS managers lock into HR or engineering, or flow towards a lower level of operations where leverage is lost and the capacity to institute operational change is limited. The result is that OHS managers are inclined to develop the paper infrastructure while not being able to affect the OHS culture, leading to a situation of liability risk. Such a risk arises where a business has, through its paper infrastructure, identified a risk but the operational side of the business has not acted upon it. In that case, any injury or disease arising from the identified risk creates per se liability under OHS legislation based on a simple review of the company documents and the circumstances surrounding the injury or disease.

Unfortunately, it is not only the line of reporting that creates difficulties. It is also the dislocation between the skills of OHS managers and the people who carry out the OHS functions; that is, there is a difference between the strategic OHS manager and the operational OHS manager. Joan of Arc and Jake Blues were both intimately connected with the trade of the people who marched beside them. As a result, they could lead and be followed. It is a lesson to us all that to implement OHS there is a need at the lowest operational levels for there to be an understanding and a commitment to the importance of OHS. For that reason, we advocate greater involvement and ownership of OHS programs from operational staff. This in turn is promoted by a management approach which encourages staff to endorse the core purposes and values of the business. Staff will be more receptive to OHS programs when they are grounded in values which they, and their co-workers, accept.

When the culture of a business improves, it becomes easier to identify the people who carry out pathological behaviours as they visibly fall outside the group of people who work cooperatively. OHS should be modelled by senior management but driven by supervisors and productions employees. Our three toxic characters may not be identified by management but — in a culture where the safety of employees is paramount in the mind of all employees — will readily be identified by co-workers and supervisors when they frustrate and put at risk other employees. Our three friends will be blockers. They will be the voices on safety committees that provide misinformation about risk and seek to block improvement, they will be the hyperbolic union shop steward that stops productive work when other employees wish to work, they will be the manager who refuses to change and improve production techniques and provide safety — their actions will be obvious in an environment where people are working together.

What does that mean for employers? It means that the commitment to implement OHS operationally must relate to the purpose and values of the business, which must in turn be committed to and modelled by all lead managers within the business. Such values must include respect and safety of employees and ensure that OHS becomes core business — not a bolt-on. The purpose and values which are translated into OHS must also be translated into the general HR management of the business. Where people’s performance and conduct is monitored and measured in accordance with the simple values of respect and safety, aberrant characters such as the three we describe can be identified. However, we still need to consider how to manage such employees, as their toxic effect can hamper the very improvements that will make it easier to identify and eliminate them.

In next month’s eNewsletter, we will conclude our discussion with recommendations on addressing workplace safety obstructors.

*Andrew Douglas is principal of Douglas Workplace and Litigation Lawyers.

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