What it Means to Create a Culture of Safety
Creating a culture of safety in your organization benefits consumers, staff, community, and ultimately, your organization’s reputation. It actively promotes healthy interactions between staff and consumers, limiting the risk of abuse in your programs and giving consumers tools to be vigilant against abuse outside your program. Below are some hallmarks of organizations that truly embed safety in everything they do. Take a look at these concepts and let us know how we can help!
Leadership is Committed and Vocal
Leadership plays a crucial role in fostering a Culture of Safety, and its significance cannot be overstated. It is a critical action item that must not be ignored if an organization is to achieve sustainable change. The Voice from the Top (VFTT) refers to the highest-ranking individual in an organization who has control over the resources necessary to implement any changes. A VFTT must go beyond merely expressing support through words; they must allocate resources, take specific actions to demonstrate the change’s importance, and lead by example. Ultimately, the VFTT must also provide positive reinforcement for compliance.
Standards are clear.
Clear and comprehensive policies play a significant role in abuse risk management. Clear standards let everyone know that your organization takes consumer protection seriously – staff, volunteers, consumers, parents, and potential employees. Clear standards also make it easier for supervisors to monitor or easily spot behaviors outside the acceptable bandwidth set by the organization. In creating these standards for their organizations, leadership should bring in various stakeholders involved in programming to ensure the policies created are relevant to programming and fit the lived experience of those working in the organization.
Standards are enforced.
Clear and comprehensive policies are important, but they must be enforced to be truly impactful. Leadership must work to ensure adherence to established guidelines and correct and document behaviors that stray from these norms. Failure to do so results in drift from these and other standards, which can become a larger issue for the orderly operation of the organization. Occasionally, the standards set do not fit the lived experience of the organization. This may manifest during the enforcement phase, where many staff are disciplined for violating an unworkable standard or does not fit their lived experience. Leadership should be aware of policy violations. Where it becomes apparent that the policy is not realistic, leadership should work to find a solution that fits the lived experience and limits the risk of continual drift from operational standards.
Everyone knows safety is part of their job.
To truly create a culture of safety, leadership must design prevention systems that incorporate everyone in the organization – not just a few key people in leadership roles. A Harvard Business Review1 article noted that effective risk management requires organizations to transform their approach from checking boxes to requiring that employees, supervisors, and leadership “embrace risk management as part of their everyday lives.” Meeting this goal requires role-specific training for staff and volunteers and active supervision to ensure policies and practices are followed.
Everyone takes warning signs seriously.
Creating a culture of safety requires that staff are trained and able to identify red-flag behaviors and grooming patterns. More importantly, they are empowered to report them and know how to do so. Many organizations fail to respond effectively to warning signs for various reasons. Some organizations have vague policies or a lack training. Thus, making it harder to exception monitor or, more simply, identify when behaviors are outside the acceptable bandwidth at the organization. In some organizations, we have seen staff explain away problematic behavior based on the subjective standard of “we know our people” or “Danni is just really affectionate with the kids.” Such rationalizations of inappropriate behaviors complicate abuse prevention efforts and feed into the narrative that some people are above reproach or that reports will not be taken seriously. Praesidium has worked with many clients post-incident. In many of these cases, there were warning signs that were either ignored, unreported, or poorly handled by leadership.
Employees report their concerns.
Central to creating a culture of safety is that employees report concerns. In our experience, we see that staff generally want to do the right thing. However, they sometimes are not equipped to identify problematic behaviors or are unaware of the reporting process to report their concerns, creating a barrier to reporting. Leadership should strive to ensure staff are aware of boundary expectations and clearly delineate reporting channels for red-flag behaviors, abuse, and consumer-to-consumer sexualized behaviors. Other barriers to reporting are obstacles such as overly complicated reporting, leadership who do not take reports seriously, or the perception that nothing is done when a report is made. There are various methods to remedy these barriers. Still, the first step is leadership identifying whether they are present in your organization.
Morale is high.
Morale is critical in creating a culture of safety. Praesidium’s experience indicates that staff experiencing burnout will often overlook the small things, such as red-flag behaviors. These behaviors are easily identifiable and remedied when reported but can lead to disastrous consequences when left unchecked. Another aspect of burnout is the above-average staff turnover rates that typically follow. Turnover results in loss of institutional memory and can create a chaotic transition period in which warning signs go unnoticed. For these reasons and more, leaders seeking to create a culture of safety should be responsive to staff concerns and feelings of burnout. Doing so builds trust in the organization and inspires staff to perform at their best!
Quality is institutionalized.
Organizations with a culture of safety ingrained in them all have one thing in common – quality is institutionalized, which means that standards and reporting processes are clearly defined and communicated in writing. Often, we work with organizations where we hear, “Rebecca is the go-to person for this. She knows how we do everything here.” While it is great to have a Rebecca in your organization, taking the next step in creating a culture of safety requires formalizing that knowledge in writing so it is preserved for posterity and quickly disseminated in training and onboarding for future staff. It also helps during the transition when the time comes for that key staff member to retire or leave your organization. Another critical aspect of institutionalized quality is formalizing processes to ensure that programs operate alike. Successful leadership creates organization-wide accountability systems to ensure consistency in operations and programming, allowing for programmatic deviations where necessary.
Creating a culture of safety starts at the top. Leaders must effectively and regularly communicate and demonstrate a commitment to abuse prevention. Not sure where to start? We can help.
1 Kurt Meyer, Anette Mikes, and Robert S. Kaplan, “When Every Employee is a Risk Manager,” Harvard Business Review, January 25, 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/01/when-every-employee-is-a-risk-manager#, accessed May 2021.