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Should We Use Punishment When An Injury Occurs?

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by John Austin in Behavior change, Leadership, Safety

I often get this question when delivering our BMT for Safety course in workplaces. I tend to tread lightly when making specific recommendations in an organization because I understand that the issue of punishment is complex. Many organizations are strongly encouraged by their HR departments to be consistent in order to avoid litigation. Unfortunately, this means it can be difficult for policies to evolve. Rather than making recommendations about a specific situation in a particular organization, I thought it might be better to write about the topic more generally.

Defining Punishment
First, let’s define punishment from a behavioral science perspective. Punishment is something that follows behavior and results in a decrease in the likelihood of that behavior in the future. So, is getting a warning in your employee file punishment? Only if it decreases behavior.

In general, questions about punishing for injuries tend to come up for employees who violated a policy or procedure, took a shortcut, or made an error. For example, if using the wrong tool for the job to keep production going resulted in an injury, some organizations would resort to punishment. I’m going to talk about these more common situations rather than malicious acts, for which I think using punishment is questioned less often. Punishment techniques range from getting a warning, fine, time off, demotion or job transfer, to getting fired.

The Injury is the Punisher
The first thing that we need to realize is that the moment an injury occurs, punishment has most likely already occurred. You’d have to be a complete psychopath to not feel embarrassed and ashamed if you did something you shouldn’t have that injured yourself or a colleague. Most of the time, when we screw up, we know it, we feel bad, and we relive the awful thing that happened in our mind. No external punishment will match that and the external stuff probably isn’t necessary to influence our behavior. Often times, a person associated with an injury becomes the safest person at the site because of their experience. The additional punishment delivered probably doesn’t compare to the punishment the person already feels about the injury. Therefore, the science would say that disciplinary action is not necessary, in many cases, to change the behavior of the injured person.

Changing Behavior
If the goal of punishment is to change behavior in the current context, then we should probably use a more temporary punisher instead of one that lasts for a career, like a job transfer or demotion. Behavioral science says that soon after we punish behavior, we need to give people the opportunity to do the right thing and then reinforce it. Without reinforcement, lasting change is unlikely. Career-changing punishers often lead to frustrated, less productive employees.

Punishing Behavior Instead of Results
Even though it may have been the first time that particular injury occurred, it probably wasn’t the first time someone engaged in the risky behavior that led to the injury. Most of the time, many people will admit that they took the same shortcut or violated the same procedure but nothing bad happened. Most workplaces aren’t set up to punish the behavior, they are set up to punish the unlucky result. If we want to use punishment, we should deliver it to everyone who violates the procedure, regardless of the result. If we can’t do that, it really isn’t fair to punish someone only when an unwanted result occurs.

Punishing Up The Consequence Chain
I once reviewed an incident investigation that said the employee, “failed to learn from previous injuries in the unit” because he had repeated a similar short cut taken by another employee that had resulted in an injury 5 years before. Was the employee the only person who failed to learn from the previous injury? If that is going to be used as a reason to punish, should that same logic not also be applied to the managers? Many other employees in the unit admitted to using the same shortcut, so clearly the causes of the previous injury had not been properly addressed.

Punishment Discourages Honesty
Behavioral science tells us that people will avoid you or alter the truth if they fear punishment. I’ve seen many workplaces where people avoid talking about unsafe conditions that encourage risky behaviors because they are afraid of punishment. In these cases, the punishment could be direct and obvious or it could be more covert, such as corrective actions that make doing a job more difficult. This is likely to makes the workplace less safe, which is counterproductive.

Are You Saying We Should Never Use Punishment?
The best leaders I know agonize over delivering punishment. It hurts them, they have to think a lot about whether it is the right thing to do, and they have an adult conversation with the person in question. They care about their people, they empathize, and they take the time to try to understand what factors in the environment influenced the person to have done what they did.

Before using one of the typical punishment techniques listed above, much consideration is necessary. We should seek to fully understand the situation – the unwanted behavior was occurring for a reason and that reason resides in the current environment.

We should also assess whether using punishment will make things better or worse in the future.

  1. hu says:

    I totally agree with you.

  2. Barry says:

    Nicole, your article is very interesting from many point of views. You have emphasised a number of key outcomes that punishment in the workplace may result to.

  3. Bob Howard says:

    I think the key is to use punishment with (violators) even if no accident happened, rather than using (blanket) punishment for everyone when something happens. At our plant, someone had a wreck on a bicycle, they took all the bicycles off the plant, someone abuses overtime, long winded rules for overtime come out, rather than dealing with the abuser we punish everyone. The list goes on and on when the (problem people) aren’t dealt with.

    1. Nicole says:

      Bob, yes, sometimes decisions made following an injury just frustrate and demoralize employees, rather than making things safer. If only 1% of the people cause a problem we shouldn’t treat 100% of them like criminals. It’s further evidence that we should think very carefully about the potential impact before we take action following an injury.

  4. Roger Boyer says:

    Nicole, the article really hits home with me. As you know we had an incident and discipline was handed out. All of the reasons that I was vocal about the incident not deserving additional punishment were covered in the article. Things like the person already has been punished and feels really bad about the accident. Job changing punishment leads to a less productive individual, others are more likely not to bring up potential issues and so on. My main heartburn was in reality the individual was punished because they were unlucky. If no one had gotten hurt, the individual probably would have been applauded for getting the job done. Really an odd message to send if want different behavior.

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