Just Culture: From Good Intentions to Workplace Reality

Your organisation claims it operates a just culture. Great! But how can you be sure?

“Between the idea and the reality […] falls the shadow” (T.S. Eliot)

Ever wondered how to give your organisation’s people the best-possible chance to do the right thing when it comes to the way they go about their work? If you’ve wrestled with this question in the context of health and safety, you’re likely to have come across the concept of “just culture”: A framework for responding to individual performance fairly and consistently, and in a way that promotes learning and accountability.

In a just culture, people understand what behaviour is acceptable (and what is not), are supported to do the right thing, and are treated fairly and consistently, especially when things don’t go to plan. These outcomes aren’t achieved by magic, but because organisational leaders take deliberate steps – including clarifying behavioural expectations, investing in good work design and support systems, building the capability of their teams, and walking the talk when it comes to operationalising the principles of a just culture – to cultivate and sustain a culture that makes these outcomes possible.

The Just Culture Manifesto developed and promoted by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation is one articulation of the principles (or commitments) that underpin a just culture: (i) Ensure freedom to work, speak up, and report without fear; (ii) support people involved in incidents or accidents; (iii) don’t accept unacceptable behaviour; (iv) take a systems perspective; and (v) design systems that make it easy [for people] to do the right things.

To be clear: We’re not talking about an optional, nice-to-have aspect of organisational culture. Enacting the principles of a just culture can be seen as necessary for an organisation to meet its obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 in a manner that is more than just about box-ticking. For instance, it is difficult to see how an organisation can provide “opportunities for workers to participate effectively in improving health and safety […] on an ongoing basis” (s61(1)) – or to see how an officer can have taken reasonable steps to ensure the organisation has “appropriate processes for receiving and considering information regarding incidents, hazards, and risks” (s44(4)(d)) – if employees do not feel able to speak up about unsafe (or other less-than-ideal) work conditions and/or practices for fear of unjust repercussions.

Many organisations say they operate a just culture (and they may point to a relevant policy statement and/or decision-making flow diagram to back this up), but asserting something doesn’t make it so. The challenge – and one not to be underestimated – is to translate any declaration of intent such as the Just Culture Manifesto (organisational-culture-as-espoused) into workplace reality (organisational-culture-as-experienced).

In practice, how would an employee know that the principles of a just culture are alive and well in his or her workplace and meaningfully shaping “the way we do things around here”? A starting point would be to ask the following questions:

  • Are people leaders in my organisation given the training, tools, support, and confidence to be capable, effective leaders and to play their part in cultivating a just culture?
  • Am I crystal clear about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in my workplace? Is my team given regular opportunities to discuss this distinction?
  • Has my direct manager (or someone else in a position of authority) explained to me what a just culture is all about, what it means in our organisation, and how I can contribute to making it a reality?
  • Does my organisation have a clear, documented process for making sense of, responding to, and learning from workplace events? Has this process been explained to me?
  • Does my organisation regularly and proactively consider the broad range of factors (e.g., those related to the organisation, procedures, environment, equipment, people, etc.) that can help or hinder work performance? Do we take steps to do more of what helps – and less of what hinders – performance?
  • Has someone asked how safe I feel speaking up about workplace conditions and practices and what would help me feel even safer about doing so?
  • Are instances of good performance (e.g., when someone exceeds expectations) called out fairly and consistently? Are my workplace contributions recognised? Are achievements celebrated? Does my organisation take steps to learn from good performance and positive work outcomes?
  • If work doesn’t go to plan (e.g., something goes wrong), is a genuine effort made to understand what happened and why from the perspective of those involved in the work? Do those affected by what has happened receive adequate support? Do the corrective actions taken extend beyond simply providing additional training and supervision for those doing the work to include changes to organisational factors such as the design of work, leadership capability, planning, resourcing, the way work pressures are handled, and so on?
  • Does my organisation view incidents and other unwanted events as opportunities to improve work systems and processes rather than to find fault or assign blame? Have I seen sufficient evidence to have confidence that investigations – and other organisational learning activities – are undertaken from this viewpoint?
  • Are unintended actions and honest mistakes treated differently to deliberate rule-breaking?
  • Are the formal consequences for someone who engages in a particular unsafe act the same – taking into consideration his or her level of knowledge, experience, and training – no matter who is involved?

If you find yourself answering “no” to one or more of these questions, your organisation – no matter how worthy its stated intentions – may regrettably have found itself in T.S. Eliot’s shadow.

[Published in the September / October 2021 edition of Safeguard Magazine]

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