Posted: October 29, 2003
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Article Summary Most of my risk communication consulting focuses on external stakeholders – neighbors, activists, customers, etc. But sometimes I’m asked to address a controversy between a company (or a government agency) and its own employees. Outrage is outrage, and for the most part labor-management controversies play out the same way external controversies do. But there are a few ways employee outrage is different. This short column discusses five differences.

What's Different about Employees?

This is the second in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this web site. This column appears (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the September 2003 issue of The Syngerist, pp. 18–19.

Most of my risk communication consulting focuses on external stakeholders – neighbors, activists, customers, and others outside my client’s organization who are outraged (or at least worried) about some risk. Most industrial hygienists, on the other hand, concentrate on the risk concerns of their organization’s employees.

An obvious question has come up frequently in the 13 years I have been working with AIHA: What’s different about employees?

The most important answer to this question is: Not much. The similarities between internal and external stakeholders are much more impressive than their differences. Employees usually respond to risk, and to risk controversies, pretty much the way everyone else does.

There are nonetheless some differences worth noting.

1.  Employees are likelier to shrug off risks.

Employees tend to take the same risk less seriously than outsiders do – despite the fact that their actual risk is higher. Two reasons stand out. First, employees are much more familiar than outsiders with the risk, and familiarity reduces outrage. Second, our society sees on-the-job risk as more tolerable than bystander risk. Regulatory standards are tougher for environmental exposures than for workplace exposures; media coverage is greater for off-site releases than for those confined to the site. Perhaps surprisingly, employees generally agree with this assessment. They figure absorbing a certain amount of risk is part of the job.

A third reason employees tend to shrug off risks: They’ve got IH professionals worrying for them. Risk concern often works like a seesaw. If nobody’s concerned about my safety, I’d better watch out for myself. But if Mom is worried, or the safety department is worried, then I don’t have to be – and I’m free to resent my protector’s over-protectiveness instead. When employees under-react to a risk, we tend to assume they’re not worried enough about that risk. It’s just as likely that they’re irritated at the precautions … and the people who are pushing the precautions.

2.  Employees are likelier to hide their outrage until it is huge.

When outsiders are outraged about a risk emanating from your facility, they usually say so. Your facility’s employees, on the other hand, may keep their outrage to themselves. Employees fear job repercussions if they complain about job risks. Even in a company that tries hard to protect whistle-blowers (and just plain complainers), it’s still the gung-ho worker who gets promoted, not the skittish one. In many companies, employees are right to believe that expressing concern about a workplace hazard increases their chances of getting downsized.

But that’s probably not the biggest reason why employees hide their outrage. Displeasing “management” is a fairly distant threat compared to displeasing one’s immediate supervisor, who controls a variety of perks and punishments that make the job more or less bearable. Still more potent, typically, is the fear of displeasing one’s peers. On a work team where camaraderie is important, teasing is rampant, and fearlessness is the norm, a worker who worries out loud about job risks faces ridicule or worse.

3.  Employee outrage has more sources and can do more harm.

Employees have other relationships with the company besides the risks they endure. These relationships not only give employees a motive to hide their outrage; they also give employees additional sources of outrage. Employees who hate their job or are afraid of losing their job (or both) are likelier to think the solvents are giving them headaches. Low morale leads to risk controversies.

And risk controversies damage morale – not to mention their effect on turnover, absenteeism, and productivity. All these factors deteriorate when employees are upset about a risk, even if they keep their feelings quiet. Outraged employees are also likelier to file a lawsuit or a workers compensation claim, and likelier to go on strike. When outsiders are outraged about a risk, they can raise a ruckus, hurt the company’s reputation, and maybe inspire new regulations. Outraged employees can do all that and more.

Outraged employees are likelier to have actual work-related accidents and illnesses, too. This key connection between outrage and hazard shouldn’t be neglected. At its most extreme, employee outrage can lead to sabotage – and a huge hazard to employees, neighbors, and management alike. (See “When Outrage Is a Hazard,” The Synergist, April 1995 –

4.  Employees are easier to communicate with.

From MSDS’s to periodic safety meetings to union-management safety committees, you have a wide range of options for reaching employees with risk information. They may not want to listen; they may not believe what they hear. But at least you have access. Reaching outsiders is a lot tougher.

On the other hand, employee communication may be constrained by a variety of legal and contractual obligations that specify what you must and must not say. OSHA regulations and union rules are supposed to facilitate honest communication, but sometimes they prevent it instead. A special danger is imagining that formal communication with the union replaces talking to employees. It doesn’t. The union doesn’t stand in for the workforce any more than the government stands in for the citizenry.

5.  Employees are a part of community outreach … for better or for worse.

In an external risk controversy, your employees are a key information source for their neighbors. If they share their neighbors’ concern, the concern is confirmed. If they don’t know the first thing about the issue, that’s just as harmful. If they have been properly briefed – with accurate information, not a one-sided gloss – they can be invaluable.

Just as what you say (or don’t say) to employees will get out to the neighborhood, what you say to the neighborhood gets back to employees. If the company seems more attentive to outsiders’ complaints than it is to employees’ complaints, that can generate employee outrage. If the company apologizes to outsiders in a way that seems to blame the workforce, that can generate employee outrage. If the company assumes that employees are on management’s side in a controversy with outsiders, that can generate employee outrage. If the company assumes that employees are uninvolved and irrelevant, that can generate employee outrage. If the company…. But you get the point. Every external risk communication should be scrutinized for its likely impact on employees.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman

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