We recently discussed how to choose the best form of Work Health and Safety (WHS) consultation for a business. Some of the options were to go with a formal method (such as a Health and Safety Committee or Health and Safety Representatives), or an informal type set up, such as regular toolbox talks or safety meetings, email communications, and noticeboards.
We also mentioned that on occasion, safety meetings can be challenging. The truth is, any meeting can have its challenges, and when it comes to safety, obviously people are passionate, as the conversation relates to personal health and well-being.
All too often business leaders are given excellent advice on how to establish their WHS framework, documents, policies, and procedures but perhaps not given that secondary guidance on how to undertake these tasks effectively, and collaboratively and what to do when things might be hard!
This blog discusses when safety meetings get tricky and how to navigate the discussions and maintain a safe space.
What challenges could confront a business during a consultation?
There are several types of challenges that may confront business leaders during WHS consultation. The business may be running a consultation process with their teams and come across any of these common scenarios:
- Employees/teams disagree with the company’s approach to a safety matter (e.g. the company’s idea on how to fix an issue, or a new initiative that is being proposed).
- Communication breakdown:
- Managers experiencing difficult conversations with employees (heated discussions, failure to have each side heard or understood, frustrations).
- Failure of either the business or employees/representatives to follow the agreed consultation procedures (e.g. the business does not include the Health and Safety Representative in a WHS consultation event).
- External Parties:
- Pressure, frustrations, or negative discussions and correspondence from external stakeholders, such as unions or contractors.
Of course, there would be historical factors and a wide range of detail about why conversations may not be going well, and why there are these challenges. Much of the time, if there is difficulty in consultation, it indicates previous or existing issues, however, regardless of the background, leaders need to look forward and keep the discussion productive and progressive.
Avoiding challenges in the first place
Avoiding issues upfront is a much better outcome. Some tips for preparing to avoid issues:
- Have an agenda and share this with every attendee in advance;
- Having a “code of conduct” or meeting rules/expectations attached to the agenda can help set the tone for attendees;
- If there are non-English speaking groups in the workplace, have the material translated;
- Ensure that any written material gets to everyone! Ensure no relevant person is missed in this stage;
- Set meetings at good times for everyone, not just the managers (avoid busy production times, school drop off/pick up times, and definitely no out-of-hour meetings!);
- Critical: Ensure everyone has all the same information leading up to the meeting, including any unions who will be involved. It is not nice to turn up to a meeting with only half the information that everyone else has. This will automatically set a negative tone;
- Document the meeting, then share the minutes with all attendees (and make them available on noticeboards or HRIS);
- If it is an important meeting, the top leadership should attend, this sends a good signal that the business places the safety meeting as a priority, and often, questions or issues can be resolved quickly by having decision makers present to agree on simple points.
How to work through the challenges
When there is any sort of disagreement or communication breakdown between people, it is uncomfortable and can quickly escalate to very unpleasant outcomes if the parties do not manage their frustrations.
Tips for managing disagreements and communication issues:
- Listen actively: When someone disagrees, it’s important to actively listen to their perspective. Try to understand their point of view and acknowledge their feelings.
- Stay calm: It’s easy to get emotional during a disagreement, but it’s important to remain calm and rational. Take a deep breath and try to approach the situation in a level-headed manner.
- Focus on the issue: Don’t let personal attacks or past grievances distract from the main issue at hand. Stay focused on the problem you’re trying to solve and work towards finding a solution together.
- Communicate clearly: Clearly articulate your thoughts and feelings using “I” statements, such as “I feel that…” or “I think that…”. This can help to avoid blame or defensiveness.
- Find common ground: Look for areas of agreement and build on those. This can help to establish a foundation of trust and understanding.
- Brainstorm solutions: Work together to find a solution that works for everyone. Be open to compromise and be willing to consider alternative perspectives.
- Agree to disagree: Sometimes, it’s not possible to reach a consensus. If this is the case, it’s okay to agree to disagree and move on.
Keep the workplace safe
Unfortunately, sometimes situations still escalate. If this happens, it is wise to stop the conversation and let the group know that the current way of communicating is not productive or safe (and if relevant, against the meeting code of conduct/rules), and the business will resume and rearrange another meeting when things have settled. This may mean everyone leaves and re-convenes another day.
- Yelling, raised voices, talking over one another, pointing fingers or aggressive gestures, standing too close to someone (intimidation), personal insults, threats, and other verbal and non-verbal forms of aggressive behaviour are all signals to stop the meeting or conversation (even if it is online or over the phone);
- Another obvious signal that the meeting should be stopped is people becoming visibly upset (crying is a clear sign);
- Pushing ahead with aggressive situations or heated discussions can expose the business to psychological (or in some cases physical) injuries. Injuries may occur to the person/s involved, or bystanders;
- If a meeting ended like this, ensure the attendees are contacted soon after to check their well-being and apologise for the outcome;
- Always document meetings (use a Minutes template).
WHS consultation is generally a very productive and pleasant process! Because the focus and intention should be on sharing information, getting feedback and listening to employees, and creating better safety outcomes. What better way to bond and engage with the team than to be making their workplace safer?
The role of the leaders in consultation is to demonstrate the expected behaviour, and recognise when to stop unsafe practices, including unsafe meetings.
If there are company culture issues affecting good communication, it is something the business should look at seriously. HR and WHS professionals can be contacted to discuss methods for improving culture and employee satisfaction.
About Employment Innovations
Employment Innovations is one of Australia’s leading providers of employment services designed to increase productivity and ensure compliance. Its services and solutions include all the tools that every Australian small to medium sized employer needs – including workplace advice, legal services, payroll solutions, migration, human resource management and HR software.
The information provided in these blog articles is general in nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you are unsure about how this information applies to your specific situation we recommend you contact Employment Innovations for advice.