Workplace safety is a major concern for organizations. Accidents involving employees can jeopardize the safety of everyone at work, and be enormously costly for employers, in terms of lawsuits, insurance, and lost productivity. Research has long extolled the virtues of creating a safety climate, which means setting organizational policy to reflect the fact that safe behavior is important, expected, and will be rewarded. But there is another way to make sure that employees engage in safe practices on the job. We can hire “safer” people in the first place. The authors of the current study (Beus, Dhanani, & McCord, 2015) wanted to identify the personality traits that are associated with safe behavior.
PERSONALITY AND SAFE BEHAVIOR
In this study, the authors didn’t just consider workplace accidents as an outcome. It’s because accidents can be caused by a variety of factors that are beyond an employee’s control. For example, perhaps a machine was built with a fatal flaw that only became known after an accident. Or perhaps an employee was following the proper protocol leading up to an accident, but the people who designed the training made an error. For this reason, it makes more sense to study the safe or unsafe behavior itself, in addition to the outcomes. Which people were more likely to engage in workplace behavior that is defined as safe, and stay away from behavior that is considered unsafe?
The authors conducted a meta-analysis, which means compiling results from many different previous studies. The logic here is that results are more reflective of the truth when they are averaged across many different scenarios. They first ascertained the relationship between safety behavior and the “big five” broad personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.
People who had higher amounts of extraversion and neuroticism had higher levels of unsafe behavior. The authors say that extraverted people have a need to “get ahead” and achieve higher status, and may compromise safety in order to accomplish this. They say that neurotic people have a propensity to be consumed with worry and anxiety, and they may become distracted as a result. They also are more likely to let anger lead to impulsive and irrational choices, which can easily be problematic when safety protocols need to be followed carefully.
On the other hand, people with higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness had less unsafe behavior. The authors say that agreeable people are more cooperative and more easily see the need to benefit the team as a whole. For this reason, they refrain from unsafe behavior which may compromise the safety and productivity of the entire organization. Conscientious people are naturally meticulous about following rules, and also understand that compromises in safety will not improve the organization’s likelihood to achieve in the long run. That makes them more likely to avoid risky or unsafe behavior.
Openness to experience is the need to be adventurous and individualistic. Interestingly, it was not found to be related to unsafe behavior. This was the case despite the authors’ prediction that it would lead to more unsafe behavior.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This study shows that certain types of people are safer than others. If that’s the case, organizations can design selection systems to identify these safe people and hire them instead of the unsafe people. In short, four of the five major personality traits seem to predict safety-related behavior. In direct comparison, it was agreeableness and conscientiousness that had the strongest ability to predict (these are the safe people), whereas extraversion and neuroticism had a somewhat weaker ability to predict (these are the unsafe people). That being said, organizations should primarily look for people who are conscientious and agreeable if they want to cut down on workplace accidents. In addition, avoiding extraverted or neurotic people may also help a little bit.
Another finding from this study was that the effects of a safety climate (or the organizational practices) were more influential in predicting behavior than the personality traits, although the personality traits did still matter. This means that organizations are not resigned to firing all of their unsafe employees and starting over. By showing that the organization values safe behavior through training, feedback, and rewards, an organization establishes a safety climate, which is actually the biggest predictor of a safe workplace.