A personality for safety: how bosses can screen out the risk

By Harley Dennett

Wednesday September 10, 2014

Government employees make more than 4000 serious workers compensation claims each year in Australia, with stress and bullying claims skyrocketing.

The trend continues despite decades of occupational health and safety training — which might as well rate as the most rote activity public servants perform — and mandatory safety questions in many agencies’ appointment processes, despite knowing any switched-on public servant will lie about the degree to which their values mirror those of the organisation. Current screening and on-the-job training isn’t enough and its costing governments billions according to Safe Work Australia estimates.

However, the costs associated with those claims and time lost to injury or stress can be avoided through smarter screening, says one human resource psychologist, who has released a report into the traits and values of government’s safest workers. It found distinct differences in workers’ approach to safety, at the fundamental level of personality, in which some employees truly value safety and others do not.

The new study — Dangerous Personalities Make Work Unsafe, published today by Andrew Marty from organisational psychology firm SACS Consulting — shows concerning risks taken by public servants, despite existing screening measures by departments and agencies.

Andrew Marty
Andrew Marty

“We wanted to quantify the degree to which these safety behaviours could be predicted by a person’s personality and their value set,” Marty told The Mandarin. “What we’ve found is that when people take these confidential surveys, of course they confess more honestly about their safety behaviour than they ever would at work because there are no consequences.”

Marty surveyed 1400 workers across a range of organisations and sectors about their safety motivations, compliance and participation — which together provide an overall measure of the degree to which a person is trying to make the workplace safer. That itself isn’t new, but two additional assessments were made in the same process: participants also completed the Schwartz Personal Values Questionnaire and the HEXACO Personality Inventory.

Using a mathematical model mapping the personality and values results to the safety measure, Marty could predict an individual’s behaviour with around 37% accuracy.

“That level of accuracy creates the possibility that you could theoretically reduce the occupational health and safety risk among employees who are recruited by this screening method by nearly 40% by simply screening for personality and values. In interviews you can, at best, up to 10-15% accuracy … so for the methods used so far this about as accurate as you can find,” he said.

“I think that’s the case because in the research previously they’ve used older personality tools not as advanced as the HEXACO. Secondly, nobody that we could find has combined personality and values assessment in the one exercise. In effect you’re combining two things that have not been used together before.”

Evidence-based management

Some of the key types of personality traits identified by the study correlating with better safety behaviours were prudence, patience, fairness, diligence and social boldness — and they tend to value security.

Marty says while the volume of psychological testing is growing rapidly around the world, he found here in Australia many chief executives don’t realise you can measure values, as distinct from personality.

“Assessing for counter-productive workplace behaviours is a rapidly growing area of research …”

“I’m very indebted to the psychopaths of the world, that’s why people start using our psych tests because we’ve got a number of chief executives who’ve hired somebody — who all the evidence in front of them says this person is going to be a great employee, and then six months later they’ve had all these problems with them — I psych test them and say this is why, this individual is a selection error.

“These values have been shown by [Professor Shalom H] Schwartz to exist in every country in the world. Assessing for counter-productive workplace behaviours is a rapidly growing area of research because people want to hire workers who aren’t going to do bad things when they hire them.”

Whether chief executives take up the tools is largely dependent on their personal experiences of seeing the difference between good hires and bad hires, and how those results have been affected by screening. Globally, the proportion of hires based on psychological testing is increasing. “It all comes down to this concept of evidence-based management, looking out for research evidence to back their decisions,” Marty said.

Safety by the numbers

As the study surveyed employers across sectors, comparisons could be made: local government workers were among the most safety conscious, while state government employees were among the least. Marty says this may be explained by the higher prevalence of office jobs in state government. While those in local government, utilities and manufacturing involving physical labour and on-site jobs tend to attract more safety consciousness.

The study also found a significant gap in gender results, with women taking safety at work less seriously than men, and the reverse was found in interpersonal behaviour likely to result in stress and bullying claims. The report concludes:

“The workplace stereotype that women are ‘catty’ while men are easier to get along with has been busted by this research. Men are more likely to bully or harass people at work, and women are likely to help others in personal difficulty and be nicer to colleagues.

“Overall, men are more likely to do bad things to colleagues and women are more likely to do bad things to the organisation they work for. With stress and bullying incorporated into OHS legislation, employers should be just as concerned about preventing these types of psychological harms as physical ones.

“On every safety behaviour and across all industries, men are more diligent and committed than women to being safe at work. Women are less likely to participate in OHS practices and are more likely to disobey their organisation’s rules. This finding was also reflected in our previous study on counter-productive workplace behaviours which found that women are more likely to disobey company rules.”

Older workers, particularly those over 45, are more likely to show a safety-conscious attitude and more diligent safety behaviours than younger workers.

The cost of dealing with claims due to bad safety behaviour is skyrocketing, even as the total number of injuries has slightly declined over the past decade. Safe Work Australia figures put the estimated cost in Australia at $7 billion in compensation each year borne by employers, and the overall cost of injuries and illness in a single year at $60 billion.

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