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All About You: Corrective behaviors and reminders: How to approach people

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Pointing out another person’s mistakes or unsafe behavior can be the toughest part of a safety professional’s job. That’s because nobody enjoys being told they’re doing something wrong.

I struggled with this when I first became a full-time safety supervisor. Whenever I left my office to begin an inspection, the first workers to see me would call out “Haaawwwk!” This was a warning to let everybody know I was “on the move.” And when I came upon a work crew, the first thing they would do when they saw me was check to make sure they were wearing their personal protective equipment. Sound familiar?

Eventually, I learned how to deal with this reaction. But more important, I worked on my disciplining skills so that when I had to point out a problem, it was accepted more easily.

I had a few mentors who helped me get better at this unpleasant task. One of them, an experienced safety manager, gave me this piece of advice: “Make it into a ‘sandwich.’ Tell them something positive – that’s the first slice of bread. Then mention the ‘problem’ – that’s the stuff in the middle. Then cover it with another enjoyable slice of bread.” I’ve used his advice many times – and it works!

Here are a few other ways to make speaking with employees about their behavior and worksite more palatable:

Approach people with a positive demeanor

If you come across someone with a scowl on your face or a look of consternation, the person will get defensive before you say a word. You don’t have to be jolly, but at least be pleasant. If it’s not a serious infraction and the person is not a repeat offender, then why not even joke around a bit? I used to tell short jokes or have a funny saying I’d tell employees after we said hello. Certainly anything that involves a person’s safety is a serious matter, but remember that your goal is to change a behavior, not dish out punishment. If the people you speak with enjoy your visit – or at least don’t mind it – you’re more likely to accomplish that goal.

Don’t raise your voice

When you yell at someone, they’ll pay more attention to your volume than what you’re saying. Even if a serious infraction is involved, stay calm and keep your voice at a normal level. That way, what you say and the instructions you give are more likely to sink in. I’ve conducted many incident investigations involving serious violations, and I learned that I could get much more information during an interview if I spoke to a person kindly.

Let them tell their story first

Even if the person is dead wrong, if you let them explain why they are violating a safety rule before you tell them to stop it, you can use what they said to frame your response. I’ve heard a long list of lame excuses in my career, and you probably have too. Still, I know that if I let the person explain their position, they are more likely to listen to me because I listened to them.

You also can ask them if you can do anything that will help them work safer next time. For something like not using the correct type of ladder, it may be that enough ladders aren’t available or that they’re stored in a remote location. That’s a situation you may be able to change.

Give plenty of praise

Most times when you come upon a worksite, you’ll find that more positive things than problems are going on. If you notice the positive behaviors and praise people about them often, then when you do have to dish out discipline, it won’t taste as bad. In fact, if you do it right, it may turn out as enjoyable as a tasty sandwich!

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Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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