Professional development

Succession planning for safety

A solid strategy can help prevent disruption, lapses in processes and programs

Image: Franck-Boston/iStockphoto

The well-respected safety director with 25 years’ of experience has abruptly announced his retirement. What does his employer do now?

“If they just up and leave and give you two weeks’ notice, there’s no way you’re going to capture all of their institutional knowledge,” said Michael Timms, principal at Avail Leadership, based in Vernon, British Columbia. “They know the backstory. They know why things are the way they are. You put a job posting out and that whole process can take three, four months to get a good safety person.”

This is when succession planning – the process of proactively developing talent from within the organization to ensure a smooth transition when a worker in a key role leaves – can help, said Timms, author of “Succession Planning That Works: The Critical Path of Leadership Development.”

“From the organizational standpoint, there are a ton of benefits,” Timms said. “No. 1: business continuity. When you have a good succession plan, you can have somebody come in and hit the ground running the very next day.”

However, 75% of Safety+Health subscribers surveyed for the 2019 Job Outlook said their employers don’t have a succession plan in place for their organization’s safety and health function – up from 66% in 2015. Why is this percentage so high?

Hurdles to clear

A national drop in recordable incidents, a lack of resources and a misguided approach to succession planning are some of the reasons, according to experts who spoke with S+H.

In 2017, the work-related recordable incident rate decreased for the fifth straight year to 2.8 per 100 full-time workers, according to Injury Facts, an online database of safety and health statistics created by the National Safety Council.

“Companies might not be placing the emphasis they used to when it comes to safety,” NSC Safety Director Fernando Jimenez said. “You’re not seeing injuries, so why put resources there? But complacency, many times, is a contributing factor to injuries.”

Having fewer resources to fill open positions also can impede an organization when a key safety employee departs.

“Everybody is probably dealing with that,” said John Dizor, director of environmental, health, and safety improvement and learning at The Dow Chemical Co. in Louisiana. “I don’t know too many companies that have extra people.”

Additionally, the longer the hiring process, the more strain it can place on workers who take on added responsibilities. To avoid this, employers can try to anticipate turnover.

“As hard as it is, you need to try to look down the road a little bit and understand when it is you may be losing a person or two,” Dizor said. “(You must) make sure that you’ve got those skill sets developed in other people.”

Leading the charge

Although succession planning is a well-known practice among human resources professionals, Timms said the process is most effective under the direction of senior leadership.

“One of the biggest problems organizations have with succession planning is that they tackle it like it’s just a process,” he said. “Really, it’s a culture change initiative. Culture is about beliefs, and there are some unhelpful beliefs that some have about succession planning.”

For example, a safety manager may be hesitant to train a colleague out of fear that the company will replace him or her in favor of promoting the trainee to save money.

Timms noted that when leadership makes succession planning a priority, “they’d better make darn sure not to provide any negative consequences to employees who train others to take over their role, or nobody will ever do it again.”

In fact, some organizations Timms has worked with make succession planning an incentive.

“Organizations that take succession seriously will make promotions contingent upon it,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Look, it doesn’t make sense to promote you unless we have somebody who can fill your position right now.’ So they provide a natural incentive for individuals to develop other people within their team to take over their position. That completely flips the fear of preparing others to take their job upside down.”

Among the biggest benefits Timms sees in this approach is an increase in worker engagement and lower turnover.

“When people know there are opportunities for advancement, and that the organization is looking after them and is really concerned about their advancement, that’s one of the key drivers of employee engagement,” he said. “That also happens to be one of the key drivers of retention.”

Succession at a cost

Succession planning can be viewed as an insurance policy that keeps business humming without disruption when, for example, a safety director departs.

A 2016 report from Gallup Poll notes that the replacement cost of an employee can be 150% or more of that person’s annual salary. Some estimates put the cost as high as 200%.

“It can be the greatest cost, by a large margin, to an organization,” Timms said.

Jimenez added, “It always makes sense to have a strong safety plan, and having a succession plan is part of it. This is going to benefit the culture of the company, make you more efficient, create more engagement and increase the bottom line.”

Skipping succession planning? It may cost you

The Work Institute, an employee engagement and retention firm based in Franklin, TN, looked at the costs of worker turnover, which some studies put at between 50% and 200% of a worker’s annual salary.

Here is the breakdown of costs:

  • Before departure: Includes exit interview, paperwork, vacation pay, severance and other expenses.
  • During vacancy: Add up the cost of temporary workers and overtime pay to fill an absence.
  • Recruitment: Includes search and job posting expenses, as well as overhead costs.
  • Hiring: Combines costs of interviews, testing and reference checks.
  • Training: Orientation and onboarding expenses.


Where to start

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, succession planning is a 12- to 36-month process of “identifying crucial job skills, knowledge, social relationships and organizational practices” and passing them from managers to their workers.

“Start by setting up some time with each of your direct reports,” said Dizor, who meets once a year with his workers to discuss their development.

He stresses that the topic is not limited to one conversation. “We talk about it weekly. Then, once a year, we carve out time where all we are talking about is, ‘Where do you want to be on your development journey and how is it coming?’”

Dizor said the discussion intentionally takes place six months away from performance reviews to set a unique tone.

“It’s just a different frame of mind when you’re talking about hearing feedback on your performance last year and what you need to do better this year,” he said.

The two conversations, Timms said, are distinctly different discussions that cover two different views of an employee’s work life.

“Performance management is backward-looking, and career development is forward-looking,” he said. “A lot of things can change in a year. A lot of things can change in six months. If I have specific development goals, and I’ve knocked off those goals in four months, am I going to be waiting around the other eight months?”

Dizor advises managers to “spend more time listening than talking. Let the employee tell you what’s important to them rather than you telling them what’s important for the organization.”

Where to find talent

Jimenez was part of a succession plan for the safety role at NSC and is a strong believer in the process.

“It was on-the-job training, then a step up to the next level,” he said. “That’s a good tradition. We encourage a continuous improvement process.”

Jimenez is constantly on the lookout for talent with an interest in safety, from the company’s safety manager position to members of four volunteer committees under the NSC safety team.

“You gauge their participation, their ability to judge risk and their ability to execute the programs that need to be executed,” he said. “We’ll continue to grow talent from within.”

Jimenez also promotes safety as a career choice to colleagues. “That’s another way of encouraging succession planning,” he said. “One of my goals is to have the millennial generation involved when it comes to safety. We want to see diversity, and we want to see different generations become passionate about the service part of safety.”

The rewards for safety professionals can include a seamless transition of talent, continuation of safety programs without disruption and, for Dizor, the joy of seeing colleagues grow in their careers.

“I don’t know anybody who really gets excited about, ‘I lead a big group of people and I get to fill out all these forms,’” Dizor said with a laugh. “The real payback for me is in people development.

“It’s tremendously rewarding. There is such fulfillment out of being part of the journey, seeing the employee and what they developed into and what they’re contributing to the organization. And to see how happy they are in their role.”

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