Organisational culture

Why is organisational culture important?

Culture can be best understood as "the way we do things around here". Culture forms the context within which people judge the appropriateness of their behaviour. An organisation's culture will influence human behaviour and human performance at work. Poor safety culture has contributed to many major incidents and personal injuries. 

An organisation's culture can have as big an influence on safety outcomes as the safety management system. 'Safety culture' is a subset of the overall organisational or company culture. Many companies talk about 'safety culture' when referring to the inclination of their employees to comply with rules or act safety or unsafely. However we find that the culture and style of management is even more significant, for example a natural, unconscious bias for production over safety, or a tendency to focus on the short-term and being highly reactive. Success normally comes from good leadership, good worker involvement and good communications.

A Safety Climate survey provides a snapshot of the organisation's culture in relation to safety. Questionnaires designed to measure the culture of the organisation tend to focus on employee perceptions and behaviours. HSE's Safety Climate Tool has been carefully designed by scientists to assess the attitudes of individuals within an organisation towards health and safety issues to deliver an objective measure of your safety culture.

The largest influences on safety culture are:

  • management commitment and style;
  • employee involvement;
  • training and competence;
  • communication;
  • compliance with procedures; and
  • organisational learning.

Therefore, this key topic contains links to three other issues:

Key principles on organisational culture

  • A culture change process can take several years.
  • A good starting place is to measure your existing safety culture perhaps by using a safety climate tool or more informally by talking to your workforce (proportionate to the hazards and risks in your workplace). This can help you target weak areas within your organisation's culture.
  • As a first pass you could make use of the questions in the Human Factors Toolkit with your employees.
  • Remember that any set of measurements is only a starting point. It is important to take action on the findings of any measurement and to feedback the findings to your employees. Organisations have found it beneficial to repeat measurements to track progress.
  • Organisations have had very positive results from focusing on specific issues such as safety leadership, competence or procedures.
  • Many organisations use third parties to help measure and change their culture. It is important to retain ownership of the process and work in partnership, and acquire the knowledge and skills to continue the work independently.
  • One common mistake is to focus on the staff levels below the manager who initiates the work. Senior managers should be prepared to have their own perceptions and behaviours examined and challenged.

Further guidance on organisational culture

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