The Link Between Personality and Human Error: Using Assessments to Hire Safety-Minded Employees

By Greg Ford

Companies spend millions of dollars on safety training each year, money which is generally well spent.  However, we all make mistakes.   What happens if the mistakes are made not because of inadequate training, but because our “default” personality causes us to react a certain way under pressure?

Take for example the story of the Continental Airlines crash on February 13, 2009 into a house in Buffalo, New York; in-flight recorders have shown that not only were the two pilots having “irrelevant chatter,” forbidden by FAA regulations, but the head pilot in full panicked and pulled the plane’s nose up when he should have dropped the plane’s nose so the plane would not stall.

Consider also Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, still regarded as the costliest accident in history.  The death toll attributed to Chernobyl, including people who died of cancer years later, is estimated at 125,000.  The total costs of cleanup and compensation? Roughly $200 billion.  The reason for the accident?  Violated plant procedures on the part of the power plant operators.

While the scale of these situation make the alarming, there are definite correlations within any workplace. “The issues of risk, health, safety, and the environment are getting more attention now than ever before, at all levels of the organization,” says Calvin Price, Vice President of Global Health and Safety at SNC-Lavalin Inc., a company with 21,000 workers worldwide.

Most would agree with Price that attention to safety is increasing because responsible companies care about their workers, and the workers’ colleagues, families, and communities.

However, cynics might say that the safety spotlight is powered by the corporate bottom line. Direct costs created by workplace injuries total $51.8 billion annually and include workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, civil liability damages and litigation expenses. This sum represents a staggering one quarter of each dollar of pretax corporate profits. Indirect costs may run as much as 20 times the direct costs of on-the-job accidents and illnesses. Examples of indirect costs include training replacement employees, investigating the accident and implementing corrective measures, lost productivity, repairing damaged equipment and property, and costs associated with lower employee morale and absenteeism.

What’s interesting is that up to 90% of incidents are due to human error, not faulty equipment or other factors. For the past fifty years, social scientists have been researching personality. Many people know of the classic Myers Briggs test, along with others. Lately there has been more and more research into how certain personality types are naturally more “safety-oriented” than others.

“Everybody has a default personality. Some call it hard-wiring,” says Stephen Race, an assessment specialist with a Masters degree in Occupational Psychology. He owns a Vancouver-based consulting company called Performance Vector and for 15 years has conducted employee assessments with companies such as SAP, Accenture, Telus, VanCity, Best Buy, and the largest steel manufacturer in the world, Arcelor Mittal. Regarding safety and risk management, Race says, “We can teach people to behave in a certain way for short periods of time, but they will always revert back to who they are, especially when faced with unexpected circumstances.” Race uses unique tests customized for safety. He says that workers with an “at risk” personality can be identified by assessing them on the following six dimensions:

Defiant  vs. Compliant: Low scorers ignore authority and company rules. High scorers willingly follow rules and guidelines.
Panicky vs. Strong: Low scorers tend to panic under pressure and make mistakes. High scorers are steady under pressure.
Over-Reaction vs. Emotionally Stable: Low scorers lose their tempers and then make mistakes. High scorers control their tempers.
Distractible  vs. Vigilant: Low scorers are easily distracted and then make mistakes. High scorers stay focused on the task at hand.
Reckless vs. Cautious: Low scorers tend to take unnecessary risks. High scorers evaluate their options before making risky decisions.
Arrogant vs. Trainable: Low scorers overestimate their competency and are hard to train. High scorers listen to advice and like to learn.

Do these safety reports really work? Many companies think so, including BHP Billiton, Air Liquide, BASF, Lafarge, Encana, Teekay Marine, and others.  “After using the tool for employee selection,” says Race, “generally more hires get rated as high performers who exhibit safe behaviours and are good team members. It can save a company countless dollars in claims and lost productivity, and potentially saves lives.”

The academics agree that these tools work. Hogan Research Division (HRD) in the U.S. has been researching predictors of safety-related behaviors for nearly 30 years across a variety of industries. Over half the Fortune 500 companies have used a Hogan instrument. In a number of studies, they have found that companies which choose “safety-oriented” workers, will over time experience benefits such as:

  • fewer lost-time injuries and improved safety scores
  • fewer work stoppages and increased productivity
  • reduced compensation claims and lower insurance premiums
  • enhanced employee engagement and team morale
  • improved corporate image/brand and reputation as employer of choice

Researchers—and the consultants and employers who apply the research—caution that an assessment results should not be viewed as a pass or fail, but rather one more tool to use when deciding whether to hire someone. “But this is all about predictability around risk and loss-prevention,” emphasizes Race. “If this tool gives a company a slightly greater chance of screening out someone ‘unsafe’ before they get hired and slip past the probationary period, then why wouldn’t a company use it? Especially when it’s low cost, easy to administer, and the unions support it.”

Perhaps the final word should go to someone who has achieved celebrity status by being “hard-wired” for safety. On January 15th, 2009 US Airlines flight 1549 crash landed into the Hudson River after striking numerous birds upon takeoff.  Due to the pilot, a tragedy was averted.  Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, was described as “calm, cool and collected” as he maneuvered the plane into a safe landing position. What’s remarkable is that there is no training for such landings. But Sully describes having “a strong physiological reaction” toward handling this unknown situation. His natural default personality was calm and focused, rather than panicky and overly reactive. Because of this, all 155 people on board survived and were accounted for.

Greg Ford has a BA Psychology and Masters-Workplace Learning. He is a speaker and co-author of the HR book Catch Them if You Can with Dr. John Sullivan.  He can be reached at: gford@talent-click.com

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2011)

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