This was not a great month for the aviation industry with the events that unfolded on that fateful Southwest flight. A woman lost her life, and that’s terribly sad. That said, that is the first fatality on a domestic commercial flight since 2009. Almost 2,600,000 people fly in and out of US airports every day. There area about 10,000,000 flights every year. Consider that for a moment. Millions of people fly every day for 9 years and there is one fatality. Few industries can claim that kind of safety record.
The really impressive takeaway is what the aviation industry is doing for the safety of the customers it serves. Admittedly there are customer injuries on airplanes, but considering the high stakes involved in transporting millions of people at speeds exceeding 500 miles per hours, the safety record in the aviation industry sets a strong example for other industries.
Clearly, the aviation industry didn’t start out as safe as it is today. Much of the work that has been was reactive – a catastrophic failure would lead to learning. The aviation industry in the United States has worked hard to achieve and maintain the standards and practices that have resulted in a strong culture of safety. Teams of researchers have spent decades trying to understand where the issues are in the industry and how to eliminate the risks they have identified.
What did millions of dollars and thousands of hours of research reveal? People are the problem. Human error is the most common reason for an incident. There are three types of human error that result in incidents: communication, decision-making, and leadership.
COMMUNICATION. DECISION-MAKING. LEADERSHIP. What organization hasn’t had issues with this in the workforce? We’ve all seen it. In some cases, all mixed together like a stew of poor performance. And when employees make mistakes in these areas, we reprimand, we write up, and then maybe sometimes we coach. Sort of. How can we do better?
What does the aviation industry do when a mistake is made? They create an opportunity for learning. The aviation industry as a unique tool at its disposal that many other industries don’t understand or use. The no fault reporting concept that is based on the idea that human error is a reality. They train and they practice and they test, but human error is going to happen, and when it does, they want to learn from it. They want pilots to tell on themselves. They want co-pilots to tell on pilots. They want full disclosure. Because if they get that information, they can figure out how to avoid it the next time. There isn’t immediate punishment or interrogation. It’s communication for the greater good. Sure, if a pilot is negligent he or she will wind up in a heap of trouble. And if an issue goes unreported, there is no question that the consequences will be severe. But the general point to no fault reporting is to open the dialogue so that employees constantly learn how to better communicate, make better decisions, and become better leaders.
No fault reporting can positively impact accountability. It is much easier to stand up and say I screwed up when I don’t feel like I’m immediately going to be yelled at or punished. I don’t want to screw up. I want to be good at my job – whatever my job is. I can also admit that I made a mistake because I’m not the only one that makes mistakes and I know that when we are able to freely discuss mistakes. Do all employees feel that way?
From a personnel perspective, I’m certainly not advocating that we just overlook every mistake. For example, a pilot cannot fly intoxicated, report it and them be immune to consequences. Reporting an issue doesn’t always protect you from reasonable consequences. There are sets of standards and rules that each organization has and if you blatantly violate them, discipline will follow. This isn’t about that kind of issue. It’s about how our employees learn from errors and how we create those learning opportunities in an organization that needs employees to pay attention.
Another component in the strong safety record of the aviation industry is Crew Resource Management (CRM). Simply put, CRM is a set of training procedures used when human error is a factor and the stakes are high. It encourages crew members to question and challenge each other to help keep each other accountable. If one member is making a decision that might result in risk, the others should not simply stand by and watch. They shouldn’t mumble or wait to say “I told you so”. They should clearly communicate in a way that will be clearly and immediately understood. They should speak up, ask questions and work to see the situation through. Once again, we see the themes of communication, decision-making and leadership come into play. It encourages respectful questioning of others, including authority and helps identify when what is happening is different than what should be happening, which is an early sign of an error. It’s training that encourages assertive, direct communication between coworkers.
It’s an interesting thought. Really, these concepts apply even beyond safety. What organization doesn’t want employees who are good communicators, decision makers and leaders? But especially when it comes to safety initiatives in the workplace, it may serve us well to take a closer look at how the aviation industry has become a leader in safe, effective work environments.
That’s probably the most common thing a non-HR person says to me in a social environment when I tell them what I do. Maybe it’s just a “how’s the weather” statement – it has a literal meaning, but the comment is actually meaningless and simply something to say to attempt to continue a conversation. I think it’s important to realize, though, that being good with people is not what makes a great HR professional.
Really, though, I suppose that’s true – I’m good with people. But I’m not super human and being good with people to me is simply part of being a good person. I have empathy and awareness and understanding. I’ve lived and traveled all over the world and I have had a lot of exceptional opportunities to see how people work and appreciate human and cultural differences. I’m sure these experiences have contributed to the ability to work effectively with other people. That said, I don’t think that being good with people is the sole requirement to be good at HR and I think the role of an HR professional is much more than just handling people.
A prospective employer asked in an interview what my job as an HR manager would be. I said to protect the interests of the company. I got the job and they told me that was the biggest reason why. I wasn’t just going to handle my job as a series of transactions and tasks assigned to me, but I instead I wanted to be part of a team that would drive the company in the direction the owners wanted it to go. It was an honest answer, and one that I would still give. I think it’s a simple perspective that sums up a lot of different aspects of HR. The interests of the company are to be successful, to uphold their values, to accomplish their goals or to do whatever the company has stated as its mission and direction. HR is a huge part of that, especially in the service industry where the company’s success is dependent on the employees that represent the organization. HR is there to efficiently staff the company without wasting money, to find the right employees, to keep the valuable employees, to ensure compliance with employment law, to help people understand the link between organizational goals and their own job responsibilities…if it’s related to people in a company, HR is it.
Having such a perspective about the role of HR isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s the company leaders go astray. They say they value one thing and then act in another direction. This is probably the most challenging aspect of higher level HR positions, as the interest of the company is best protected by bringing this issue to their attention and an uncomfortable conversation can result. It’s facing these challenges and overcoming them with professionalism and composure that really makes HR an asset.
I teach a lot of future HR professionals and I have observed a tendency to define HR as an employee advocate and no more. I think this is shortsighted. HR can certainly be an employee advocate, as it is often in the interest of the success of the organization as a whole. But our job isn’t just to protect the little guy from the big bad company. If you’re an HR professional who resents that statement, think about whether it’s that big bad company that signs your paychecks that you so willing cash. If you want to protect the little guy from the big bad company, don’t work for the big bad company. Then you’re in conflict yourself – taking the pay to do a job that you don’t believe in! Instead, work for a company whose mission and goals align with your own so you can protect the interests of the company and take care of the employees all at the same time. Find a company that recognizes the value of employees and works hard to protect that relationship and put that check in the bank so you can sleep better at night. We are advocates when we need to be, but we need to realize when to be an advocate for whom.
There are a lot of ways to do a job and be just fine. But as a company do you want an HR representative that is just fine when you could have someone great? And if you’re a career HR professional, do you aspire to just be ok at your job? A great HR professional should do more for the company he or she represents. More than being good with people, HR professionals need to be big picture people who think critically. We have to consider the company’s goals and culture and then act accordingly, whether we are selecting benefits for the next plan year, recruiting, establishing flextime options, participating in strategic planning, or planning the company holiday party. If we can’t see the big picture, we lose sight of what we should be focused on and we end up just being good with people. . . and that alone doesn’t make a great HR professional!