HIRING SAFETY CONSULTANTS: What to Look for in a Safety ConsultantNovember 30, 2018 8:18 am
Much of what the average safety practitioner reads each day comes not from peers but consultants. This growing cadre of safety consultants and their prevalence in the print and electronic media isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are many excellent consultants out there; but there are many less than excellent consultants, too. If you’re seeking to hire a consultant—or simply looking for the right ones to read—you need to know how to separate the good from the bad.
How Safety Consultants Work
In the interest of full disclosure, let me preface these remarks by acknowledging that I’m a safety consultant myself. So you might want to take what I say with a grain of salt. As Joaquin Setanti so aptly put it, “Be wary of the man who urges an action in which he himself incurs no risk.” Consultants come in a myriad of varieties. Some do nothing but consult. Others are part-timers who consultant in their off hours or as a means to promote other products or services. Some take up consulting to supplement their income after retirement. But all consultants have one thing in common: To earn their money they must persuade others to take and act upon their advice.
Separating Style from Substance
Consequently, self-promotion and marketing is a big part of the consulting racket. Consultants typically write books or publish articles to gain recognition that they can then parlay into paying clients. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, the writings of consultants can be one of the best tools in deciding who to use. Consultants whose writings are vacuous and devoid of substance aren’t likely to provide quality consultations. Those who make you think and ask questions, on the other hand, are the ones you want to consider. Be on the lookout not just for empty writings but empty promises. Consultants who tout their systems as the best thing since sliced bread should raise a red flag. Nobody has all the answers all the time— especially in the dynamic realm of safety which is constantly shifting and dependent on local conditions.
Personally, if I were in a client’s shoes, I’d steer clear of consultants who pitch themselves with humor. If you want entertainment, hire a clown. Safety is serious stuff. Of course, there’s room for levity in all endeavors, including safety. But while humor can spice up the information, the consultant should be hired for expertise and excellence, not just delivery.
Safety Consultants and Objectivity
Another thing to watch out for is bias. According to Thomas C Redman, companies assume that
consultants are objective, evidence-based and not part of the company’s internal power struggle. But while consultants may not have a corporate agenda, they’re not devoid of biases. On the contrary, the system and knowledge most consultants bring to the table is rooted in a theory or understanding of the world like behaviorism.
Biases in a safety consultant don’t necessarily mar the quality of the advice. The important thing is to understand the biases of the consultants you hire before you hire them and not assume that the information they’re providing is 100% objective.
The 4 Fundamental Things Safety Consultants Owe to Clients
Self-promotion and bias are acceptable in a safety consultant. But my feeling—I call it the Pardy Doctrine —is that there are certain fundamental obligations that all consultants owe to their clients:
Our work must be truthful and accurate. We must base our positions on sources that are trustworthy and accurate. We also need to let the client know when the positions we assert are just an opinion.
- The Willingness to Admit What We Don’t Know
Nobody has the right to demand perfection from their consultant. But while honest mistakes and lack of knowledge are acceptable, what cannot be tolerated is the consultant’s failure to admit when he doesn’t know the answer or act like every bit of his advice is “research-based.” We just have to be honest about our limitations and not seek to conceal them. We also need to be willing to admit when our assertions are contradicted by a major line of research (as is
the case with Heinrich or behavioral safety and Skinnerian theories of human behavior) ) or are
product of a particular ideological bent. Acknowledgement is critical because it enables clients to make informed decisions about our work. A wise man once said, that there are two sides to every story. . . and then, somewhere in the middle, there’s the truth.
For example, read what people like Scott Geller, Thomas Krause, Terry Mathis and Aubrey Daniels have to say about behavior-based safety and associated theories. But by all means read what people like Donald J. Eckenfelder, Alfie Cohn, Thomas Smith, and Fred A Manuele have to say about them, as well.
We must always strive to ensure our ideas, approaches and work are up-to-date. Personally speaking, I can attest that keeping current is hard work and time consuming. But those who don’t make the investment are doomed to staleness. It’s equally hard to change our views in light of experience and new knowledge. But we must all be willing and able to accept new approaches.
The client’s interest always comes before our own. Always.
I’ll leave you with two final words of advice to ensure you get the most from your consultant dollar. First, any time you contract for the services of a consultant, be very clear about your performance expectations and deliverables. Second, don’t entrust a consultant with ownership of your problem. Consultants can play a vital role in profiling the options. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with the impact of implementing the consultant’s advice. In short, the consultant doesn’t replace your own experience but empowers you to use it to help your company and its safety program most effectively.